Doctor warns of harmful health effects of energy drinks

Doctor Zac Turner warns that a popular drink can be just as harmful to a child’s body and brain as cigarettes and alcohol.

Welcome to Ask Doctor Zac, a weekly column from This week, Dr. Zac Turner talks about banning energy drinks for people under the age of 18.

ASK: Hi Dr Zac, My 17 year old son is an avid energy drink consumer – he drinks at least two a day on average, and sometimes he even drinks one with dinner! We’ve had countless discussions about how bad they are for you, but he always calls me a hypocrite for drinking coffee. I don’t believe coffee and energy drinks are the same, do you agree? Do you think energy drinks could be harmful to a teen’s developing body? Should he have them at all? Ruth 55 Victoria

ANSWERS: Hi Ruth, in the UK the Children’s Food Campaign (FCC) is campaigning to ban the sale of energy drinks to young people under the age of 18. I believe that a similar ban should be introduced in Australia. We tell our kids not to smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol because of the effects on their developing bodies and brains – energy drinks are in the same ballpark.

Before we get into the harmful effects of energy drinks on young people, and why they prompted our youth to have a raging sugar addiction, let’s answer your first question.

A cup of coffee is not at all the same as an energy drink. Energy drinks and coffee share the same stimulant, caffeine, which provides the energy boost we all love and crave. The difference, however, is in the sugar content.

The amount of caffeine in a can or bottle of energy drink can range from 80 mg to over 500 mg. In comparison, an average cup of coffee contains 100 mg of caffeine. The devil in this detail is the sugar content between these two. A can of energy drink can contain up to 27.5 grams of sugar – that’s two full tablespoons.

To put it in perspective for your son’s drinking habits, if he has three energy drinks, he’ll have six tablespoons of sugar. For reference, the recommended daily allowance for added sugar for men is 36 grams or nine teaspoons.

I’m assuming you’re drinking milk with your coffee – meaning you have no added sugars at all. Your coffee is not the same as his energy drink – so don’t let that little bit know, try to twist your judgment.

The harmful health effects

There is no safe limit for teen energy drinks. Your son will most likely feel energized after puffing one, due to the sugar and caffeine. Caffeine effects usually disappear after about an hour, and then the sugar loses its effect.

Your son would have an extreme sugar crash, which is why he would have another energy drink later in the day.

In addition to these energy-boosting effects, energy drinks have been found to increase the risk of irregular heart rhythms, disrupt sleep, cause weight gain, cause tooth decay, contribute to mental health problems, and increase the risk of diabetes — just to name a few.

In terms of studies that have focused on young people consuming energy drinks, they have found an increased risk of sleep problems, poor learning and poor performance. In some cases, they have been a factor that increases the risk of drug and alcohol use.

Your son would have trouble concentrating in class and would not perform at his best. He would also struggle to get a good night’s sleep, which would lead to increased stress and irritability.

I can safely assume that high sugar intake leads to a pretty serious addiction, and like any other addictive substance there are consequences. Sugar addiction can lead to diabetes, heart disease, obesity and other related health problems.

Ruth, sometimes we just can’t wait for our politicians to take action, so I suggest you do that and ban energy drinks in your household. Teach your son why they are bad for him and introduce him to cups of coffee when he turns eighteen.

Do you have a question:

Dr Zac Turner holds a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery from the University of Sydney. He is both a doctor and co-owner of telecare, Concierge doctors† He was also a registered nurse and is also a qualified and experienced biomedical scientist and a PhD candidate in biomedical engineering.

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