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Young men today may be more body conscious than previous generations thanks to so many media images of ripped physiques, but when does the desire to bulk up like the Hulk become cause for concern?

A study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics found that more than 40 per cent of U.S. boys in middle school and high school surveyed said they exercised regularly to add muscle mass and 38 per cent said they used protein supplements, while almost 6 per cent admitted to dabbling with steroids. The latter is obviously dangerous. What about consuming protein supplements?

"Our recommendation really is that you're better off spending the money to meet with a registered dietician who is used to dealing with young athletes," says Joel Brenner, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics council on sports medicine and fitness.

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Protein supplements can be safe, but they are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and nor is there data on their safety for minors, which is why the American Academy of Pediatrics advises children under 18 avoid fitness supplements.

Even though protein supplements are regulated by Health Canada, consuming them could cause long-term health problems, says Stuart Phillips, co-founder of the exercise metabolism research group at McMaster University in Hamilton.

"While most supplements are safe, we also know that a number of supplements are often found to contain banned substances," he says. Those substances include steroids and heavy metals.

In 2010, a Consumer Reports investigation found all the protein drinks it tested contained at least one or more of a handful of contaminants including arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury.

"Over the long-run, heavy metals tend to accumulate. They accumulate in your fat deposits. They accumulate in your liver and they can lead to chronic health problems," Phillips says.

Supplements are not only potentially dangerous, the gains they offer are so negligible that they are unnecessary for just about anyone who isn't a professional body builder, he says.

"Good, high quality dietary source protein...would do the job," for the average person looking to add muscle mass, Phillips says.

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Athletes need only consume 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight a day, he says. That means a 160 pound athlete needs only 109 grams of protein, an amount easily achieved through proper nutrition.

But that message can be hard to convey to young men when the marketing of protein supplements offers a much sexier vision of beefed-up biceps, Phillips says.

Don't swallow the hype, experts say.

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