Viewpoint: Have We Become Too Obsessed with “Energy”?

We all want more energy yet display a profound misunderstanding of where it comes from

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This past year, we became aware of the dangers of energy drinks. Amid allegations linking these popular beverages to various illnesses and even death, the Food and Drug Administration has launched an investigation. However, the ongoing probe hasn’t seemed to have dampened enthusiasm for energy drinks. In fact, consumption is skyrocketing—sales topped $8 billion in 2012 in the U.S. alone, a nearly 15 % increase from a year ago. What’s more, the success of energy drinks has inspired the launch of “energy” versions of popular snacks like popcorn, potato chips, jelly beans, and even sunflower seeds.

We have become obsessed with the concept of “energy” and yet display a profound misunderstanding of what energy is. On a purely biological level, it’s molecules that help cells do the work they need to do—the carbohydrate, protein and fat we get from food that feeds our muscles and brain. By contrast, the active ingredient in “energy” drinks is not energy but a chemical stimulant: caffeine.

(MORE: Are Energy Drinks Fatally Caffeinated?)

Most energy drinks contain at least one and a half times the amount of caffeine in a single cup of coffee—and some contain more. Caffeine works by blocking adenosine, a molecule that helps us slow down. The end result is we produce more adrenaline, which speeds us up and enhances our performance—until we crash. Eventually, we develop a caffeine tolerance, so that consuming the same amount does nothing more than prevent withdrawal symptoms. Not surprisingly, manufacturers’ of energy drinks like to claim there is more to their bottles of oomph than just caffeine. But this really isn’t true.  With the exception of some weak evidence for guarana and glucose, there is no scientific proof to support claims that flashy ingredients—like taurine, ginseng, and various herbal extracts—enhance cognitive or physical performance. Only caffeine does.

Why do we turn to stimulants? Some of us consume caffeine because we have used it for years and can’t tolerate withdrawal. We may look for an additional boost when we’re stressed out or sleep-deprived. Many consumers know that what they’re really getting in energy drinks is caffeine, and yet they continue to rely on them. Our energy levels naturally vary throughout the day, but we rarely tune in to them by taking breaks or power naps. In addition from healthy eating, here’s what also really gives you energy: adequate sleep, exercise, play and stress management. Some new research even suggests that simply having an emotionally positive workday may be the greatest determinant of our energy level at the end of the day and in the evening.

(MORE: Does Listening To Music While Working Make You Less Productive?)

Our energy obsession isn’t all bad. On the surface, we are working harder, performing better and are more productive. But this makes us vulnerable to the belief that we just need more “energy” to be able to keep up. But until we reckon with our susceptibility to this sales pitch, and have a better understanding of what energy really is, we will simply be running on a treadmill with no end in sight.