BEIRUT: Nearly two thirds of Lebanese school and college students consume energy drinks, new research has found, exposing them to potential health risks ranging from heart illnesses to obesity.
Many students also consume alcoholic energy drinks that can have even worse health effects, and large numbers are unaware of the potential harm, experts said.
“I wasn’t expecting such a high prevalence,” said Pascale Salameh, the head of the Faculty of Pharmacy at Lebanese University and one of the authors of the study, which will appear in the September issue of the International Journal of High Risk Behaviors and Addiction. “We’re pretty sure they don’t know what they’re drinking.”
The study looked at 1,500 men and women between 13 and 30 years of age in private and public schools and universities in Lebanon.
Nearly two-thirds of the participants consumed energy drinks, and half of those combined the energy drinks with alcohol, particularly vodka. Males consumed three times more energy drinks than females.
Nicole Maftoum, a clinical dietician who also runs the Eat Like Nicole website, said the mix of alcohol, a depressant, and caffeine, a stimulant, can cause drinkers to be unaware of how much alcohol they’ve consumed, encouraging them to drink more.
More worryingly, the scientists said the students who did consume such drinks believed they had health benefits, such as energizing the body and stimulating their minds.
“A good percentage of the Lebanese population relies on these drinks in search of an aroused state of mind, a cooler personality or perhaps more self-confidence,” Maftoum said. “Among the patients I see, many have adopted the habit of drinking those energy drinks on a daily basis while ignoring their detrimental effect on their health.”
Nearly a third of the students suffered from adverse health effects that could be linked to the energy drinks, including tachycardia, a condition where a person’s heart beats faster than normal. Others reported symptoms like insomnia, headaches and nausea after consuming energy drinks, and 11 percent said they felt dependent on them.
“The current results highlight the importance of education to prevent the consumption of energy drinks in excessive quantities and modifying some wrong perceptions regarding the benefits of energy drinks in youth,” the researchers said.
Scientists say that youth are more susceptible to consuming energy drinks because marketing campaigns often target them specifically, due to peer pressure and a lack of knowledge of their harmful effects.
Research suggests that excessive use of energy drinks may lead to cardiovascular conditions like heart palpitations, as well as hypertension. The mix of substances in the drinks could also be harmful to the stomach, cause insomnia or dehydration.
But the scientists also said students in Lebanon use the energy drinks to fight off sleep deprivation while studying to partying.
The researchers also complained that energy drinks sales in Lebanon are unregulated and cans are inadequately labeled despite being marketed to youth.
Salameh attributed the high consumption of energy drinks to successful marketing and to a lack of knowledge of the harmful side effects.
“They don’t really read the labels of the cans so they don’t know what they’re consuming and in what quantities,” she said, adding that poor labeling obscured issues like high caffeine content in the beverages.
Salameh said that public awareness campaigns to highlight the negative effects of energy drinks ought to be conducted, as well as stricter control over who can buy alcoholic energy drinks.
Nour Stephan, a clinical dietician at Dbayeh Medical Clinic, said overconsumption of energy drinks is a common phenomenon. Lack of awareness of the harmful impact of combining alcohol with energy drinks is particularly problematic.
Stephan said that the availability of cheap, alcoholic energy drinks in 24-hour convenience stores makes them easily accessible to the younger consumers.
The alcohol and sugars in the drinks can contribute to obesity as well as liver problems, she added.
Stephan said that most of those who consume high levels of energy drinks tend to have busy lives with tight schedules and little sleep, which means they use them to stay awake.
To wean them off of energy drinks, they need broader changes in their lives.
“You help them change their lifestyle,” she said, adding that it automatically helps them rely less on such drinks.
In addition, individuals could start consuming drinks with lower caffeine levels, like tea, which will help stimulate them without a caffeine overdose.