Health: Short-term boost, long-term problem

Updated January 08, 2017


It was late night and my team and I were struggling to meet deadlines of a crucial project, when my colleague, Anum*, an event planner, opened an energy drink can and gulped it down. “At least, I’ll be awake and alert the whole night. An energy drink is better than a cup of coffee for me to keep me attentive,” she said, and happily got back to work.

Curious, I asked Anum, “Isn’t this kind of stuff bad for you? I’ve heard it contains ingredients that can be detrimental for health in the long term.”

Before Anum could think of a reply, our teammate, Sarah Hasnain, a marketer, pitched in her thoughts, raising her drink, “These are mainly energy boosters. They are a real pick-me-up when one is feeling sleepy during long and tedious afternoons. Imagine, had it not for been for this can, we would’ve been sluggish at this late hour.”

The truth about energy drinks and what they really do to us

Anum and Sarah were right — energy drinks indeed boost energy due to their two characteristic ingredients, caffeine and taurine. Caffeine has a simulating effect on one’s senses and is associated with increasing alertness and attention, while taurine is an amino acid which enhances neurological development in an individual. Therefore, energy drinks certainly live up to the taglines in their advertisements which claim improving an individual’s mental and physical performance, as well as providing their consumers an instant kick of vigour and strength.

However, despite hearing how these beverages help one stay active and agile, my question to Anum still remained unanswered: are energy drinks really good for our health, as vouched by consumers and portrayed in the adverts?

Nazish Chagla, holistic nutritionist and health coach gave me a straightforward answer, “No, they are not!”

She explained, “Along with caffeine and taurine, energy drinks contain excessive levels of sugar approximately 35g (in total) — which is not good for your health. Consuming excessive sugar along with caffeine can lead to health problems including diabetes, fatty liver disease, and dental caries. 

However, despite being aware of the hazardous health factors of energy drinks, teenagers and young adults still opt for them, as just one can of an energy drink is a quick source of improved performance, concentration and vigilance, coupled with pleasurable sensations. They disregard the risks quite conveniently, because they like the taste and influence of energy drinks better, and believe they aren’t harmful at all.

Khalid Khan, a 24-year-old accountant drinks a can daily and considers it harmless. “I don’t think energy drinks pose a serious health risk. I consume a can of a particular brand daily and haven’t felt anything wrong with my body. Rather, it vitalises my body and mind. Besides, people consume bottles of soft drinks too, which contain sugar, carbonated water and artificial flavours, and nothing happens to them!” he argued.

Though Khan’s argument about people consuming soft drinks in large quantities is true, doctors, nutritionists and dentists don’t encourage drinking carbonated soft beverages either. And, they strongly discourage the consumption of the sugar-laced energy drinks.

Responding to Khan’s argument, Chagla dispelled the misconceptions the younger generation has about energy drinks being safe beverages. “One feels active instantly because of the large quantities of sugar and caffeine present in these drinks, but it is temporary. Once the effect of sugar starts to wear off, high energy levels begin to ebb too. Also, too much sugar causes major hormonal imbalances in the body. Side effects won’t be visible immediately, but subtle symptoms of severe long-term internal damage might start to appear. If taken in abundance, energy drinks can be quite addictive too,” she told.

Sometimes amateur body-builders, gym enthusiasts and young athletes consume energy drinks to help them in intense workout sessions. They need strength to perform vigorous exercises and hence resort to these caffeine-laced drinks. Some amateur body-builders mistake energy drinks for magical potions, which can give them the stamina to build bulky muscles quickly, as well as support in recovering from restrained muscles.

One such amateur body-builder is Zeeshan*, 36, who recalled how an energy drink helped him exercise arduously after years of being inactive at the gym. “The first two days were extremely painful. My body ached and I couldn’t move. The third day, I took an energy drink before going to the gym. I felt much better. My muscles didn’t ache and I could indulge in an intense workout,” he said.

This is an absolutely wrong practice!

Shakeel Ahmed, a physical fitness trainer frowned upon this habit. “Energy drinks contain harmful ingredients like inositol, hence athletes run the risk of becoming dehydrated, or suffer tremors and even a heart attack,” he explained. “France and Denmark have banned some common energy drinks when deaths of young athletes were reported. If one wants to develop some stamina and gain strength, then half a banana before exercising would be a better choice.”

When one takes energy drinks regularly, they are compromising on their natural cognitive functions at the cost of a temporary improvement in their mental and physical performance, attitudes and stress levels.

There is some psychological effect as well. If you think a certain product will help you make muscles, it will. It is a placebo effect, since you are conditioning your body and mind to believe that a certain product will benefit you, when in reality it doesn’t. Energy drinks play havoc with your bodies.

Moreover, energy drinks exude an aura of being “cool”. Those who drink them try to impress their friends with inexhaustible energy levels and get socially accepted (peer pressure in some cases especially for children below 12 years). While, advertisements sell the glorified, hip element of energy drinks, it’s good to remember that everything that glitters is not gold.

Now that you know both sides of the story, make your own choice, wisely!

  • Some names have been changed to maintain the anonymity of the individuals who didn’t want to be identified publicly.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, January 8th, 2017