For the new Barbie movie, Canadian actor Ryan Gosling followed a strict workout and diet routine to achieve his perfect Ken, complete with a V-shaped torso, bulging biceps and prominent pecs.
While the portrayal of the strong, muscular male body is now commonplace, it is in fact a relatively new phenomenon. As social theorist Jackson Katz remarked in his 2000 documentary Tough Guise, “Over the last 50 years, there have been some dramatic and really interesting changes in what is considered masculine, especially in terms of the size of men’s bodies.”
According to a 2006 study, even boys’ action figures have become more muscular, with increasingly large measurements at the neck, chest and arms over the past 25 years.
Muscular ideal fuelling supplement use
“The muscular body ideal is extremely pervasive in North American society,” says Kyle T. Ganson, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work. His research focuses on body image issues among boys and men, including muscle-building behaviours and performance-enhancing substance use. “From the bodies of action heroes in Marvel movies to professional athletes and individuals on social media, the ideal male body of lean, muscular and strong is everywhere.”
According to Ganson, this body ideal heavily influences young boys and men to work out and change their diet. This often includes the use of appearance- and performance-enhancing drugs and supplements (APEDS) to increase their muscularity.
Some of the most popular APEDS are whey protein, creatine, amino acids and energy drinks. And their popularity among young Canadian males is striking. A 2022 study by Ganson showed that 83 per cent of them consumed whey protein or protein shakes over the previous year, and 50 per cent consumed creatine monohydrate, a performance enhancer for high-intensity exercise such as lifting weights.
Risk of contamination and mislabelling
Concerned with the risks associated with APEDS, Ganson and his team recently released a policy brief calling on Health Canada to strengthen regulations for muscle-building supplements.
“These dietary supplements are very loosely regulated,” Ganson explains. “There has been evidence they are adulterated with banned stimulants and steroids, or even mislabelled. So, consumers may not actually know what they are ingesting.
“We also know that people who use muscle-building dietary supplements are more likely to abuse anabolic steroids, and experience eating disorders and muscle dysmorphia symptoms. There has also been research documenting major adverse health effects from use, including hospitalization, disability and death.”
“There has been research documenting major adverse health effects from use, including hospitalization, disability and death.”
In Canada, manufacturers are required to submit evidence of health claims and product composition, but there is no testing of these products to ensure that what’s on the label is in the jar. A formal safety assessment is only conducted if there is a concern related to the interaction of listed ingredients or dosage. Otherwise, safety is monitored using a complaints-based process, through adverse reaction reporting by consumers or their practitioner.
Canadian manufacturers do need to obtain a site licence by adhering to Good Manufacturing Practices, such as proper sanitary conditions. However, attestations to adherence can be made by the product applicants themselves and do not need to be evaluated by a site inspection or a third-party authority.
Ganson says that Canada is not alone in its weak regulation of muscle-building supplements, noting that the United States is even more lax. He points to a combination of industry influence and government inertia for much of the problem.
“The dietary products industry is massive and has a lot of political sway,” Ganson says. “This makes it challenging to implement any strong regulations that may curtail use and profits.
“I also think there is a strong narrative that these products are safe, despite research pointing to adverse outcomes, as well as an over-reliance on industry to test the safety of the products. Plus, increasing regulations may mean increasing government costs, such as increasing pre- and post-market testing.”
Recommendations include restricting access and improving awareness
In their policy brief, Ganson and his team have provided 10 recommendations to improve the regulation of muscle-building supplements in Canada. These include prohibiting the sale of muscle-building supplements to those under 18 years old, taxing products to deter use and moving them behind the counter.
They also recommend more pre-market testing, including random testing and more stringent site licensing requirements, to prevent potential contamination. The brief also suggests providing better information for consumers, including warning labels and an online safety and efficacy database, as well as funding to train health-care professionals to screen muscle-building supplement use.
“It’s important we consider these additional mechanisms to protect the health and well-being of the Canadian population,” says Ganson. “Muscle-building supplement use may pose a significant risk to consumers, particularly young people, who may lack the capacity to consider the potential harmful effects of using these substances.”