Energy Drinks: What You Need to Know to Choose Safely and Wisely

By Kate Geagan, MS, RD

Posted on | By Kate Geagan, MS, RD

For most of us, our days can feel like sprints, and energy drinks offer an alluring magic bullet to make it to the finish line: The promise of pep. To fight the 4 o’clock fatigue. To become that person that we know, deep down, we really are, if only life weren’t so hectic.

There are dozens of reasons women are reaching for energy drinks at record levels – essentially most of them boil down to some version of “not wanting to feel like a zombie by mid-afternoon.”

With a whole new crop of energy drinks being marketed specifically toward women, I recently joined Dr. Oz for a segment (watch the video) during which we tackled an interesting question: Are there cases in which it is okay to use an energy drink? And, if so, is a bottle, can or shot best? But, first things first: Are energy drinks even safe?

Think Before You Drink: Are Energy Drinks Safe?

 

In short, some are, some are definitely not. While some seem like an easy addition to a sound overall energy strategy (I’ll share those at the end), many energy drinks contain ingredients that I wouldn’t put in my car, let alone my body.

To give you that jolt of energy, many stack caffeine with a combo of other natural stimulants (such as guarana, yerba mate, green tea or others) and a hefty amount of sugars – giving us a “one-two” whoosh of energy. And many contain a slew of synthetic colors, flavors, sweeteners and preservatives, none of which I recommend.

It’s important to know that unlike soda or coffee, energy drinks are not regulated by the FDA –  making them the equivalent of the Wild West in the beverage aisle. Also, the FDA does not require that manufacturers list caffeine amounts on food labels.

Health experts recommend a maximum of about 400 milligrams of caffeine a day (a cup of coffee has about 135 milligrams of caffeine, a 12 oz. can of soda has about 40 milligrams). While some products may voluntarily provide this information (a good thing), many others do not. In fact, a new study by Consumer Reports found that 11 of the 27 best-selling energy drinks in the US don’t divulge how much caffeine is in their product. And of the 16 drinks that did list a specific amount, nearly one-third of them packed significantly more caffeine per serving than what was listed on the label.

Could You Benefit From an Energy Drink?

 

The intended effect of an energy drink is to provide you with a nice added boost of energy and focus – without any downside – so that you can be your best self for the task at hand. But, by now, you may be thinking, “Why bother with them at all?”

There are some times, however, where the right energy drink may actually make better sense than your current MO, from a calorie or caffeine standpoint. For instance, do any of the following sound like you?

  • You nurse an endless mug of coffee just to get through the day. You can easily sail past the maximum recommendation of 400 milligrams of caffeine a day if you’re chugging coffee from sun up to sometime much, much later in the afternoon. High amounts of caffeine can make it hard to get adequate rest at night, initiating a cycle where you wake up groggy the next day. Plus, excess caffeine has been linked to feeling jittery or anxious, GI distress, and heart palpitations.
  • You reach for sugary carbs and snack foods for an energy boost. Carbohydrates are the brain’s preferred energy source and are rapidly utilized by the body, providing an instant energy boost. But grazing on unhealthy foods not only takes the edge off of your appetite for healthy eating later, the calories can also quickly add up. And most importantly, while you may feel a quick burst of energy from sugary treats, you’ll also no doubt feel the crash a bit later. Imagine squirting lighter fluid on a fire – there’s a quick whoosh of energy, followed by a dramatic drop in the flame. This, essentially, is what happens when your blood sugar spikes and then falls after eating these types of foods, causing you to reach for the candy jar again sooner rather than later.
  • You are fond of high-calorie coffeehouse confections. Fancy a 700-calorie coffee pick-me-up? While they are indeed delicious and provide a dose of caffeine, sipping coffeehouse staples too often will almost certainly pack on the pounds, as these drinks come packaged with a hefty dose of added sugars and fats.

Choose Wisely: Dr. Oz’s Guide for Smart Sipping 

While there are dozens of drinks to avoid completely – in fact, the same week our segment aired, the FDA announced it was investigating reports of five deaths and one non-fatal heart attack in which a leading energy drink was cited) – there are some products that do provide an acceptable dose of calories, caffeine and sugar that may help stave off sluggishness.

If you do decide that an energy drink (or energy shot) fits your lifestyle, or will help you shave calories from your current caffeine fix, the following are Dr. Oz’s guidelines on what to look for.

And my nutritionist tip? Be sure to pair your energy drink with a high-protein snack for an energy boost that lasts long after that can is empty. A handful of walnuts or almonds, a hard-boiled egg, some hummus or tuna, or a container of low-fat Greek yogurt are all protein-rich options that will power you to your next meal.

Choose products according to these guidelines:

  • No artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners or chemicals.
  • No high fructose corn syrup
  • No more than 10 grams of sugar per day (the equivalent of 2.5 teaspoons of sugar)
  • No more than 300 milligrams of caffeine (about the equivalent of 2 cups of coffee)

Dr. Oz does not endorse the use of energy drinks by children. 

 You Can’t Drink Your Way Out of a Deeper Energy Crisis

 

Of course, there’s a real difference between quality and quantity when it comes to energy. Your goal should be lasting, focused, high-quality energy, not just the buzz of stimulation.

And, as most of us know, somewhere deep in the back of our (tired) minds, the bottom line is that we can’t drink our way out of chronic underlying energy depletion brought on by a lack of sleep, high stress, poor eating habits, or too little movement.

If you find you are constantly reaching for a drink for a fast energy fix, you may be masking deeper symptoms of fatigue. If so, it’s time to look into this issue – life is a marathon, not a sprint. And we all want to be awake for the journey. Here are the best ways to fix sagging energy levels:

  • Get at least 7 hours of sleep on most nights
  • Eat a healthy breakfast (if you’ve under-eaten during the day, around 2 p.m. is when you’ll start to feel it)
  • Drink plenty of water (even minor dehydration can lead to fatigue and decreased brainpower)
  • Get regular exercise
  • Manage your stress
  • Take a “joy break” in your day

Article written by Kate Geagan, MS, RD
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