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Why Energy Drinks Are Bad for You

By Kim Robson:

Once, on a long solo road trip, I picked up a Red Bull energy drink to help me stay alert. That was the one and only time I have tried an energy drink. It tasted so awful that I still can’t believe people actually drink that stuff on a regular basis, even make cocktails out of it! Now if I need a pick-me-up, I just get some iced coffee.

There’s no denying that energy drinks are a HUGE market. From Red Bull to Monster to those little shot bottles in gas stations and liquor stores, it’s clear that a ton of people depend heavily on the stuff. So, what exactly is in these “energy” drinks? Some claim to contain natural plant ingredients, like ginkgo biloba or ginseng. Let’s break down the most common ingredients:

Caffeine— This is the main ingredient in nearly all energy drinks and shots. Most of us can handle some caffeine without any ill effect. According to the Mayo Clinic, caffeine consumption should be limited to about 400 milligrams a day. This is still more than many people, especially children, can comfortably handle. An 8-ounce cup of coffee averages about 130 milligrams of caffeine; Red Bull contains 80 milligrams; Monster ranges from 115 milligrams to 184 milligrams of caffeine.

Which is fine if you’re only drinking one. But many young people consume several energy drinks throughout the day. Caffeine toxicity (aka the jitters) causes headaches, tremors, heart palpitations and nausea. At high enough levels it can cause seizures, mania, hallucinations or strokes.

Caffeine is also a diuretic, dehydrating the body instead of hydrating it. Athletes who consume energy drinks during sporting activities may experience serious health issues.

Sugar— Tons of it. All energy drinks have lots of added sweetener. An 8.4-ounce can of Red Bull contains a whopping 27 grams of sugar. That’s the equivalent of six and a half teaspoons. You’ll see glucose, fructose and sucrose (all sugar) in the ingredients list, or you may see artificial sweeteners. We’ve discussed thedangers of refined sugarbefore: it robs the body of energy, depletes minerals, leads to insulin resistance, and can be more addictive than cocaine, according to a 2007 study.

Guarana— Similar to coffee beans, but with twice as much caffeine. A healthy-sounding additive to boost the caffeine content without its appearing super obvious on the label.

Taurine— An amino acid our bodies produce naturally. Found in foods like meat, fish and dairy. It’s added to energy drinks because research shows that combining it with caffeine peaks mental performance. Studies have shown that taurine assists with weight loss, mitigates workout-induced muscle damage, and improves oxygen transport in the body.

B-Complex Vitamins— Most energy drinks contain added B vitamins. Brands that claim to be caffeine-free simply replace the caffeine with massive amounts of vitamin B12. While vitamins are a good thing, too much of an isolated, synthetic vitamin can be bad for you. The best way to get vitamins is through food.

Artificial Colors and Flavors— Most energy drinks come in a rainbow of artificial colors and flavors, all very appealing to kids. We’ve discussed the potential dangers of artificial food dyeshere, especially for children.

Ginkgo Biloba or Ginseng— Adding plant extracts like ginseng and ginkgo means that energy drinks can be regulated as dietary supplements, not food, and avoid stricter safety restrictions. In 2011, Canada changed the labeling and regulation of energy drinks from “natural health products” to food. Energy drink brands contain less caffeine in countries (like Australia) that have stricter regulations, but they still sell drinks with higher amounts of it in the U.S.

C’mon, Is Any of This Really That Bad?

For a healthy adult, once in a while, probably not. But when children are drinking several a day, it’s a problem. Energy drinks are marketed to kids. There is no age limit for their purchase. In the U.S., the caffeine content of soda is regulated — but not that of energy drinks.

The American Academy of Pediatrics states that energy drinks “pose potential health risks because of the stimulants they contain and should NEVER be consumed by children and adolescents.” From 2005 to 2011, energy drink-related emergency room visits spiked from 1,494 to 20,783, a shocking 1400% increase. These numbers include children younger than six years old. During an eight-year period, 34 deaths were associated with the consumption of energy drinks. That statistic does not include unreported deaths, cardiac events and other serious health issues. Most of those affected were children and teenagers.

Adults have died after drinking only one or two energy drinks, but they may have had underlying health issues. A 2017 study published in the Journal of the American Heart Associationfound that those who drank an energy drink regularly had abnormal heart rhythms and elevated blood pressure for more than six hours. A control group given flavored water with high amounts of sugar and caffeine didn’t experience the same level of adverse effects. The energy drink caused a ten-millisecond delay in the heartbeat, while prescription drugs that cause a six-millisecond delay are required to carry a warning label!

Energy Drink Alternatives

Here are some healthy energy boosters that don’t come with jitters followed by a sugar crash:

Chia Seeds— Packed full of omega-3 fatty acids, which lower inflammation in the body. Contain natural energy-boosting B-vitamins. Ancient cultures used them to promote energy and endurance. A 2011 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Researchmeasured athletic performance and found that chia seeds were just as effective as energy drinks.

Kombucha— Contains naturally high levels of B vitamins. Known to increase energy, improve digestion, and cleanse the liver. Chia seeds are an energizing powerhouse on their own, but they’re even better with kombucha. Try this recipe for Homemade Chia Seed Kombucha Energy Drink!

Coffee or Tea— Both have health benefits in moderate amounts. Different teas contain varying caffeine levels, making it easier to adjust the brew to your needs. Look for fair-tradeor organic when possible.

DIY Electrolyte Replacement— Better than Gatorade by far. Athletes can try this recipefor a homemade version without all the sugar and artificial neon colors. Start with a base liquid like coconut water, plain water or green/herbal tea. Then add some good salt, calcium and magnesium, and flavor/sweetener to taste.

If you’re finding that your energy is flagging, don’t rely on chemical stimulants. Get a full night’s sleep, avoid drugs and alcohol, eat healthfully, and get plenty of exercise and sunshine.

What are some healthy ways you’ve found to boost your energy?

About Kim Robson

Kim Robson lives and works with her husband in the Cuyamaca Mountains an hour east of San Diego. She enjoys reading, writing, hiking, cooking, and animals. She has written a blog since 2006 at kimkiminy.wordpress.com. Her interests include the environment, dark skies, astronomy and physics, geology and rock collecting, living simply and cleanly, wilderness and wildlife conservation, and eating locally.

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