Energy Drinks and Bars: Deadly Teenage Treats?

Energy Drinks and Bars: Deadly Teenage Treats?

Energy drinks and bars attract teenagers by holding out twin promises of increased strength and ability on the playing field, and better concentration in the classroom. These food products are especially appealing to teenagers, since they never get enough sleep. When teens wake up late for school, they don’t have time for breakfast.

Even when teens have the time to sit and eat breakfast, energy drinks and bars attract, because they need no preparation. Teens don’t even need to sit down to eat or drink them. You open them up and hold them in one hand. Teens can eat or drink them as  they walk to school.

Teens may know that energy drinks and bars are not as nutritious as a home cooked meal, and still, readily purchase these treats. They figure it’s better they use these products than starve. The problem is, energy drinks and bars may not be better than going hungry, because they may actually be dangerous.

Energy drinks, for instance, may contain large doses of caffeine. The caffeine may give teens a feeling of increased alertness. When that feeling wears off, the teen may drink another one. At a certain point, the teen is developing a dependence on caffeine. Caffeine can be dangerous to the health, and in large amounts, may even cause heart attacks.

Energy bars may be loaded with sugar. The result of eating sugar-laden energy bars is a sugar high, followed by a crash. The sugar high makes the teen think the energy bar is giving him energy. When the crash comes, the teen does the logical thing and eats another energy bar. Without realizing it, he’s using sugar like a drug.

But the convenience of energy drinks and bars is irresistible. They’re more nutritious than a bag of corn chips or a candy bar, and they’re so convenient. Not to mention: they taste good, too.

So how do the experts come out on energy drinks and bars for teens? Are they danger in a convenient package or are they safe as long as teens don’t overindulge? It seems the important thing to do is to become educated consumers. We need to read the labels and research the ingredients and educate our teenagers to do so, as well.

Here is some information about common ingredients in energy drinks and bars and some pros and cons for using these products:

Obesity and Energy Drinks and Bars

Energy drinks and bars are loaded with sugar and calories. The rate of obesity in teens, meanwhile, has more than doubled over the past three decades. Using energy products is only going to contribute toward excess weight gain, and may also lead to tooth decay. Teenagers who are heavy into high-intensity sports such as weight training or football, on the other hand, do burn more calories. For these teens, the occasional energy drink or bar does no harm and may even supply the extra energy they need to perform.

Caffeine and Energy Drinks

Energy drinks aren’t just loaded with sugar. They’re also filled with caffeine. Drinking one may give teens the jitters, tummy aches, headaches, and insomnia. But drinking more than one can be deadly.

On April 26, 2017, David Allen Cripe, a 16-year-old boy, died after drinking three caffeine-laden drinks within the space of two hours. He drank a cafe latte at 12:30 PM, followed by a large Diet Mountain Dew and an energy drink. Cripe collapsed at school at 2:30 PM and by 3:40, was pronounced dead.

David Cripe didn’t have a heart problem. He hadn’t been drinking alcohol or using drugs. What happened is as simple as this: the amount of caffeine in those three drinks, drunk within a short time span, made his heart give out.

At a press conference following the teenager’s untimely death, South Carolina’s Richland County Coroner Gary Watts said, “Parents, please talk to your kids about the dangers of these energy drinks.”

The caffeine in energy drinks can cause the heart to beat irregularly or too fast. Caffeine can cause the blood pressure to spike, and in large amounts, may even cause hallucinations or seizures. That’s in perfectly healthy teens with no preexisting medical conditions.

Now let’s say a teen starts out drinking one energy drink a day. Then it seems not to have the same effect. So he drinks one before lunch and another before football practice after school. This suggests the teen has begun to develop a tolerance to the effects of caffeine. The teen may drink more energy drinks to get the same boost in energy, until the point where, like Cripe, he’s taking in much too much caffeine within too short a span of time—to the point where his energy drink habit becomes life-threatening.

Do speak to your teen about the danger of energy drinks. If your child used to drink one energy drink and now drinks two, it’s time for him to change his habit. One way to do that is to add water to dilute the energy drink, rather than drink a second one.

Energy Drinks Vs. Sports Drinks

Teens should also be taught that energy drinks are not the same thing as sports drinks. Sports drinks hydrate the body. Energy drinks do the opposite. The caffeine in energy drinks acts as a diuretic, pulling moisture from the body. Put simply: energy drinks dry you out. If it’s hydration he needs, your teen would do better drinking from the water fountain at school.

Other Dubious Ingredients

Caffeine and sugar may be the culprits most familiar to teens when they’re reading the labels of energy drinks and bars (if they read them at all). But there are other substances that are found in these products. Substances like guarana, taurine, yerba mate, and ginseng have been found in energy drinks and bars. Guarana and yerba mate contain caffeine, taurine is an amino acid that may increase the effects of caffeine, and ginseng isn’t regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (USFDA). Research into ginseng is not conclusive, as there are many types of ginseng, and studies aren’t always clear about the type of ginseng investigated.

Teens should be wary of the food products they purchase. If a product contains an ingredient they haven’t heard of, they shouldn’t buy the item without further research. This warning is doubly important for teens who have chronic health issues or who take regular medications that might interact with an ingredient in energy drinks or bars.

