Harmless habit or actual health danger? Here's what you need to know.

By Colleen Travers

You know they aren't great for you, but between work deadlines, social obligations, and the day-to-day rat race, you gulp down a few energy drinks from time to time. So, should you be freaking out?

Relax. As long as it's an occasional indulgence and done in moderation, you don't need to totally kick your energy drink habit, says Marci Clow, R.D., director of research at Rainbow Light Nutritional Systems. "An occasional energy drink now and again is okay, but I wouldn't recommend making them a regular habit for a wide variety of reasons," she says. The two big ones: the caffeine content and the sugar and/or artificial sweeteners. Some energy drinks have almost 10 teaspoons of sugar (that's the same amount that's in a can of soda), Clow says. Pair that with the fact that 1 in 10 people get a quarter or more of their calories from added sugar such as the ones found in energy drinks. Cracking open a can or two a week can start to quickly contribute to weight gain.

On top of the extra calories, Clow says that the artificial sweeteners found in energy drinks are associated with their own host of health problems. In fact, several studies have found that over time, regular consumption of artificial sweeteners actually trains your brain to crave sweets more often, making it harder to resist things like energy drinks and soda. As for the caffeine in energy drinks, Clow says it tends to affect everyone differently. "Some people get the jitters more easily and others can have caffeine all day long and not feel it," she says. But research has suggested that over 400mg of caffeine per day can interfere with sleep and create feelings of unease, Clow adds. Energy drinks vary widely in caffeine content but can range from 50 to 250mg per serving. (To put that in perspective, an 8-ounce cup of brewed coffee has about 80mg of caffeine.) This sugar-and-caffeine combo found in energy drinks may give you a temporary boost, but when it wears off you'll feel more worn out than ever, says Clow. (And if you're "caffeine naive," energy drinks may be even more dangerous.)

As for those Red Bull vodkas? Bad news: Drinkers should be extra wary here. The caffeine rush caused by energy drinks can make you feel more sober than you really are, which can cause you to drink more than you normally would, according to a study published in the journal Advances in Nutrition. The researchers also cited other health issues such as adolescent brain damage and increased hospitalizations and visits to the ER. Another study published in Addictive Behaviors supported this, stating that drinkers who consumed alcohol mixed with energy drinks and caffeine are three times more likely to binge drink than drinkers not mixing alcohol with caffeine.

If you absolutely need a boost (sans vodka), Clow says the most important thing to be mindful of is the serving size. "The can might display the caffeine content or milligrams of added sugar without making it obvious that one serving is only half of a can," she warns. Overall, though, it seems like the cons outweigh the pros as the caffeine and sugar in energy drinks often lead to dehydration, anxiety, insomnia, and overall irritability, says Clow. (Which is pretty much the opposite of what you're looking for in something you consume for "energy.") Long-term use of energy drinks may lead to weight gain and potential cardiovascular issues, she adds. (More on the heart risks here.) So the next time you're tired and itching for a quick fix, opt for a small black coffee. Or even better, take a 10-minute walk outside to perk up without the caffeine.

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