Boys, Drugs, and Eating Disorders

Contributor: Leigh Bell, BA, writer for Eating Disorder Hope

man doesn't speak to his womanFor a teenage boy, it starts with feeling underweight. Whether he’s truly underweight doesn’t matter: He feels less than the muscular male models showing up more and more, but wearing less and less, in mass media. This boy feels badly about his body, and then, begins feeling depressed. Other kids might tease him, as adolescents tend to do.

The boy, like almost 10 percent of his peers, becomes extremely concerned with getting and keeping a muscular body1. He begins lifting weights, drinking protein shakes, and then becomes one of the 2.5 percent of teenage boys who use supplements, growth hormones, or anabolic steroids to attain the coveted muscular physique.

Steroid Use

Now, this teenage boy using anabolic steroids, which are illegal without a doctor’s prescription, is more likely than his peers to frequently binge drink and use street drugs (Sonneville, 2014). He is also at greater risk to develop an eating disorder.

We don’t hear much about this boy and others like him because the focus is usually women when media, and even research, address the ideal body and lengths people go to attain it.

Remaining the Shadow of a “Female Issue”

Shell-shocked soldier consoled by peer, horizontalAbout 10 million U.S. men have an eating disorder, according to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), but some experts surmise the number is much larger because many men with eating disorders remain in shadows of shame for having what many consider a “female issue.”

Many statistics report males account for about 10 percent of those with eating disorders, but recent studies reveal the number is more like 25 percent, and perhaps, as high as 40 percent. There is little research on eating disorders in boys and teenage males, but we know the problem is increasing and, like many cases of an eating disorder, is often commingled with other issues, especially substance abuse.

The Relationship Between Eating Disorders and Substance Abuse

About 50 percent of men and women with an eating disorder also abuse drugs and/or alcohol, a rate 5 times greater than the general population, NEDA reports. A large Canadian study found men who scored high on an eating disorder self-report measure were two times as likely to have substance abuse problems2.

Despite little research on young males and eating disorders, we can extrapolate that of young females, which finds girls with eating-disorder symptoms are four times more likely to use inhalants and cocaine3.

The Differing Motivations Between Men and Women

Students on lecturerWhy and how young men use drugs to control their bodies is likely different from the motivation of young women. Girls typically want to be thin and will use appetite-suppressing substances to reduce calorie intake; while most boys, in the quest for bulk and brawn, use muscle-inducing substances, like steroids.

Boys who feel they were underweight were more likely to be victims of bullying and report more depressive symptoms which, in turn, predicts steroid use, according to results from the analysis of nationally representative samples of teenage boys in the United States4.

The Drastic Measures Some Men Are Taking

The issue of distorted body image in boys is underreported. Boys who believe this muscular physique is out of reach are suffering and may be taking drastic measures, according to the analysis.

The drastic measure for muscle and mass may be steroids or human-growth hormones.

Anabolic steroids are synthetic hormones resembling testosterone to promote muscle growth and enhance physical performance. Synthetic human-growth hormones (HGH) mirrors the real hormone produced in the pituitary gland to spur growth in children and teenagers. Teenage boys, especially those involved in sports, are known to use these drugs to increase performance and increase muscle mass.

Where Men Are Seeing Their “Idealized Image”

Father And Teenage Son Having A HugBoys today not only see the ideal physique in magazines, they see it performing on the court and the field. Athletes in high school and college are stronger, faster, and better trained. College freshmen athletes, like Duke Basketball’s 19-year-old Jahlil Okafor, are going pro because they can compete on that level.

The number of high-school students who used synthetic HGH jumped from 5 percent to 11 percent in from in just one year, according to a 2013 confidential survey from the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. Teenage use of steroids increased from 5 to 7 percent in the same amount of time. Both drugs are dangerous and threaten lifelong side effects like increased risk of heart attack, stroke, liver disease, and some cancers.

Yet a teenage boy who feels skinny and unlikeable may go to any measure to change that.

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

What advice would you give to a coach that is wanting to be aware of a possible eating disorder problem within a player? How can we better equip our coaches and teachers to recognize this growing issue?


About the Author:

Leigh Bell holds a Bachelor of Arts in English with minors in Creative Writing and French from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. She is a published author, journalist with 15 years of experience, and a recipient of the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism. Leigh is recovered from a near-fatal, decade-long battle with anorexia and the mother of three young, rambunctious children.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on April 28th, 2015
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