When it comes to science, it never ceases to amaze us how ignorant the media can be. We’ve come to expect it from the tabloid press but even respectable broadsheets aren’t immune. The Guardian’s recent article about a study into gym goers and weight loss supplements is another example of the general ignorance surrounding supplements and their use.

The article looks at the results of a study of around four hundred gym-goers which found that over 30% of them ‘use some form of drug or dietary supplement to lose weight’, and a further 47% used supplements ‘to help them reach their fitness goals’. A small percentage of people admitted to using amphetamines to help them lose weight, which the article then takes as its main story and goes on to talk about legal highs and the government’s proposed ban on psychoactive substances.

To be honest, it’s hard to know where to begin. The study used isn’t without its problems, and is from a very dubious looking source, but what we really take issue with is the article itself. Now, before we go on, we should say to the cynics out there who feel we have a vested interest that this is not about self-promotion, but about challenging inaccurate and misleading pieces like this.

The biggest problem is the way the article lazily links drugs, supplements, and legal highs. These are three very distinct and very different things. Bodybuilding supplements, in all forms, are legal products designed to improve performance and/or your body. Recreational drugs like amphetamines are illegal substances that target the mind, with potential physical side effects. Legal highs are a broad range of loosely defined ‘psychoactive substances’ with questionable legal status. It is concerning that people are using dangerous amphetamines to lose weight but to link them with protein powders, as the article does, is frankly idiotic, even more so given that protein powders are not even weight loss supplements.

The article does briefly raise important issues like the negative body image and low self-esteem suffered by an increasing number of people, and how they are being driven to dangerous products like amphetamines, but brushes over these and begins to talk about the completely unrelated legal highs and the government ban. This is not only a wasted opportunity to talk about a real problem, but it is completely illogical. Legal highs are utterly redundant as weight loss supplements – because their ingredients are rarely disclosed and can vary wildly by each individual product, there is no way of determining if they will be even slightly effective as a weight loss supplement. Also, we have seen an awful lot of weight loss supplements in our time and precisely none of them are psychoactive. What possible use is a weight loss product if it makes you trip out and unable to exercise?

We find articles like this immensely frustrating. It is just lazy journalism written with only a limited understanding of the subject matter, which ends up being unhelpful and misleading to those who read it. Certainly, the supplement industry is not without its problems, and it would be great to see some tighter regulations to stop unscrupulous companies selling potentially dangerous products to unsuspecting users.

But what is really needed is a greater understanding amongst gym-goers of what supplements actually are, so that they can then decide if they even need them, and know how to use them safely and effectively. And on that score, articles like this one are of absolutely no use whatsoever.