Tempted to recharge by downing an energy drink? Look elsewhere for your “wings,” according to experts who’ve studied the effects of these beverages. There’s little evidence that energy drinks have unique performance-enhancing powers — beyond making you high on potentially harmful amounts of caffeine.
Energy drinks like Monster Energy, 5-Hour Energy, and Red Bull are already under scrutiny by the F.D.A. for their possible involvement in a slew of reported deaths and injuries. Whatever that inquiry turns up, it’s clear that the caffeine levels in these potables are dicey. “They’re unregulated, so there can be any amount of caffeine, and that varies tremendously from one brand to the next,” says Laura Juliano, PhD, an associate psychology professor at American University who studies caffeine addiction. One serving can contain as little as 50 mg of caffeine or as much as 500 mg or more, she says. But you’d have no way of knowing, since energy elixirs, unlike soda, aren’t required to list caffeine levels on their labels or to put a cap on total caffeine content. And if you don’t know how much of the drug you’re consuming, you’re at risk of misattributing its side effects – like sleeplessness, jitteriness, and anxiety – to other sources. “Too much caffeine in general can lead to a host of different types of problems,” says Juliano.
Meanwhile, several experts have spoken out about the other, more exotic components of energy drinks, citing a disconcerting lack of evidence that they have any effect on energy at all.
In a recent meta-analysis published in the journal Nutrition Reviews, researchers evaluated 32 different studies of the ingredients commonly found in energy drinks, including taurine – the much-touted chemical that supposedly gives Red Bull its turbo charge. They reported an overwhelming lack of proof that any of these additives – apart from caffeine – have an impact on physical or mental performance. Basically, caffeine seems to be the sole engine behind these drinks. “Any drink that has the equivalent caffeine will have a small boosting effect at a much lesser price,” says Robert Pettitt, PhD, an associate professor at Minnesota State University in Mankato who has studied the effects of Red Bull. More research is needed, but it appears that energy drinks may just be vehicles for high amounts of America’s Favorite Stimulant.
But don’t despair – there are still plenty of ways to beat an energy dive, says Elizabeth Somer, R.D., author of Eat Your Way to Sexy. And you don’t have to rely on a snake oil elixir to do it.
Put down the can and pick up one of these all-natural energy boosters instead.
A power breakfast
Invest early in a solid breakfast, says Somer, and the returns in mental and physical acuity will be great. “There’s nothing you can do later in the day that will give you the energy you would have had if you’d stopped and eaten breakfast,” she says. And the payoffs are manifold: “We know that people who eat a decent breakfast have more energy, think more clearly, are less prone to food cravings, and sleep better.” Just make sure your kickoff meal has three key ingredients: a whole-grain carb, a protein, and a colorful fruit or veggie. Somer recommends downing a fruit or veggie smoothie with non-fat milk or soy milk (for protein) and some wheat germ sprinkled in (for that high-quality carb). A bowl of oatmeal with non-fat milk and blueberries also does the trick.
It’s time to get on the boat (the banana boat, obviously) where this fruit is concerned. Advantages: it’s highly portable (pack one in your purse or gym bag), you don’t have to wash it, and you can eat it in the middle of a workout. A time-honored fuel source for athletes, the banana contains antioxidants, carbs, and fiber that keeps you full on very few calories. It also contains potassium, a key ingredient for sustained energy. “Low potassium will cause fatigue,” says Somer. In fact, a recent study conducted at Appalachian State University showed that chowing down on bananas was just as effective as sipping a sports drink during a workout. Somer recommends the following power pairing: bananas and almonds. “You want some protein to keep your blood sugar levels balanced out,” she says, and almonds (or any nut) will do the job.
You’ve heard its praises sung before, on points as various as preventing dementia down the road to making your hair shiny. As it turns out, preliminary research suggests that consuming this particular fish can reel you back from the edge of an energy dip. “The omega-3’s might aid in energy,” says Somer. She recommends ingesting at least 220 mg of DHA — a type of omega-3 fatty acid — per day. To get your dose, try eating smoked salmon on a bagel. For vegetarians, DHA-enriched foods like soy milk will get the job done.
It’s America’s green veggie du jour, and for good reason. In addition to being loaded with antioxidants and vitamins, kale packs a mineral wallop. “Kale is a great source of iron,” says Somer. And low iron levels can be a common cause of fatigue, particularly for women. “It’s really common for women to be low on iron,” she says, in part because the coffee and tea we drink can block iron absorption from meals. To make sure the iron from the kale gets fully absorbed by your body, chase it with a booster food. “Because the iron isn’t very well absorbed, you need to pair it with a vitamin C-rich food, like a glass of OJ,” she says. Or you can opt for a lean meat instead: “Have a little bit of meat in your spaghetti sauce, along with your sauteed kale on the side.”
It’s not the sexiest of stimulants, but staying fully hydrated can keep you functioning at optimal levels throughout the day. “Most people are walking around mildly dehydrated,” says Somer. If you’re drowsy, you may just be thirsty, since fatigue is a symptom of dehydration. Sip slowly instead of chugging down two or three glasses at once: the fluid is more likely to absorb fully when you space out your intake. And don’t obsess about the 8-glasses-a-day rule, says Somer. The amount you need varies from person to person. “Drink enough water that your urine is pale yellow,” she says. A bright yellow hue means you should up your dosage.
Pop of handful of your favorite type of nut to keep from feeling knackered. Somer swears there’s not much of a difference in what kind you choose — almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, and peanuts will all do the trick. They’re all high in healthy fat, protein, and fiber that will help regulate blood sugar levels, so you don’t crash. Just be careful about serving size: 1 oz. of nuts is plenty, since nuts are high in calories.
When you’re feeling sluggish, spring for a fruit salad that contains watermelon. It’s like pressing the restart button on your day. This magic fruit contains sugar, Potassium, Vitamin C, and Beta Carotene to inject some instant pep in your step. Plus, it’s a sneaky way to stay hydrated. “A slice of watermelon has the same amount of fluid as a glass of water,” says Somer. It also happens to be delicious.
Clearly, hitting the java works. But you should know that limiting your intake is key to reaping coffee’s invigorating benefits. “If you’re drinking caffeinated stuff all day long, you’re actually fueling your fatigue,” says Somer. That’s because you’re likely to experience a slump every time the effects of the drug wear off. “What’s been found in studies is that when people who have been relying on numerous cups of coffee all day long, cut back to three cups, they actually have more sustained energy throughout the day,” she says. Somer recommends sticking to just 1 or 2 8-oz. cups of coffee per day, ideally in the morning. “Coffee can linger in the system for up to 10-12 hours,” she says. That means that if you drink it too late, it may be messing with your sleep cycle. And you don’t want to skimp on the most important energy ingredient of all: shuteye.
As if you needed another excuse to indulge, chew on this: a dose of the dark stuff can perk you up. Chocolate contains natural caffeine, so nibbling a few pieces will keep you zipping along splendidly. Just make sure the chocolate is at least 70% dark cocoa (for the antioxidants) and avoid Dutch-processed varieties, which also lack those nourishing compounds. Because chocolate is also high in sugar, take steps to avoid a subsequent energy crash. “Have a small amount at the end of a meal rather than all by itself,” says Somer. “You’re less likely to get that blood sugar spike, and you’re less likely to overeat.” You don’t have to tell us twice.
More from WH:
Boost Your Energy
Natural Fixes for Low Energy
Energized in 60 Seconds or Less
Send your Metabolism Sky-High and Drop 15 Pounds in Six Weeks!
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