- Healthy energy drinks include vitamins and minerals, natural forms of caffeine, and less sugar than typical energy drinks.
- While sugar-free and low-sugar energy drinks are healthier than most, coffee and caffeinated tea are still recommended over them to boost energy levels.
- If your energy levels are consistently low, talk to your doctor about underlying issues that may be a contributing factor.
A can of Red Bull or Monster can give you a boost when your ass is dragging at 3 p.m. on a Monday. But that vice may come with downsides: caffeine jitters and an eventual sugar crash. Fortunately, it’s 2022, and there are plenty of healthy-ish alternatives to the sugar bombs of youth.
Does that mean we can consider these new-wave energy drinks to be “healthy”? Not quite. Though some caffeine is perfectly healthy—it gives you energy and improves your ability to focus and concentrate—“some energy drinks contain high levels of caffeine that can be dangerous and negatively impact your heart, not to mention your anxiety and ability to sleep,” says registered dietitian Valerie Gately, MS, RDN, LD.
“When you consume caffeine, it stimulates your nervous system causing your heart rate to increase, which pushes blood to your muscles and signals your liver to release glucose, providing you with energy,” adds Gately. So it’s not about avoiding caffeine altogether, but rather about limiting your intake.
The average person can safely consume around 400 mg (or less) of caffeine per day, or about four small cups of coffee. If you’re starting your day with a quad-shot latte, reaching for an afternoon Americano, and taking down a Celsius before your men’s league basketball game, that’s overdoing it.
Energy Drink Ingredients to Avoid
Beyond excess caffeine and sugar, some popular “healthy” energy drinks, such as Celsius, also include guarana, whose seeds contain about four times more caffeine than coffee beans (1). The seed itself isn’t unhealthy, but it’s an NCAA-banned stimulant—it can show up in a urine test and shouldn’t be consumed by competitive college athletes, says Gately.
Then there are the sugar alternatives found in many energy drinks. Faux sugars like stevia and sucralose (known as Splenda) have zero nutritional value and can cause digestive issues. “Some people may experience GI distress, like diarrhea, after consumption,” explains Gately.
If artificial sweeteners don’t cause you GI distress and you don’t have a medical condition like diabetes or high blood pressure to consider, Gately says they are safe for most people to consume in moderation. “Though stevia has been generally recognized as safe, there are concerns over its impact on our overall health. Monk fruit is lower in calories and may contain antioxidants so it can be a good alternative to sugar,” she explains.
“As always, it is important to read the ingredient label, as sometimes stevia and monk fruit are combined with other unhealthy artificial sweeteners.”
In short, avoid artificial sweeteners like aspartame for their potential to be digestive-upsetting; look for monk fruit, agave, and honey, which are all generally considered safe.
The Healthiest Energy Drinks on the Market
Why Your Energy Levels Might Be Low
Energy drinks—even healthier ones—are a quick fix. If you feel yourself constantly in desperate need of a nap or a Venti cold brew, there might be an underlying issue. “If you find yourself reaching for large amounts of caffeine, step back and evaluate why you are feeling fatigued,” says Gately. Ask yourself:
- Are you hydrating properly throughout the day?
- Are you fueling adequately and eating breakfast daily?
- Are you consuming carbohydrates before, during, and after workouts?
- Are you recovering properly?
- Are you getting enough sleep?
- Are you taking time to manage your stress?
The answers to all of these questions may tell you what’s contributing to consistent zombie-like feelings and may mean it’s time to look at the root cause. “Sometimes you find yourself in a pinch and need a boost,” says Gately.
But there could also be larger problems at hand, such as a hormonal imbalance or vitamin deficiency. If you answer yes to most of the above questions and still feel fatigued, it’s wise to get your blood checked by a doctor to discuss treatment options.
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How to Increase Energy Levels Naturally
There are healthier and safer options to stoke your energy levels if you’re in a slump. The top two being caffeinated coffee and tea. Gately also recommends eating simple carbs, like fruit or crackers, for energy. Some of her other tips include:
- Eat every three to four hours during the day
- Make sure to get all three macros daily (protein, carbs, and fat)
- Eat a solid meal a few hours before a workout and a small serving of carbs close to the workout (about an hour before you exercise)
- Hydrate and keep an eye on your urine color (bright yellow = dehydrated; clear = hydrated)
- Eat a combo of carbs and protein after a workout
- Adopt a stress-busting bedtime routine
The Bottom Line
Caffeine, in moderation, is a perfectly safe way to boost energy levels. But dietitians recommend getting it via coffee and tea rather than energy drinks—even so-called “healthy” options. If you must have an energy drink, go for one of the options on this list, which are all sugar-free or low-sugar, and many include extra vitamins and minerals for additional health benefits, such as focus and recovery. However, if you can’t function without energy support daily, it might be time to talk to your doctor about underlying conditions.
Moustakas, Dimitrios et al. (2015). Guarana provides additional stimulation over caffeine alone in the planarian model.