Are Energy Drinks Bad for You?

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Much research has tied consumption of sugared beverages to the rise of the obesity epidemic. Some cities, such as San Francisco and Berkeley, California, have moved to place taxes or warning labels on sugared beverages.

But what about energy drinks? What does recent research have to say about those?

Energy Drinks and Cardiovascular Risk

Recent research presented at the 2015 American Heart Association Scientific Sessions in Orlando, Florida, showed that energy drinks may pose a risk to the cardiovascular system, particularly by raising levels of norepinephrine (also known as noradrenaline, a “fight or flight” chemical).

Norepinephrine falls under the category of substances known as catecholamines, which are responsible for the sympathetic nervous system’s “fight or flight” response in humans. As such, they increase heart rate and blood pressure—both of which a person would need if they were truly faced with an emergent need either to fight or to flee.

However, most of us in our everyday lives are not, thankfully, in need of a “fight or flight” response, and thus energy drinks that rev up these hormones can be dangerous to our systems in both the short- and long-term.

In the study presented at the American Heart Association (AHA) meeting, researchers at the Mayo Clinic looked at the effects of a single can (16 oz.) of a commercially available energy drink on 25 otherwise healthy study participants, measuring blood pressure and levels of norepinephrine before and 30 minutes after consumption, and comparing this to the effects of a non-energy drink (known as a “sham” drink for purposes of the clinical trial).

The study participants consumed either the energy drink or the sham drink in random order on two different days. The researchers found that both norepinephrine levels and blood pressure more than doubled after consumption of the energy drink, a significant difference from the sham drink.

Energy Drinks and Obesity

Many energy drinks contain 20 or more teaspoons of sugar, which is a tremendous amount, especially when one considers the AHA’s recommendation that adult women consume no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar per day, and no more than 9 teaspoons for adult men.

So a single energy drink could contain more than triple the daily added-sugar allotment for an adult man!

As noted before, particular attention has been paid to sugar-sweetened beverages as being directly linked to the obesity epidemic.

Experts have noted how the increased consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages in the United States has paralleled the rise in obesity rates. And some have pointed out that the way the body reacts to calories in liquid form, in terms of release of obesity-related hormones such as ghrelin and leptin, is different from the greater satiety it experiences with solid foods.

In addition, sugar-sweetened beverages are lacking in fiber content, are nutrient-poor, and are commonly associated, particularly among children and adolescents (though not just), with consumption of other poor food choices, such as salty foods and fast foods.

Studies that have looked at the genetics of obesity have even found a stronger genetic association with higher body mass index (BMI) that corresponds to intake of sugared beverages. As these researchers note, studies like these point to a causal relationship between sugared beverages and weight gain—and the risk of obesity.


American Heart Association Scientific Sessions 2015 Daily News. TriStar Publishing, Inc. November 9, 2015.

Johnson R et al. Dietary sugars intake and cardiovascular health: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation 2009.

Ebbeling CB, Feldman HA, Chomitz VR, Antonelli TA, et al. A randomized trial of sugar-sweetened beverages and adolescent body weight. N Engl J Med 2012; 367:1407-1416.

Qi Q, Chu AY, Kang JH, Jensen MK, et al. Sugar-sweetened beverages and genetic risk of obesity. N Engl J Med 2012; 367:1387-1396.

Caprio S. Editorial: Calories from soft drinks—do they matter? N Engl J Med 2012; 367:1462-1463.

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