Large quantities of caffeine, sugar, and other little-studied ingredients can have ill effects, especially for children.
When it comes to energy drinks and their promises to revitalize your body and mind, you’ll do well to remember the old saying: “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
Energy drinks are one of the fastest growing segments of the world’s beverage market. They’re offered in a can similar to a soda, as a concentrated energy “shot,” or as a powder to mix with water or juice.
Energy drinks were originally marketed to athletes when they emerged in the U.S. in 1997 with the introduction of Red Bull. But current marketing appeals to a much broader audience — people looking to sustain their energy, achieve a sharpened mental focus, or improve their physical performance — in other words, everyone.
The main active ingredient in most energy drinks is caffeine. The Food and Drug Administration limits the amount of caffeine in soda to 65 milligrams per 12 ounces because it’s considered a food. But energy drinks and shots are considered dietary supplements, and their caffeine content is not regulated. Most energy drinks have between 70 and 200 milligrams of caffeine per can, but some are as high as 300 milligrams. The average cup of coffee has between 80 and 120 milligrams of caffeine.
Widely studied, caffeine has been shown to have both cognitive and physical benefits. But it can also have negative side effects such as sleeplessness, irritability, headaches (especially from caffeine withdrawal), and gastrointestinal upset. For the very young and people with certain health conditions — for example, heart problems, seizures, or diabetes — too much caffeine can be dangerous.
Energy drinks are also typically supplemented with ingredients that claim to enhance their effectiveness — taurine, guaraná, B and C vitamins, ginseng, green tea extract, carnitine, ginko biloba, and either lots of sugar or artificial sweeteners — are common.
Well-designed studies of these ingredients have been few. Nor is it well understood how they interact with each other or with medications. Some ingredients have been shown to have potential benefits, but some have also had negative health effects in large amounts or with certain health conditions. Again, these drinks are considered supplements, and actual amounts of most ingredients are not required to be listed and are not regulated.
“The thing that we need to really remind ourselves of is that we don’t necessarily know what we’re putting in our bodies if it’s not listed on the ingredients list, and that’s a concern for me as a dietitian and a nutrition educator,” said Jessica Crandall, RDN, wellness center director at Denver Wellness and Nutrition in Englewood, Colo., and spokesperson for the National Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “There’s really been no scientific studies to prove one way or the other if [these ingredients are] helpful or hurtful.”
Get back to the basics
Instead of looking for a magic bullet in a can, adequate rest and proper fuel are the foundations of achieving peak physical and mental performance.
“There are a lot of things you can do to achieve the same effects that people are trying to get from energy drinks without introducing a lot of unknown chemicals and other things you don’t need — and don’t know how they will affect you — into your body,” Crandall said.
Crandall is also a personal trainer and marathon runner. If her performance is off she reviews what she ate or how she slept the night before and makes “adjustments and modifications to those preventative behaviors and habits.”
If her clients are struggling, Crandall asks them whether they are mentally exhausted or physically exhausted.
“If we’re mentally exhausted maybe that means we need a nap or to unplug and recharge ourselves. It’s probably not needing a quick fix from a highly caffeinated herbal supplementation,” she said.
Take a common-sense approach
In addition to adequate sleep and proper nutrition, Crandall suggests other common-sense ways to boost and maintain your energy, starting with breakfast — something many people skip.
“By not eating breakfast you’re actually lowering your energy level because your brain really needs that fuel to start you off correctly with your day,” she said. Make sure you have a protein source as well as a carbohydrate to give your body sustained energy, and then refuel with good food every 4 to 6 hours.
If you’ve been sitting all day and have mental fog or feel sleepy, don’t grab an energy drink or candy bar: get up and move around — go for a walk, run some stairs, or do some stretching. Physical activity is stimulating to your body and your brain, and it’s better for you.
Good snacks are OK. If you eat lunch at noon and don’t have dinner until 6 or 7 p.m., you’re going to get hungry. So plan ahead and have something good for you. Pair a protein-rich food — cheese or other dairy, meat, nuts, or beans — with carbohydrates, a fruit, a whole grain, or dairy, which also counts as a carb. Cottage cheese and fruit, yogurt and berries, yogurt and nuts, or an apple and nuts are all good choices. The combination of protein and carbohydrate is important for sustained energy and to keep you feeling fuller longer.
Make sure you’re getting water. Dehydration can make you feel sluggish or fatigued. The average person should have about 64 ounces of water a day. If water is boring to you, add slices of fruit or cucumber. Find a water bottle you really like and keep it full. Crandall also suggests “micromanaging” your fluid intake. For example, commit to drinking 20 ounces before 9 a.m., 20 ounces before noon, and 20 ounces before 6 p.m. so that you get close to your goal of 64 ounces of water a day
If you are an athlete
If you’re doing more than 60 minutes of activity, especially if it’s vigorous, take measures to replenish your body. Refuel with some kind of sports drink containing electrolytes — potassium and sodium in particular — and make sure you stay hydrated.
It’s important to get adequate potassium if you’re training for an event or engaging in strenuous workouts, Crandall said. Potassium helps your body break down and use carbohydrates, build muscle, and regulate blood pressure. The recommended amount is 4,700 milligrams per day, but Crandall said most of us are only getting about 2,000 milligrams per day. Meat and seafood, beans, bananas, broccoli, tomatoes, potatoes, yogurt, and nuts are all good sources.
During a workout, sports drinks, goos , and gels with few calories and appropriate amounts of carbohydrates as well as potassium and sodium are also good choices. “But I always use food as my first line of defense,” Crandall said.
April 09, 2020
Janet O’Dell, RN