Health Risks Tied to Energy, Sports Drinks

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VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- During the past 50 years Americans have developed a drinking problem with convenience. We buy our drinks already-made, everything from water to coffee.

But it's the ingredients found in of some of those beverages that have some physicians sounding a warning.

Take for instance energy drinks. With names like Rock Star, Monster, and Full Throttle, energy drinks pack a punch that young people can't get enough of. In fact, one in three teenagers regularly drinks them.

"My favorite one is Red Bull but the one that gives you the most energy is Jolt or Spike," one teenage boy told CBN News as he downed the drink after school.

"Some taste better than others. Overall, I think I like them a lot, actually," another teen said.

Energy drinks burst on the scene 20 years ago. They are now so popular, Americans are expected to spend $9 billion on them this year, making them the fastest-growing beverage market.

Potential Health Risks

What's in these energy drinks that has them flying off the shelves? Mainly caffeine, at least the amount found in a strong cup of coffee, sometimes much more. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration only requires that manufacturers list the presence of caffeine in a product, not how much.

Energy drinks can also be loaded with sugar -- a quarter-cup on average. Also, since they're marketed as dietary supplements, they often contain unregulated herbal stimulants like Taurine, Guarana, Creatine and B vitamins.

Doctors say this can be a dangerous mix. In fact, the medical journal Pediatrics warns energy drinks can cause kids to suffer heart palpitations, seizures, strokes, and even sudden death.

"I think it's really important for parents to know what their kids drink," Dr. Peter Restaino, M.D., said.

Dr. Restaino said energy drinks are especially dangerous for kids with heart or psychiatric problems. Energy drinks should not be combined with alcohol or any other drugs, including caffeine from other sources like soda.

The pediatrician also tells his patients not to even drink one because they can be highly addictive.

"They don't feel good when they come down, and so 'I need to do another one,' he said of the effect they have on the body. "And so you're buying three and four and five a day, which are relatively expensive."

"And you're doing them on a pretty regular basis because you don't want that high to disappear because the side effects of coming down are the headaches, nausea, the fatigue," he said.

Sports Drinks Explained

Energy drinks are often marketed to athletes for that extra boost. But they can pose even more problems for athletes than non-athletes, including increased blood pressure and serious dehydration.

Because of that risk, many athletes who shy away from the energy drinks choose the sports drinks instead. But doctors warn that while sports drinks don't have the caffeine that energy drinks contain, they do have their own set of problems.

For instance, sports drinks can corrode teeth even more than soda. Candace Hawkins learned that fact the hard way. After enjoying a lifetime of perfect checkups, when she made her high school swim team, she started drinking sports drinks. As a result, she developed eight cavities.

"I couldn't really believe it," she lamented.

The acid in sports drinks erodes the teeth from the first sip until 45 minutes after the last sip, when the saliva returns the mouth to its normal ph balance.

"It's better for your teeth just to chug it all at one time and then rinse your teeth off. But if you have it for a protracted period of time, you are going to have this acid attack on the teeth," pediatric dentist Dr. Christopher Hamlin advised.

Got Milk?

But are sports drinks even necessary? Dr. R. Brick Campbell is an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in sports medicine.

"Just water is probably all you really need," he said, explaining that a sports drink is beneficial for people who exercise at an intense level for at least an hour.

He added that sports drinks are also crowding out the one drink that's missing from the diets of athletes and non-athletes alike -- good old-fashioned milk needed to prevent broken bones in the future.

"We know that the time for storage of calcium is in your teens," he said. "And most women, and even guys, aren't drinking nearly enough milk. And that's partly because of the sodas, sports drinks, and now energy drinks."

"But milk is extremely important for stocking that calcium away for later in life," he said. "And most people aren't getting that, and that's a real problem."

Those Pesky Calories

Another drawback to many sports drinks is the calorie content. Weight-loss specialist Dr. Richard Hoffman said sports drinks and energy drinks are often so high in sugars that people sometimes drink more calories than they burn off during exercise.

He cautions his patients not to be fooled by drinks that put healthy words on the label, like "fruit," "water," and "green tea."

"Another thing many of them have on it is 'vitamin' or 'antioxidant'," he said. "And all those things are good. But when you add 50 grams of carbohydrate in the form of sugar, or more than that, then the extra sugar cancels out any potential benefit."

Drink More Water

So how many carbohydrates are in what you're drinking? It's on the bottle.

But watch out -- that number is carbohydrates per serving. Many bottles contain two or more servings. So if you drink the whole bottle, you're consuming at least twice the number of carbohydrates on the label.

"Beverages should probably not have any carbohydrates in them if you're going to be drinking them frequently," Dr. Hoffman said.

Instead, he tells his patients to drink at least 64 ounces of plain water each day, so they'll feel full, eat less, and get rid of excess salt.

Read the Labels

Matt Goulding is the nutrition editor for Mens' Health magazine and the co-author of "Drink This, Not That." The book exposes unhealthy beverages, like one children's drink that, while containing 10 percent juice, also contains as much sugar as two canisters of whipped cream.

Coffee drinkers need to be savvy, too. Goulding identified one bottled version that contained the sugar equivalent of 32 Nilla wafers -- a far cry from just a regular cup of joe, which has zero fat and no calories.

So while Americans have more beverage choices than ever, doctors say don't be fooled.

Just because a drink has a healthy image, that doesn't mean it's good for you.

--Originally aired March 21, 2011. 

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Lorie  Johnson

Lorie Johnson

CBN News Medical Reporter

Lorie Johnson reports on the latest information about health and wellness. Since medicine is constantly changing, she makes sure CBN News viewers are up-to-date on what they need to know in order to live a healthy life.  Follow Lorie on Twitter @LorieCBN and "like" her at Facebook.com/LorieJohnsonCBN.