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Energy Drinks: Are They Bad for You?

Drinking an energy drink is an incredibly popular way to get a boost of energy. The leading energy drink brand, Red Bull, sold 7.5 billion cans in 2019 alone, nearly one for every person on the planet. But should you be among the millions of people indulging in these stimulating treats? While a can of Monster Energy is never going to be an essential part of a healthy diet, are they actually that bad for you? That’s exactly what we looked into, and you may be surprised how straightforward the answer turned out to be!

It’s important to note before we move further that there are different types of energy drinks on the market. Many of the top-selling brands of energy drinks are more akin to sodas, while there are also caffeinated beverages at much lower caffeine contents. You also have what’s called an energy shot, which is a much smaller, much higher concentrated dose of caffeine. While each type is caffeinated, some are better or worse than others for different reasons.

The Evidence That Energy Drinks are Good for You

First, we’ll start with the positives of energy drinks. Due to the high levels of stimulants in energy drinks like caffeine, sugar, and Vitamin B, there is some evidence that energy drinks improve your cognitive function, at least in the short term. Studies have shown that energy drinks can combat mental fatigue. Another study even showed that these drinks can boost your long-term (or secondary) memory and mental focus, though it also notes that more research is needed to confirm the results. There have even been some physical benefits found for energy drinks, such as with physical endurance and performance.

There have even been some physical benefits found for energy drinks, such as with physical endurance and performance.

These benefits can be largely tied to the highly concentrated combination of caffeine and sugar. We’ve already discussed how caffeine can be healthy for you in our article on coffee. To that point, Red Bull has around the same amount of caffeine as the average cup of coffee, while Monster and 5-hour ENERGY contain about double that. At the same time, sugar can give you a bit of an energy boost by raising your blood sugar quickly, though this has been challenged.

Energy Overload

So, more caffeine just means more benefits, right? No, that couldn’t be further from the truth. While some caffeine can be okay or even healthy (roughly 400 milligrams per day), you can absolutely overdo it to dangerous outcomes. You can literally overdose on caffeine where, in mild cases, you develop symptoms like jitters, headaches, and gastrointestinal issues. In serious cases of caffeine overdose, you can experience an irregular heart, vomiting, convulsions, or even be put into shock. These risks are present with all caffeinated products, not just energy drinks, so what’s the big deal?

Energy drinks are especially an issue with caffeine overdosing due to their caffeine content and how they’re sold. Many of the most popular energy drinks (like Red Bull and Monster) are treated almost like sodas and not the highly caffeinated products they are. If the average energy drink has about 100 milligrams of caffeine, you should only have four each day, maximum. If you’re enjoying them like a soda, it’s easy to overdo it. This is exacerbated with energy shots, which can contain over 200 milligrams of caffeine in their tiny bottles. Drinking more than two of them in a day can be dangerous, though more on that later.

You should also be wary about the numbers on caffeine amounts listed on these drinks. A study from Consumer Reports (CR) found inconsistencies in the reporting of caffeine content. Regardless, the amount of caffeine in energy drinks is routinely higher than that in your average cup of coffee. This is worsened by the high amounts of sugar masking the high caffeine content while encouraging you to drink more by tasting good.

The amount of caffeine in these products is worrisome. They tout that they are as safe as coffee, but maybe not. They have a lot more caffeine than an 8-ounce cup of coffee. — Gayle Williams, deputy health editor for CR, to WebMD

Loaded with Sugar

Speaking of sugar, most energy drinks are loaded with it. We’ve previously talked about how unhealthy excessive sugar can be, so with that information in mind, let’s look at just how much sugar is in energy drinks and gauge how bad it can be.

A can of Red Bull is your entire daily suggested amount of sugar, while a can of Monster is enough sugar for two days.

The average energy drink contains between 24 and 29 grams of sugar, though some go even higher than this. That means a single can of Red Bull (at 28 grams in an 8 oz. can) fills your entire daily suggested amount of sugar, while a single can of Monster is enough sugar for two days. Keep in mind, these are only two of the most popular brands. Others may have more or less, but generally, they’re all roughly in that ballpark of sugar content. Brands are responding by making their own sugar-free versions, though these can present their own problems. Either way, there is good evidence that energy drinks are fattening due to all of the sugar in them, so maybe look for alternatives if you’re watching your weight.

Sends Your Heart Racing

Beyond weight gain, energy drinks may have another long-term negative effect, this time for your heart. Studies have found that drinking energy drinks increases both your heart rate and your blood pressure, which can raise your likelihood of heart problems over time. Another study found a link between heavy energy drink indulgence and cases of cardiac arrest, though the study was quick to request more research before implying definite causality between the two.

Energy drinks may increase your risk of a dangerous arrhythmia or sudden cardiac death.

What does this mean for you? Energy drinks may increase your risk of a dangerous arrhythmia or sudden cardiac death. Many of these risks are associated with the overabundance of caffeine, but the other ingredients in energy drinks could also be playing a part in the danger, too.

The Bottom Line

Does this mean that drinking an energy drink will immediately cause you to gain weight and have a heart attack? Most likely, no. Most of these outcomes are from sustained drinking of energy drinks. That said, we feel the evidence is there to suggest that anything more than an occasional pick-me-up isn’t a great idea for most people.

One major study revealed over 20,000 emergency room visits in 2011 were related to energy drinks, with over 10 percent of those serious enough to require hospitalization. Energy drinks have even been linked with deaths, leading to some brands including warning labels on the packaging. Despite this, energy drink use appears to be on the rise. It’s also advised that anyone with heart issues avoid energy drinks, since the heart risks are elevated by your underlying condition. Furthermore, don’t mix energy drinks with alcohol. This combination can be so severe that it’s warranted its own category in the 2011 study mentioned earlier and received its own warning from the CDC.

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To sum it up, an occasional energy drink shouldn’t kill you, but you may be better off just taking a walk in the sunshine if you’re looking for a quick way to wake up.