Proprietary Secrets? Nah.

Energy drinks and bars may claim to have all manner of special or secret ingredients. But there’s nothing all that secret or special about these ingredients. The mineral chromium, for instance, is found in some energy items. Chromium can help regulate blood sugar by increasing insulin sensitivity. When you control blood sugar, in theory, you may be regulating body energy. You don’t need to buy an energy drink, however, to get chromium. The mineral is found in beef, broccoli, and bananas.

One popular sports drink combines amino acids with a kind of lactic acid, which produces alpha L-polylactate, said to help athletes sustain energy and lessen fatigue during endurance training. The presence of alpha L-polylactate proves the point that this drink is meant for athletes rather than regular, ordinary teens. Some studies have shown that this compound can cause stomach problems.

Drinks like Red Bull and the like, often contain inositol and taurine. These ingredients aren’t specific to these drinks, nor do they have any special powers. Our bodies do a fine job of making both inositol and taurine from the food we eat. Inositol is found, for instance, in brown rice, corn, and beans. Taurine is found in meat, chicken, fish, and eggs.

Mixed Results

Some energy drinks are infused with rhodiola rosea, sometimes in combination with cordyceps mushroom. Rhodioloa rosea is an herb said to fight fatigue and improve mental and physical performance. But little is known about the herb and the results of studies are contradictory. The cordyceps mushroom has likewise not been well investigated by researchers. Some experts feel that cordyceps mushroom can provide an energy boost to young athletes.

Energy Treats Cost Big Time

It’s important to note that energy drinks and bars are more expensive than soft drinks or granola bars. The companies that manufacture energy drinks and bars figure they can charge more because their products supposedly have special ingredients with special effects. A teen may spend $3 on an energy bar, when he might have spent less money and received more nutrient value by buying and eating a whole grain bagel with cream cheese.

Meal Substitute?

Teens may grab energy bars because they think they have the same nutrition as breakfast or dinner. But while the bars may contain the same number of calories as breakfast or dinner, they don’t offer the same nutritional value or satisfy in the same way as a real meal. Illustrate this by asking your teen to think how he feels after a nice meal. Then ask him to pay attention to how he feels the next time he eats an energy bar. Teens should never opt to replace meals with energy bars if they can possibly help it.

It’s hard for teens to resist the marketing hype behind those energy drinks and bars. If a teen is feeling tired and hungry, a flashy package promising energy may seem like a good bet. That is why parents have to educate their teens about marketing and reading labels.

Teens must be taught that food products can’t make them better athletes or perform better in class. Doing well on the playing field or in the classroom depends on doing the work. Teens need exercise, sleep, study, and good nutritious food. There’s no such thing as a little something extra a teen can buy to perform better.

It’s pretty simple, actually. When teens and other people lead healthy lives, they feel good and have lots of energy. If they’re doing everything right and still don’t feel energetic, then it’s time to get a checkup. An energy product is never the right answer.

Devil’s Advocate

To play devil’s advocate, not all energy drinks are created equal. Some will keep teens going longer than others. Those based on sugar and caffeine may give teens a surge of energy. The rush from consuming sugar can last from 30 minutes to an hour, while the rush from caffeine can last up to around two hours. Then comes the crash and a serious loss of energy.

Energy bars containing complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, will help provide more of a lasting boost, which is useful for endurance sports. This is especially true if the source of carbohydrates is fiber rich, since fiber takes longer to digest.

Missing: Phytonutrients

Energy bars rich in protein can give an athlete greater stamina and strength. Protein builds the muscles and helps to regulate how energy is produced by the body. The problem is, while these manufactured treats may be fortified with vitamins and minerals, they’re still missing important phytonutrients, beneficial chemical compounds found only in plants.

Phytonutrients include carotenoids that give carrots their color, the isoflavones in soybeans, and polyphenols in tea, Phytochemicals do all sorts of wonderfully good things for our bodies. Some improve memory, while others are known to reduce cholesterol, or kill viruses.

Nutritionists suggest teens substitute a sandwich and a piece of fruit for that energy bar. These items can still be held in one hand, but are more nutritious than energy drinks and bars. Choose whole grain bread and you’re getting fiber, plus protein from the sandwich filling, and finally, phytonutrients from the fruit. Accompany the sandwich and fruit with a glass of milk and you’ve just added calcium and vitamin D.

Better Choices

When one is fatigued and hungry, it’s difficult to think what it is your body needs. That can make a teen grab for an energy drink or bar. But there are better choices. Next time your teen wants to grab something quick, choose one or several of the items listed here:

  • Yogurt
  • String cheese
  • Nuts
  • Dry whole grain cereal
  • A spoonful of peanut butter
  • Whole grain toast
  • A smoothie
  • Fruit, such as bananas, grapes, nectarines, or apples
  • Trail mix
  • Dried fruit
  • Chocolate bar

If faced with a choice between junk or fast food, an occasional energy drink or bar is probably the better choice. Teens in training for high activity sports may find that energy bars and gels serve as a useful addition to a healthy diet. But teens should never think that energy drinks and bars can replace a meal.

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