by Nate Widom
Whether you were falling asleep at your desk or needed some energy to complete a late-night task, you’ve potentially considered an energy drink to fill the void and stimulate your brain.
It is well-known that energy drinks are considered unhealthy, but why are they so harmful, and are there any healthy alternatives that can still give you the energy boost you desire? I sat down with Registered Dietitian Jeannie Versagli to discuss.
A problematic double whammy
First things first, most energy drinks are incredibly high in sugar. According to SFGATE, an average energy drink can contain 24-29 grams of sugar.1 Therefore, according to Jeannie, most energy drinks will contain the total recommended amount of daily added sugar in just one serving! She adds that these sugars are usually simple sugars, which can increase oxidation and cause inflammation when consumed in excess. And that may lead to poor outcomes such as stroke, irregular heartbeat, increased blood pressure, anxiety, insomnia, headaches, mood disorders, gout, and a decrease in the health of your gut microbiome.
And then there’s the caffeine. Most energy drinks have 100-300 mg of caffeine, depending on the brand.2 For reference, the FDA states that a 12-ounce caffeinated soft drink usually contains 30-40 mg of caffeine, and an 8-ounce cup of coffee contains 80 – 100 mg. Furthermore, the organization recommends that adults consume no more than 400 mg of caffeine daily.3 Simply put, many energy drinks have a much higher caffeine content than soft drinks or coffee. Consuming too much can lead to headaches, nausea, upset stomach, anxiousness, jitters, insomnia, and more.
Now, what do you get when you combine high amounts of sugar and caffeine? Jeannie says that this sugar and caffeine combo is a problematic “double whammy” with addictive qualities and likely dangerous health effects if consumed excessively.
A 2017 study found that energy drinks were heavily consumed and had strong brand awareness within young boys’ social, athletic, and gaming circles.4 Furthermore, truthinadvertising.org reported last December that many brands appeal to the youth by sponsoring sports teams, gaming events, and affiliating their products with candy and snack brands.5 Some drinks they reference are Skittles, Kool-Aid, Popsicle, and Swedish Fish flavored. One of the drinks is even partnered with the Sonic the Hedgehog video game series!
“A lot of people are getting addicted to them,” Jeannie describes. “Especially the younger population.” Like soda and candy, the sugar or caffeine intake may help energize you initially. Still, you later become tired and therefore crave it all over again. “High increase of sugar puts a high demand on insulin, thus producing large amounts of insulin to absorb the glucose,” Jeannie explains. “This can result in a fast decrease in glucose levels, resulting in a number of side effects, like sleepiness.”
Furthermore, there is little regulation on energy drinks, and some companies may utilize loopholes in the few existing standards. According to Harvard Health, the FDA doesn’t regulate energy drinks but does enforce a caffeine limit. Sometimes, energy drink companies may classify their products as a supplement and therefore skirt around the limit.6
However, like with any unhealthy food or drink, people can safely consume an energy drink in moderation. “If you want to use them occasionally, you have to be mindful to not depend on them,” Jeannie says. She recommends that someone who wants an occasional energy drink find one with the lowest possible sugar and caffeine content on the nutrition label.
Think the typical energy drink is bad enough? It gets worse if you mix your energy drink with alcohol! Healthline reports on two studies that suggest alcoholic energy drinks can make you feel less intoxicated while also remaining impaired. In 2010, the FDA did ban the distribution of alcoholic energy drinks. Still, they remain a popular and dangerous commodity since people make them themselves.7
Alternatives to energy drinks
When you need a quick energy boost, what foods and drinks can provide similar effects of increased energy without all the problematic health effects? High protein, naturally caffeinated, and fiber-heavy options are the answer! A list of some suggestions is below:
Coffees, Lattes, or Espressos
Let’s get the obvious alternative out of the way! These drinks with milk and little to no added sugars are fantastic energy-boosting options. Jeannie mentions that the added milk will provide protein, and the coffee includes caffeine naturally.
Chocolate milk contains natural caffeine from cocoa, and the milk itself will have a balanced amount of carbs, protein, and sugar. “You will get some natural sugars if you need a little bit of a boost, and the protein will stay a little bit longer because carbohydrates are metabolized first, and then proteins are second, so you won’t get the spike,” explains Jeannie.
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, black, green, and oolong teas contain caffeine and some minerals for a good energy boost. However, herbal teas do not include caffeine.8
Hummus + Veggies
EverydayHealth reports that the fiber and protein in garbanzo beans (the main ingredient in hummus) can boost energy and steady blood sugar. Using veggies to dip in the hummus will provide further excellent nutrients.9
Greek yogurt has high amounts of protein. If topped with fruit, this is a great and easy energy-boosting snack.9
Oatmeal is a complex carbohydrate that will give longer-lasting energy than a simple carbohydrate. Furthermore, the oats will provide several vitamins and minerals, fiber, and protein.10
Medical News Today writes that the protein in eggs provides sustained energy due to it not causing surges in blood sugar and insulin. Furthermore, eggs have many essential nutrients and
Today reports that popcorn is a low-calorie snack rich in fiber and antioxidants to boost the energy you may need.12
Nuts may be high in protein, but Jeannie does not recommend them for an energy-boosting snack due to their high-fat content. The high amounts of fat will slow down the energy boost.
Ultimately, Jeannie’s philosophy regarding energy drinks is, “If you eat a healthy diet, you don’t need it!”
Jeannie mentions that individuals who don’t live a healthy lifestyle rely on energy drinks due to poor dietary choices. “If I hydrate well, if I rest well, and if I eat well, if I eat my macros like carbohydrates and proteins, that takes care of it. The reason people gravitate towards [energy drinks] is because they’re fatigued.” If you consume a nutritious diet, energy drinks won’t be necessary. Suppose you are lethargic in the morning when you wake up. In that case, Jeannie recommends a high-protein breakfast since the protein will increase alertness. On the other hand, a breakfast of simple carbs will make you feel more sluggish throughout the day.
This article has been reviewed by Jeannie Versagli, RD, LDN. Jeannie is a Registered Dietitian with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a national professional organization, and is licensed in nutrition with the State of Delaware.