Is There a Healthy Energy Drink?

Jake Newby

| 4 min read

A man shops for energy drinks.
A “healthy” energy drink sounds like an oxymoron.
Energy drinks have been a mainstay at grocery stores and gas stations for more than two decades now. Their allure? They promote increased energy and mental alertness. Some of them promote heightened physical performance for athletes and gym-goers. But with those promotions and promises come massive amounts of caffeine and sugar.
Let’s examine what makes energy drinks so unhealthy in the first place.

The health risks of drinking standard, sugar-filled energy drinks

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers 400 milligrams (mg) a safe amount of daily caffeine for adults. One 12-ounce can of most top-selling energy drinks contain between 102-122mg of caffeine.
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, some energy drinks are marketed as beverages and others as dietary supplements, so there’s wiggle room for companies to sidestep the caffeine limit. Some energy drinks are marketed as foods and others as dietary supplements, and there’s no legal requirement to declare the precise amount of caffeine on the label of either type of product. Common energy drink additives like Guarana themselves contains caffeine, increasing the drink’s total caffeine content.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 recommends limiting added sugar to 10% of your daily calories, which is 50 grams a day for a 2,000-calorie diet. A single 16-ounce energy drink may contain 54 to 62 grams of added sugar, exceeding the maximum number of added sugars recommended for an entire day.
Drinks with excess amounts of added sugar can promote obesity, are linked to an increased risk of developing chronic conditions like cancer and heart disease, and can negatively impact insulin sensitivity, making them particularly harmful for people with diabetes.

Are some energy drinks healthier than others?

Energy drinks usually contain some sort of added sugar. Drinks marketed as “sugar-free” may have non-nutritive sweeteners or sugar alcohols, all which can be harmful when consumed excessively. Sugar alcohols, for example, can cause gastrointestinal side effects like bloating and diarrhea.
In recent years, sparkling energy drinks have become trendy. Brands of these beverages market themselves as healthy alternatives to industry-leading, traditional energy drinks because they provide “functional energy,” pointing to their vitamin and mineral content as proof.
Some of these new sparkling energy drink brands contain vitamins C, B6, and B12, and biotin, as well as riboflavin, as well as mineral additives like chromium. While vitamins and minerals can aid important functions in the body, there isn’t significant evidence that random blends of vitamins and minerals improve energy levels.

What are good energy drink alternatives?

Eating healthy food and drinking lots of water are the best ways to stay energized and hydrated. Aim to drink a glass of water when you wake up, with meals, and before, during, and after workouts.
Here are a few more ways to swap out those energy drinks with natural sources of energy:
Avoid replacing food with sugar and caffeine to make it through the day. We get energy from food, so eat meals rich in protein and complex carbohydrates. Carbohydrates provide energy for your muscles while protein helps build them. Have some oatmeal and Greek yogurt mixed with berries. Or a small plate of chicken breast, rice and mixed vegetables.
Eat consistently throughout the day: Eating small-to-moderate-sized meals and snacks every three to four hours helps keep your energy at an even level. Aim for balance by mixing in proteins, complex carbs and fats.
Drink moderate amounts of coffee and tea: As long as excess amounts of sugar and cream aren’t swimming in them, 1 to 2 cups of coffee or tea per day can provide safe doses of caffeine. One 8-ounce cup of brewed coffee contains about 80-100mg of caffeine, while an 8-ounce cup of brewed black or green tea usually plateaus at 50mg.
Be active: Regular exercise increases your body’s energy supply while allowing it to function better and expel that energy efficiently. Plus, your body gets an energy boost from activity-induced increases in hormone levels. In addition to your normal recommended physical activity levels, try moving around more and sitting less. Take 10-minute walk breaks at work, park far away from stores on purpose and opt for the stairs instead of the elevator.
Individuals should talk with their health care provider about their caffeine consumption during an annual physical to evaluate the impacts on their physical and mental health, chronic conditions.
Photo credit: Getty Images

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