Ask an Expert: Are energy drinks OK for my teenager?

Q: “My teenage kids and their friends are all into ‘energy drinks’ like Red Bull and Rockstar. They like how these drinks make them feel ‘up’ – but is there a downside?”

This important question was answered in 2008 by Kimra Hawk, RD, LD, outpatient dietitian at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center, and Terese Scollard, MBA, RD, LD, regional clinical nutrition manager for Providence Nutrition Services. Below is a condensed version. The original, more detailed article, including links to medical studies, is here.

As with most sodas and snack foods, these carbonated, caffeinated drinks probably aren’t a major cause for concern if used in moderation. However, the marketers of these products are betting on young people to drink a lot of them. From the hip product names to the edgy packaging to the key ingredient – caffeine, which is considered an addictive drug – their goal is anything but moderation.

Concern: Caffeine addiction and overdose
Energy drinks deliver a hefty dose of caffeine – probably more than is suitable for kids. The danger for teenagers and young adults is not only caffeine addiction, but overdose as well. While caffeine overdose is not common, it is being reported more frequently as high-potency energy drinks grow in popularity. An 8-ounce serving can contain as much as 250 mg of caffeine. Two cans – just 16 ounces – meet the threshold for a toxic dose.
Concern: Known side effects
Even in low doses, caffeine can have unpleasant side effects. The most commonly reported negative effects include anxiety, panic attacks, bowel irritability and insomnia. It’s logical to assume that, since kids have smaller bodies, they may be even more susceptible to caffeine’s effects. If your kids are experiencing nervousness, sleeplessness or digestive problems, the caffeine in their energy drinks could be the culprit.

Concern: Unknown potential health consequences
While scientists have determined the upper level of safety for caffeine (at least in adults), the same can’t be said for taurine, guarana, and other additives found in energy drinks. Since energy drinks are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, manufacturers can add ingredients in whatever dosages they want, without testing for their health benefits or safety.
Concern: Sugary calories and weight gain
As dietitians, our main concern is the high amount of sugar in most energy drinks. High sugar content means high calories, and that leads to weight gain. When we drink high-calorie beverages, we don’t get the sense of fullness that we do when we eat calorie-dense foods, so it’s easy to drink more calories than we realize.

The big question: Why are kids looking for a boost in a bottle or can?

Ask your kids: Why do you drink energy drinks? Is it to improve your mental alertness? To boost your physical energy? To make you feel more social, or to get a quick buzz?

If it’s mental clarity they’re hoping for, maybe the real problem is that they’re just not getting enough sleep. Since these drinks can actually worsen sleep problems, a better solution simply may be to go to bed earlier.
If it’s physical energy they’re after, no drink will provide that – sustained physical energy comes from eating a nutritious, well-balanced diet.

If it’s sociability or a buzz they’re looking for in these drinks, they may get caffeine-fueled nervousness and anxiety instead, followed by a crash when the sugar and caffeine wear off.

Our recommendation, for kids as well as adults, is to use energy drinks sparingly, if at all. If you do use them, read the labels and choose low-calorie or no-calorie options. If the caffeine content isn’t listed on the package or you don’t know what some of the other ingredients are, look them up online. Better yet, for optimal energy, health and weight management, get your nutrients and energy from foods, and drink water rather than caloric beverages to satisfy your body’s need for fluids.