Kelly Pritchett, PhD is a registered dietician and a board-certified specialist in sports dietetics. She teaches Sports Nutrition at Central Washington University and is an authority in her field, having lent her expert opinions to such widely read publications as U.S. News & World Report, Women’s Health, and Teen Vogue, among others. Dr. Pritchett is a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Eat Right Pro website and an active member of the American College of Sports Medicine. She consults with collegiate and high school athletes, focusing on sports nutrition and fitness, and warning them about the dangers of consuming energy drinks before, during, or after exercise.
When did you first become aware of the growing energy drink crisis?
Starting about five years ago, I saw an increasing number of athletes using energy drinks; that’s when it became a concern. I also teach at the college level, and seeing my students bring these energy drinks into the classroom, I became even more worried. I give some presentations and things to college students and high schoolers, and this is always one of the topics I address.
Why are energy drinks so much more dangerous for young people than for adults?
There are a lot of reasons. One is that we really don’t know a lot about the side effects or health outcomes for the younger group because there’s no research done on subjects under age 18. Some of the ingredients that are in these products—some of which are not listed, which is another topic—how that affects a 14-year-old compared to a 25-year-old, for example, we really don’t know. The combination of these ingredients is also of concern. For example, the effect that taurine and caffeine have together on a teenager, we really don’t know.
Number two, adolescents replace other important nutrients in their diet with energy drinks, which is problematic. And if they have an underlying heart issue that they haven’t been diagnosed with, that plus energy drinks can be a lethal combination.
How much research has been done on these drinks and their ingredients?
The research is really limited. From an athletic performance standpoint, I can only think of a handful of studies that have actually looked at these ingredients in a combined form with caffeine and how that may affect performance. And again, going back to the age limit, we don’t know if the response is different in children.
Plus, most studies only look at one can of an energy drink and examine its impact on sports performance. They’re not testing what happens after three or four of these things.
In your experience, what is the most effective way to keep young people from consuming energy drinks?
It really depends on the individual and what they’re most receptive to. One of the best strategies with the athletes is talking to the coaches and athletic trainers, as well as the parents. The talks that I give, typically the parents are there along with the coaches. So, educating as many people as possible.
I wouldn’t say that I use a scare tactic, but I do say that energy drinks are really unpredictable. You might feel really good, but then you’re gonna have a crash. So it’s not good to become reliant on them to get you through your workout.
I also offer some alternatives: healthy snacks and chocolate milk and things like that, which are attractive to them. Coffee if they’re going to drink caffeine.
What is the most striking or surprising thing about energy drinks that you have learned?
Probably the most shocking thing is when people say that they have multiple energy drinks throughout the day. Just the sheer number of these things that people drink.
When I ask a group of high schoolers what’s in these drinks, or how much caffeine is in them, they have no idea. The same with some in the college age group too, if I ask them how much caffeine is considered okay, no one knows. From a performance standpoint, too, how much caffeine is needed to have an ergogenic or performance-enhancing effect, no one knows. So, the lack of education is kind of scary.
You said earlier that you think education is key. Do you believe in federal regulation as well?
Yeah, I think as much regulation as possible would be nice. It’s kind of like alcohol, I suppose: teens are going to figure out a way to get them if they want them. But I think the more we can do to regulate selling them to minors, the better. Especially with these deaths that have taken place, something needs to be done.
I can think of lots of different things that might need to go on a warning label, but a disclaimer is not a bad idea. We could list all the risks and side effects, the way they do with Olestra, for example. We mentioned it before: many of these adverse events are taking place in people who didn’t realize they had an underlying condition.
It’d be nice if energy drinks went away altogether. Unfortunately, that’s not gonna happen.