Skip to Main Content

Closing gaps in our understanding of the risks associated with muscle-building dietary substances

Categories: , ,

February 1 – 7 is Eating Disorder Awareness Week in Canada — a time to raise awareness and educate the public and policymakers about impact of disordered eating and the supports available to those affected by it.  

Increasing our understanding of eating disorders, body dissatisfaction and how healthcare providers, including social workers, can better screen for potential risks is what drives Kyle Ganson’s work. After noticing that boys and men were largely absent from eating disorder treatment programs — even though they also struggle with body image issues and food and eating — the Assistant Professor at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work turned his attention to closing gaps in knowledge of how eating disorders are experienced and diagnosed across populations and the implications for prevention, care, treatment and the evaluation of risk.  

“Males with eating disorders frequently engage in a cluster of behaviors that often focus on increasing muscularity and leanness,” says Ganson, whose research has been published in leading journals such as Pediatrics and The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health. “The ‘gold standard’ diagnostic measures we have to capture eating disorders don’t take into account these behaviours and we’re only just beginning to develop validated measures that can.” 

Muscle Dysmorphia, or the pathological pursuit of muscularity, is a major mental disorder that teens, their parents and health providers need to be aware of, especially if they or those they know are using dietary supplements for their workouts, Ganson says. A recent study he led found that adolescent boys and young adult men are more likely to experience symptoms of muscle dysmorphia — with 25% experiencing symptoms significant enough to be considered at clinical risk. He found that South Asian and Middle Eastern adolescents and young adults, as well as those who identify as gay or lesbian, are especially at-risk. 

Understanding the links between muscle dysmorphia and practices such as the use of performance-enhancing substances can help better identify signs of potential health risks. For example, Ganson and his collaborators found that Canadians who use anabolic-androgenic steroids — which are illegal to manufacture and sell in Canada but easy to order online — are at greater risk of developing muscle dysmorphic symptoms.  

Adolescent boys and young adult men are more likely to use illegal anabolic-androgenic steroids. For example, they are more likely to use legal performance enhancing substances as well. Just over 80% reported using whey protein; 50% reported using creatine monohydrate, and 32% reported using amino acids, all of which are readily available in stores. However, while Ganson’s research has found a relationship between the use of legal performance-enhancing substances and symptoms of eating disorders, legal performance-enhancing substances lack strict oversight by the federal and provincial governments.  

Ganson is now working on a set of policy recommendations to address the lack of Health Canada regulations around muscle-building and performance-enhancing substances. On March 6, from Noon – 1:30pm, he will present a Zoom lecture on “Dietary Supplements for Weight Loss and Muscle-Building: Addressing Knowledge and Policy Gaps in Canada” to share his most recent research and details from his report. All are welcome. 

“Social workers on the frontlines interact with adolescent boys and young adult men in a variety of settings. They need to be aware of these behaviors given how common they are and the adverse health and social effects associated with their use,” Ganson says. “Increasing our knowledge on how to assess these issues can make a significant difference in addressing the current lack of treatment provided.” 

Coverage of Prof. Kyle Ganson’s research:


> Click here to register for the online event “Dietary Supplements for Muscle-Building and Weight Loss: Addressing Knowledge and Policy Gaps,” March 6, 12:00 – 1:30pm