Energy drinks have become popular over the last few years as they contain stimulants which manufacturers promote as giving you more energy or making you more alert. As many individuals have a busy lifestyle, and because they may not get enough sleep, these drinks can be seen as a quick way to boost energy levels. Sometimes they are also seen as drinks to rehydrate. They contain stimulants which make the brain more alert. These include caffeine, taurine and glucuronolactone. Although these can be found naturally in the body we do not know what the long term effects of a high intake of these stimulants are, especially for children and young adults. These energy drinks are also formulated to taste sweet so this also encourages consumption of them. They are also well marketed with companies promoting them through advertising that seems fun and adventurous, when in fact they may be dangerous to our health.
What does the caffeine do?
Caffeine is a naturally occurring substance and is found in tea, coffee, and amongst other things chocolate. It is a stimulant as it blocks the uptake of neurotransmitters that normally lead to feelings of fatigue and tiredness. Caffeine in itself is not bad, some research shows that caffeine may actually have some protective health properties. What may be more concerning with energy drinks is the amount of caffeine that they contain. Some energy drinks have up to two cups worth of caffeine in one can. This could be harmful to children or individuals sensitive to caffeine.
As a stimulant, caffeine can increase your heart rate. If you already have a high heart rate, or have a medical condition where it could be dangerous to have an elevated heart rate, caffeine could make this worse.
Taurine and other stimulants
There is not enough evidence to suggest if taurine is healthy in large doses and what effect it has on the body from long term use. There is also not enough research to prove whether the numerous other substances found in energy drinks are safe to consume.
The use of stimulants can lead to overtiredness if an individual uses them habitually to be more alert. This can lead to accidents driving or using machinery. There are also concerns about the use of stimulants when they are used in conjunction with alcohol, especially in young adults who are still developing. There have been a number of reports of death linked to consumption of alcohol and energy drinks.
What are the health risks?
There are a number of groups who are at an even higher risk of risks from energy drinks. One of these is children and young adults. The effect of caffeine and other stimulants is not well known on children and young adults. At this stage their brains and bodies are developing and there could be health risks associated with consuming these drinks. Previous research suggests that anxiety, irritability and bed wetting can be problems associated with energy drink consumption. As they contain stimulants they may also limit the amount of sleep that an individual has. Pregnant women should also be very careful of their consumption of caffeine and stimulants and would be best to avoid these drinks. High consumption of caffeine may increase the risk of a low birth weight baby, miscarriage and problems associated with birth in some women.
Weight control and energy drinks
As well as having other risks associated with them, energy drinks may play a role in weight control. Energy drinks can have large amounts of calories in them and when an individual’s calorie intake exceeds what they burn, they will store the excess energy as fat. This leads to weight gain. As well as having a lot of calories these drinks are often not registered by drinkers as ‘energy’ and therefore they do not count them as food – doing this can easily lead to over consumption. Drinks also do not keep you feeling full so you often drink them, and then eat as well (doubling your calorie intake).
Most of the calorie content of energy drinks comes from sugar. Some energy drinks contain up to 5 teaspoons of sugar per 250mL! The Harvard School of Public Health reports that nearly 16 percent of the average Americans daily intake is made up from sugar that has been added to food. These can play a large role in this daily amount. As well as having a lot of sugar, these drinks have very little nutritional value; you do not get a large dose of vitamins and minerals from them. This makes them an empty food.
So should you consume energy drinks?
It is a personal choice whether you decide to consume energy drinks. If you are in a high risk group (you are a child, pregnant, are caffeine sensitive or have high blood pressure) you should avoid these drinks. If you are considered low risk you should still limit your intake as more research may show detrimental health risks, and they should be in addition to a healthy diet. Check the label to make sure you know exactly what you are consuming and be wary of the manufacturer’s guideline for maximum drinks per day.