Minn. researchers say student athletes need better education on energy drinks

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ALEXANDRIA, Minn.—A pair of central Minnesota sports medicine researchers aren't afraid of controversy in tackling popular energy drinks.

They say their research shows college athletes who consume drinks such as Red Bull and Monster have lower grade-point averages and know less about nutrition than college athletes who don't use energy drinks.

"It's a little bit of a provocative message," said Jeff Brand, an orthopedic surgeon with Heartland Orthopedics, an affiliate of Douglas County Hospital in Alexandria.

The study began several years ago when Rich Hardy, a researcher for Heartland Orthopedics, noticed that several men's basketball players from the University of Minnesota-Morris were drinking energy drinks before every game.

"With the publicity that energy drinks were getting at the time, I was curious as to how many athletes actually consumed them and why," Hardy said. "Also as the human nutrition instructor here at UMM, I was curious how much they understood proper nutrition."

Brand and Hardy, along with two others, surveyed student athletes in five Division III schools in the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference. Since these schools don't offer athletic scholarships, their athletes tend to play for the love of the sport.

Only about 15 percent of those athletes reported using energy drinks. While other studies have found that some athletes believe energy drinks boost their athletic performance, that wasn't the case here, their study said. The students said they drank it because they enjoyed the taste or because they felt it helped them focus.

Of those who used energy drinks, 68 percent were male—which Hardy said makes sense, since energy drink companies target young men—and more energy drink users had GPAs that were 3.2 or less when compared to non-energy drink users.

Survey scores also indicated that energy drink users knew less about sources of food and nutrients as well as the connection between diet and disease. Student athletes consume diets often low in nutrients and fruits, vegetables and dairy products, their study says, citing other research.

One 8-ounce energy drink can contain up to 300 milligrams of caffeine, the study said. That's about triple the caffeine in a same-sized cup of coffee.

"It is becoming increasingly obvious that these drinks are unhealthy, therefore, the number of research studies regarding their health are on the rise," Hardy said.

Their research was published last fall in the peer-reviewed Journal of Nutrition and Educational Behavior. Since publication, the full text has been requested 537 times, Brand said, adding, "which is pretty incredible. I'm a little flummoxed by that, to be honest."

Brand said their study can help improve nutrition education. The researchers have broadened their look at college students in general, to determine whether student athletes are more or less likely to use energy drinks. A new study should be wrapped up this winter.

"If the rest of the student body really doesn't use energy drinks and it seems to be unique to student athletes, then you could target that," Brand said.

Energy drinks do pose health risks, Hardy said, including agitation, insomnia, and increases in blood pressure and heart rate.

"Trips to the emergency room continue to rise from people consuming too much of these drinks and people have actually died as a result," he said. "I tell my students to stay away from these drinks because the risks outweigh the benefits."