The obsessive use of legal bodybuilding supplements among men has reached such levels that it could be classed as an eating disorder, scientists say.

Psychologists studying body image issues have traditionally focused on the pressures felt by women. A study argued yesterday that social forces were also leading men to engage in unhealthy eating habits.

Richard Achiro, a California psychologist, said men’s bodies were increasingly being objectified. Body image studies generally looked at behaviour that led to a drive for thinness, however, rather than simultaneous drives towards being both lean and muscular.

To delve deeper into this issue, he and his colleagues studied products designed to produce precisely that body type: body building supplements such as whey protein shakes. “These products have become an almost ubiquitous fixture in the pantries of young men and can seemingly be purchased anywhere and everywhere — from grocery stores to college book stores,” he said.

Since 2007, sales of supplements in Britain have more than doubled to be worth more than £250 million. Ten per cent of men in 2012 were using them, a YouGov survey found.

Supplements are designed to aid muscle recovery after workouts and to boost muscle mass. Dr Achiro said their marketing strategy was designed to exploit notions of the ideal male body.

“The marketing efforts, tailored to addressing underlying insecurities associated with masculinity, position these products perfectly as a ‘solution’ to fill a void felt by many men,” he said.

A total of 195 men took part in his study, all of them users of bodybuilding supplements. All of them also said they worked out at least twice a week. A total of 22 per cent had used supplements instead of regular meals, even though they are not designed for that purpose; 29 per cent said they were concerned about their use of supplements; 8 per cent said their doctor had told them to cut down for the sake of their health.

If you suspect a family member or friend might have an eating disorder of any kind, the NHS advises planning carefully how you talk to them.

Prepare what to say, don’t blame or judge, concentrate on how they’re feeling, stay calm and be prepared for a negative response. Experts say that you should avoid talking about their appearance, even as a compliment. More information is available on the NHS Choices website.

The NHS has warned that protein supplements could be linked to osteoporosis or kidney problems. Three per cent of those in the study, presented at a meeting of the American Psychological Association, said that they had been treated in hospital for kidney or liver problems related to the supplements.

Dr Achiro said: “Body-conscious men who are driven by psychological factors to attain a level of physical or masculine perfection are prone to use these supplements and drugs in a manner demonstrated in this study to be a variant of disordered eating.”