Energy drinks are instant and short-term stimulants but are highly unhealthy for anyone including children. Experts warn that regular and long-term consumption of the same can lead to dependency on a product. “Any child less than 18 years should not consume energy drinks. It is absolutely non-nutritive,” cautions Dr Supraja Chandrasekar, Senior Consultant Pediatrician and Pediatric Intensivist at DHEE super specialty Hospitals Bangalore.
Most common reasons for adolescents and children to like energy drinks include peer pressure, the need to belong, experimental curiosity, fear of missing out and also for stress-busting, opines Sumalatha Vasudeva, psychologist, BGS Gleneagles Global Hospitals, Bangalore.
Energy drinks are bad for kids
Energy drinks are non-nutritive stimulants loaded with caffeine, sugar and additives like guarana (natural sources of caffeine), taurine (a protein source) and L-carnitine (energy supplement), explains Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Dr Chandrasekar explains children’s heart and blood vessels are more sensitive to the effects of concentrated caffeine, hence advises against using energy drinks for kids which are currently being sold rampantly. Agreeing with her, Dr Meena Malkani, consultant, pediatric medicine at Jaslok Hospital in Mumbai adds that unfortunately, the over-the-counter sale of caffeinated drinks makes access easy for children and adolescents.
As reported by Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, US, the American Academy of Paediatrics recommends that adolescents do not consume energy drinks, yet between 30–50% reported consuming energy drinks.
Why are energy drinks not recommended for kids?
Energy drinks are not recommended for adolescents and teenagers too.
One can of energy drink contains up to 400 mg of caffeine per serving (that’s equivalent to 11 sodas or 4 coffees), explains a study by the Children’s Hospital Colorado. “Each can contain 25-60 grams of sugar which surpasses the recommended daily sugar intake,” explains Dr Shruthi Badrinath, Consultant pediatrics and pediatric gastroenterologist at SPARSH Hospital, Bangalore. “Furthermore, carbon dioxide and high levels of sodium are also unhealthy,” explains Varsha Abhishek, clinical dietician and nutritionist in Bangalore.
One of the cases that Happiest Health learned about was a 17-year-old boy from Bangalore who developed a dependency on energy drinks for the last 18 months. The boy living with his grandparents after parental separation started using caffeinated drinks every day due to peer pressure and easy availability. As an 18-year-old, now, he has developed a dependence on energy drinks which affected his studies too. “The family took him for counseling when the boy developed behavioral issues. The psychologists learned that the boy had convinced his grandparents that the caffeinated drinks would help him stay awake for longer hours to study in the night and focus better on his studies,” the boy’s relative said. The boy is undergoing therapy and the clinical investigations indicated that energy drinks were the root cause.
Shalini Aiyappa, child and adolescent psychologist from Mangalore says that many parents are unaware of the health hazards of energy drinks for children, while some know the facts. “They do not have the heart to say ‘no’ to their child’s demands,” Aiyappa adds.
Health risks of energy drinks
Excess and regular consumption of caffeinated drinks can damage respiratory, kidney and cardiac functions. They also induce psychotic episodes such as irritability and depression among others, cautions Dr Malkani. The nutritive value of energy drinks for kids is almost zero.
- Caffeine is not a nutritive requirement
“Caffeine with no nutritive component does more harm than good when consumed regularly,” explains Dr Malkani, adding that caffeine increases urination frequency, sleep issues and causes dehydration too. Dr Chandrasekar adds that caffeine is a sympathomimetic (a stimulant that gives adrenaline rush) that constricts the blood vessels leading to a sudden spike in the blood pressure. She adds, “In rare cases, it affects the heart rhythm. In those who already have an adrenalin rush due to medications or illness, consumption of energy drinks can make it worse, warns Dr Chandrasekar.
- The sugary affair has no benefits
“Excess sugar gets stored as fat in the body, increasing the risk of dyslipidemia (high cholesterol),” warns Dr Badrinath. Furthermore, this increases the risk of heart attacks and type-2 diabetes, she adds.
The sudden spike of energy and sudden crash increases the risk of dependence as the child repeats the consumption cycle, say experts. Also, “The sugar also damages the tooth enamel,” adds Dr Malkani.
- The fizz and the salt
“High amounts of sodium increase the risk of hypertension and carbon dioxide (CO2) reduces appetite which causes bloating and acidity,” says Varsha Abhishek, clinical nutritionist and dietician. Hence, it is not recommended for children and adults alike, she advises.
Energy drinks affect the psyche
Vasudeva explains that energy drinks when regularly consumed by children, can have significant psychological issues including:
- Irritability and mood swings
- Stress, anxiety and restlessness
- Dependence and depression in cases of abuse
In extreme cases, it could also lead to behavioral changes such as tremors, agitation and psychotic episodes, adds Dr Malkani.
Dr Chandrasekar emphasizes that energy drinks are as bad and addictive as tobacco. “Hence, discourage the child from having it,” she adds.
Don’t let energy drinks become a habit
Vasudeva confirms that any activity repeated for 21 days becomes a habit. Long-term use of energy drinks can cause dependence, warn experts. Likewise, Arya who had developed a strong dependence on energy drinks underwent rehabilitation through medications, counseling and behavior therapy that helped him control his thoughts, actions and behavior.
- Energy drinks are zero-nutritive stimulants that offer instant energy and alertness.
- Excessively high amounts of caffeine, sugar and other additives make them hazardous.
- Health risks of energy drinks for children include early onset of type 2 diabetes, hypertension and psychological issues including depression and dependence.
- Parents must look out for their child’s problematic behavior especially unreasonable fatigue, mood swings, irritability, anger, insomnia or disturbed sleep and unhealthy eating habits.
- Seek medical help if the child has developed dependence.