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Teens embrace muscle-building supplements, survey shows; here’s advice for parents

With all the focus on the childhood obesity epidemic, we’d be foolish to think that teens don’t care about their bodies. They’re just as, or perhaps even more, obsessed these days with looking good -- which means ripped muscles for boys and super-skinny with toned biceps for girls.

In fact the vast majority of teens reported in a study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics that they’ve changed their eating and exercise patterns in an effort to gain muscle or look more in shape.

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But the University of Minnesota researchers, who two years ago surveyed nearly 2,800 adolescents in the Minneapolis area, found that teens were also turning to protein shakes, creatine pills, and, more rarely, steroids to build their muscles. One-third of boys reported using muscle-building supplements and 6 percent said they tried steroids -- with overweight teens more likely to use them.

About 1 in 5 girls said they used some kind of muscle-building supplement and 4 percent reported trying steroids.

It’s tough to know for certain whether the group of teens surveyed represents American teens as a whole. Most were minorities from poor backgrounds, and nearly 60 percent participated on at least one sports team such as football, basketball, or gymnastics, where coaches often emphasize the importance of adding muscle.

Regardless, the researchers wrote, “this finding suggests that, in addition to a ‘thin ideal’ and focus on leanness, muscularity is an important component of body satisfaction for both genders.” That means the pursuit of muscles -- even without the use of dangerous steroids -- could take teens down a dark path of body dissatisfaction, similar to the way some pursue thinness to an extreme.

While parents have been pretty well educated on looking out for personality changes, severe acne, and other signs of hidden steroid use, many may not worry when their teen stops eating all starchy foods or starts pumping iron twice a day to bulk up.

And they may not think twice about their 14-year-old ingesting a protein shake for breakfast.

But the American Academy of Pediatrics “strongly condemns the use of performance-enhancing substances and vigorously endorses efforts to eliminate their use among children and adolescents,” said the group on its website.

Protein supplements can cause excess weight gain, and there have been anecdotal reports of kidney problems in teens who have used them. Creatine has been associated with muscle and stomach cramps, dehydration, and possible kidney problems, according to the AAP

The pediatricians’ group says it’s fine for adolescents to lift weights as long as they don’t overdo it; teens shouldn’t be training for body-building competitions, for example, and parents should run any resistance-training program by their child’s doctor before green-lighting a gym’s weight room.

“Care should be taken to emphasize moderation in behaviors and to focus on skill development, fitness, and general health rather than development of a muscular appearance,” wrote the researchers. That’s smart advice for both doctors and parents to impart to teens.

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.
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