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Energy drinks and sport drinks: Know the difference

​​​​​Your to-do list is long. You want to get everything done and perform at your best. 

Will a sports drink or energy drink make a difference in what you can accomplish? Your choice may seem to help, but it may not be healthful.

"Energy drinks contain caffeine and sports drinks usually contain glucose, a form of sugar, and electrolytes," said Family Medicine Physician Meghan Pesko, M.D., Marshfield Clinic Rice Lake Center. "I recommend considering the nutritional value of both before choosing either."

Energy drinks are popular, especially with teens and young adults, because they promise increased performance. Caffeine is a main ingredient with a combination of herbal supplements and sugar. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn't require the amount of caffeine in these beverages be on the drink label.

For comparison, consider the amount of caffeine contained in these common beverages:

  • Energy drinks             up to 286 mg/16 oz
  • Caffeinated sodas       up to 118 mg/20 oz
  • Brewed coffee            170 mg/16 oz
  • Brewed black tea        55 mg/8 oz

"Because some of the herb ingredients also contain caffeine or can combine with caffeine, the stimulant properties may be enhanced," Dr. Pesko said. "The physical affects can result in increased heart rate, blood pressure and heart palpitations, or seizures."

Adolescents shouldn't consume more than 100 milligrams (mg) of caffeine each day and adults should limit their caffeine intake to no more than 500 mg per day.

"The maximum dose of caffeine that may be dangerous isn't known," Dr. Pesko said. "Energy drinks are relatively new on the market, so adequate research isn't yet available. What we know is that children have a much lower threshold for caffeine tolerance than adults do. For that reason, it's recommended that children shouldn't be given energy drinks."

The long-term health effects of consuming these products are a concern. "Some of the supplements could interfere with medications you may be taking to manage chronic conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or with anti-coagulation medication such as Coumadin, which is used to prevent blood clots that can lead to a stroke," she said

Sports drinks provide carbohydrates and electrolytes (mainly potassium and sodium). These beverages are recommended if you engage in a physical activity for more than one hour. Many sports drinks today have been manufactured with an optimal amount of carbohydrates and electrolytes geared for fast absorption and liquid fueling.

"Sports drinks are fine to help with rehydration after a longer workout or competition," Dr. Pesko said. "If you exercise less than 30 minutes a day, water is sufficient."

To attain optimal performance when you are balancing the to-do list of work, school and family, no magic bullet can keep you awake and attentive. "For optimal performance, go back to the basics of taking care of you, getting enough sleep and regular exercise, and eating a balanced diet," she said. "For good long-term health, doing those things is still the best advice."