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Food for Thought: Are Energy Drinks Safe?

Thursday, May 04, 2017 3:32 PM

Lynn Gettleman Chehab, MD, MPH, Pediatrician affiliated with NorthShore, has a particular interest in combating the obesity epidemic in the United States. Dr. Chehab participates in the ReThink Your Drink program that encourages alternatives to sugar-sweetened beverages, and has partnered with the cities of Evanston and Skokie, and local schools in promoting the program. As part of her work, she created a ‘Sugar Show’ where she displays the amount of sugar in popular soda pops, juices and sports drinks. Dr. Chehab discusses the safety of energy drinks that are popular among kids and even adults. 


The energy drink trend is still going strong and is particularly popular among young people. As a pediatrician, can you talk about what advice you give to patients and their parents about these drinks?

I tell both parents and patients to avoid these drinks – as for children and teens, the risks outweigh any benefits. These drinks are full of sugar, often more than twice the amount of the American Heart Association’s recommended daily limit of 24 grams of added sugars. They also tend to contain large amounts of caffeine, which can be incredibly disruptive to sleep. I tell parents that I view them as poison, like cigarettes.

A new study in the Journal of the American Heart Association outlines the potentially harmful effects of drinking some of these energy drinks. What can these drinks do to your body?

Many single serving containers of these drinks have over 50 grams of sugar—twice the daily amount that is viewed as safe. Drinking even one serving of a sugar sweetened beverage a day is associated with increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers and Alzheimer’s disease. While sugar initially provides a burst of energy, it also causes your body to release the hormone insulin. Once the insulin causes all of that sugar to be taken into cells (including fat cells), your body all of a sudden crashes and you can feel more tired than before you had the energy drink.

Caffeine is also not good for your body. It can disrupt sleep—even when consumed hours before bedtime. Children and teens require between 8-10 hours of sleep per night. Caffeine can not only delay the onset of sleep, but it can cause poor quality sleep.

And as with other liquids, even high-calorie energy drinks do not induce satiety. Liquids do not stretch the stomach and provide that necessary feedback for feeling full.

What are some more general guidelines on sugar and caffeine that people should keep in mind?

Children and teens should not consume caffeine. In addition to sleep disruption, caffeine is also a mild diuretic – meaning that it causes one to urinate more and can contribute to poor hydration. Most children and teens already do not drink enough water during the day, we do not want them to lose more.

An easy rule for remembering the recommended daily limit of sugar is: no more than 24 grams in 24 hours. That is safe daily limit of all added sugars for women and children, as recommended by the American Heart Association. Because men are on average larger than women, their recommended limit is 36 grams. Many energy drinks have well over 50 grams in a single serving. That’s the equivalent of eating 12 pieces of Halloween candy! 

What are some alternatives to these drinks for people who feel they need an energy boost during the day?

To keep energy consistently up, choose foods that have more of a sustained, steady release of nutrients such as fiber and protein. A general rule is to eat a protein plus a produce for every meal and snack. Good examples are: apples and peanut butter, hummus and veggies, cheese and fruit, plain yogurt with fruit and nuts. These foods will give you a boost and keep you feeling fuller for longer.