June 17, 2004 -- It's a frightening new trend: Nearly one-third of teen girls are taking "body-shaping" diet pills. And more teen males are turning to steroids -- intent on getting an athletic look, though they're not involved in sports.
A new study is the first to uncover this disturbing new trend among high school students. The findings were presented at the annual meeting of The Endocrine Society held this week in New Orleans.
Coaches and parents have long been alarmed about teen boys' use of illegal muscle-building steroids. But this newest report indicates that something different is happening among teen boys and girls.
"Millions of young women -- 30% of teen girls -- are using drugs to get thin," researcher Linn Goldberg, MD, head of health promotion and sports medicine with the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, Ore., tells WebMD. "Teen years are critical for girls, because that's when bone is being built. This [drug use] affects bone development. And if these girls are not athletes, they won't get stimulation of bone development, so it's double jeopardy."
Steroid use by nonathletic males is equally unsettling, he explains. "Steroids can permanently stunt height, and can increase risk of psychological impairment -- resulting in homicides when they're on the drugs, and suicides when they're not using them."
Goldberg's data comes from surveys completed by more than 4,100 teens in 13 Oregon school districts about their use of muscle-building steroids and "body-shaping" drugs like amphetamines, methamphetamine, pseudoephedrine (Sudafed), and diet pills. Students were also asked to estimate the number of times they had ever taken the drug on a continuous basis.
- Boys were twice as likely to use steroids: 6% of boys, compared with 3% of girls.
- One in four students (26%) used body-shaping drugs, steroids, or others.
- One in 10 students reported heavy use of body-shaping drugs.
Among nonathletes' use of body shaping drugs other than steroids:
- 29% used these body-shaping drugs, compared with 21% who were athletes.
- 12% reported heavy use, compared with 8% of athletes.
- 34% of girls used body-shaping drugs, compared with 23% of males.
- 23% of girls used nonsteroid body-shaping drugs, compared with 18% of boys.
Also, grade point average had a direct relationship with drug use. Those with higher GPAs reported less drug use, Goldberg reports.
What Can Parents Do?
Gary Wadler, MD, a professor New York University School of Medicine, American College of Sports Medicine spokesman, and World Anti-Doping Agency member, agreed to comment on Goldberg's findings.
"This problem is pervasive, because the stuff is readily available on the Internet and in gyms," Wadler tells WebMD. "It's part of the culture -- big muscles, the curvaceous figure, six-pack abs. It's all about body image."
He advises parents to look for signs of abuse. "If the child's adolescence is rougher than for other teenagers -- if there are exceptional mood swings, change in performance in school, extensive acne, especially on the back, preoccupation with gym and weight-lifting, and if the teen disappears often, which they have to do to feed the habit, check it out."
Even though ephedra was taken off the shelf as a dietary supplement, it is rapidly being replaced with bitter orange, Sudafed, and other over-the-counter drugs. "It's another example of how kids can get around the regulations," he says. These over-the-counter medications act as stimulants and appetite suppressants.
Parents may unwittingly feed a teen's drug abuse by giving positive feedback, Wadler says. "They notice [the teens] don't have any more baby fat, they say 'look at those biceps,' they like how the teens are talking up at the table, asserting themselves. The changes could be construed as 'it's about time.'"
Talk with your pediatrician or family doctor about your concerns. "If it's crossed your mind, you better check it out," he says. "You can't be confrontational. The doctor should order a urine sample in a nonaccusatory, nonjudgmental way."