Preliminary data to be presented at the country’s first energy drink conference suggests some women are using the drinks to replace meals.
The two-day conference, which begins at Deakin University on Thursday, has been created as an independent forum for research in the emerging field.
In addition to high levels of caffeine and sugar, many energy drinks also contain additives such as guarana and taurine.
Scientists say these ingredients have not been studied properly.
It is thought some young women are turning to energy drinks, particularly sugar-free varieties, because the caffeine content suppresses appetite.
There is concern the high levels of caffeine in drinks can lead to conditions like anxiety and heart problems.
Sugar-free drinks used as appetite suppressant
Associate Professor Ross King from Deakin University said he was prompted to look at energy drinks and eating disorders through his work as a psychologist.
During his clinical work with eating disorder patients, he noticed many used sugar-free colas as a meal replacement tool or to boost energy.
He decided to investigate whether similarly caffeinated beverages such as energy drinks were also used.
His study of 97 women between the ages of 18 and 25 found some were using energy drinks, particularly sugar-free varieties, to stave off hunger.
We know people with eating disorders do abuse caffeine so this provides a new avenue for them to use energy drinks as a way of replacing meals and creating a sense of fullness.
About one-third of those studied drank energy beverages and the main reasons were alertness or concentration and to prevent hunger or replace a meal.
Those who consumed energy drinks were more likely to meet criteria that suggested they had poor body image, a symptom associated with eating disorders.
“We know people with eating disorders do abuse caffeine so this provides a new avenue for them to use energy drinks as a way of replacing meals and creating a sense of fullness,” Associate Professor King said.
“Because they’re physically compromised, I think that’s raised a real concern about issues around energy drink abuse.
“It adds another risk factor to their physical health.”
More research needed to investigate early results
While it was a small study, Associate Professor King said the preliminary results suggested a larger inquiry was needed.
"There hasn't been a lot of research around energy drinks and eating disorders," he said.
"[The study] does suggest energy drinks are being used by some individuals as a means to control weight."
Associate Professor King said they also found children aged between 12 and 18 were using the drinks for weight loss, which was concerning.