Fitness & well-being


Are some Hong Kong men becoming addicted to workout supplements?

The pursuit of a perfect physique has created a booming market for workout supplements. But health experts say some men have become too reliant on the products

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 October, 2015, 12:30pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 October, 2015, 12:30pm

Walk through Hong Kong's malls, MTR stations and even the airport, and you will invariably come across stores selling tubs of whey protein and other workout supplements.

Increasing numbers of people in Hong Kong and around the world are taking supplements to get that ripped physique. Many men turn to amino acids such as L-carnitine and creatine to improve their exercise performance and build muscle mass, but some have become so reliant on the dietary supplements that health experts are beginning to view it as an emerging eating disorder.

Personal trainer Ed Haynes has seen the extremes to which some people will go to bulk up.

"I've actually had clients in the past who I've asked for a food log, and their supplement list is longer than their food list," he says. "They see supplements as a shortcut: if I can take this whey protein, it's going to be muscle weight regardless, and I don't need to work as hard or care about what I eat."

A former international rugby player, 28-year-old Haynes is the founder of Coastal Fitness Performance Training Hong Kong, a gym in Causeway Bay.

Haynes believes the overuse of supplements comes down to a lack of understanding. For example, a lot of people think that whey protein will make you bulky when the protein in a protein shake is actually the same as that in, say, a piece of chicken breast, he says. The only difference is that the pre-digested protein in a shake is easier to absorb and delivers nutrients to muscles faster.

Chris Fulton, a former client of Haynes who now works as an operations manager at Coastal Fitness, takes protein supplements, fish oil and multivitamins based on Haynes' advice.

"Most people with an active lifestyle will take a protein powder supplement," Fulton says. "I've definitely noticed that there's an [improvement] in recovery time; if you're lifting a lot of weight, you get sore in your muscles, and supplementing with a protein powder helps me recover faster."

Fulton lifts weights twice a day, and does additional workouts several times a week. He spends around HK$350 a month on protein powder, but is careful to follow instructions and the advice from his trainers.

However, some men go further than that: a study presented at the American Psychological Association in August shows that men who use too many workout supplements may have deeper issues, possibly even an eating disorder.

The researchers enlisted 195 men aged between 18 and 65, who go to the gym at least twice a week, to take part in an online survey about their use of supplements, self-esteem, body image and eating habits. Of the respondents, 29 per cent said they were concerned about their use of supplements, but at the same time they either continued in this practice or increased their use.

"That right there tells you that there's an unconscious psychological factor that's keeping these men using supplements even though they themselves have expressed concern about their misuse of those products," says Richard Achiro, principal author of the study.

The study provides preliminary evidence that low self-esteem and underlying concerns with one's sense of masculinity were just two of the psychological issues facing men who are prone to misuse workout supplements. The fact that men's bodies are being objectified more in the media is also linked to body dissatisfaction and, in turn, a higher likelihood that men will express underlying emotional problems in the form of an eating disorder, such as excessive use of over-the-counter workout supplements.

It's more and more common for men to use these supplements, as Achiro has observed at gyms.

"You go to the locker room, nine times out of 10 there's going to be at least one guy in there shaking a bottle, who's taking a supplement," says Achiro, a Los Angeles-based psychotherapist at the California School of Professional Psychology at Alliant International University.

"It's like with anything: if there's an excessive preoccupation with either taking the supplement or working out on a rigid, excessive schedule, whatever it may be, there is some sadness, I think, in seeing those men because you see how much of their life has become just about having or striving toward this 'perfect' physical ideal as if that's what life is about."

This pursuit of a buffed physique has created a booming market for workout supplements. The sale of protein supplements worldwide has increased steadily from about US$1.5 billion in 2010 to more than US$2 billion in 2015, according to figures from the market research firm Euromonitor International.

Euromonitor notes that most brands selling these supplements target people who are "image and health-focused, not necessarily athletes".

Sales are projected to reach US$3 billion worldwide in 2017, and Euromonitor expects to see with that growth reflected in Hong Kong as well.

Achiro says that although there have been studies of the use of banned substances such as steroids by bodybuilders, no one has studied the use of over-the-counter supplements by non-professionals. However, a shift in popular perceptions of the "ideal" male body from muscular giants such as Arnold Schwarzenegger to leaner bodies prompted him examine the use of supplements rather than steroids and the like.

But that's not to say Achiro is against the use of supplements, per se. "This is not a crusade against the supplements industry and it's certainly not a study that shows that all these supplements are dangerous. I wouldn't even make a slippery slope argument about it.

"It really is more a certain segment of the population who already has underlying emotional issues going on that are at risk of misusing these supplements."

Gabriel Pun Tak-kiu, an accredited dietitian and a member of the Hong Kong Dietitians Association, says he has seen first-hand how some men deal with the pressure to look good by ingesting supplements.

These men get very stressed because they have to calculate how many grams of supplements they need per day, and that takes all the joy out of eating, Pun says. "They weigh themselves every day and that gives them a lot of pressure."

Professional athletes who undertake high-intensity weight training will use supplements because if they fulfil their protein needs by consuming meat and milk, they'll take in too much carbohydrate and fat, Pun says. However, regular gym-goers can probably get by with a balanced diet.

Susan Chung, a former nutritionist at the Hong Kong Sports Institute, argues that no one should ever buy supplements without first consulting a dietitian because the products may be contaminated with banned substances such as steroids. Chung even goes so far as to say: "There's no such thing as legal supplements."

A 2001 report commissioned by the International Olympic Committee found that a quarter of the 600 over-the-counter nutritional supplements analysed contained banned substances, including steroids and ephedrine, which could lead to a positive drug test (ephedrine, a stimulant, is not approved in the US as a drug for weight loss or to enhance athletic performance).

Fulton expects personal trainers to be sufficiently familiar with the latest research on supplements to be able to know which products to recommend to clients, but Chung disagrees.

"It's not easy to replace what a dietitian does when it comes to nutrition. Would a dietitian teach people how to lift weights? You go to a trainer for that," Chung says. "When it comes to how to match your diet to your goal, the best bet is to consult a registered dietitian."