The concerning link between energy drinks and eating disorders.

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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.


However, he said most energy drink marketing in Australia was aimed at the male market.

Researchers frustrated by industry presence

Associate Professor Peter Miller, who helped organise the forum, said researchers had been frustrated by industry researchers and lobbyists at other conferences.

No researchers who had received industry grants or drink representatives were invited to the conference.

"We're seeing a real muddying of the water by industry, they're confusing the situation," Associate Professor Miller said.

"We've had industry doing a lot of research and publishing on selected samples and very selected issues around energy drinks, particularly around alcohol consumption.

"Where all the independent research finds problems, all the funded research by industry doesn't seem to be finding problems and we think that's a real issue."

Associate Professor Miller said, during his own work looking at energy drinks and alcohol, he had been on the receiving end of legal action from the liquor industry.

The Australian Beverages Council wrote to the university, unhappy to be excluded from the conference.

"We need really good independent research to find concrete evidence," Associate Professor Miller said.

Other topics being discussed at the conference include combined energy drink and alcohol usage, whether risk-taking behaviour was associated with the drinks, consumption by children, advertising and marketing, impact on the heart and parent perceptions.

Claims 'perplexing and disappointing'

Soft drink manufacturers said energy drinks were safe if consumed at recommended levels.

The peak body for soft drinks, the Australian Beverages Council, said it was frustrated conference organisers did not want to have an "open dialogue" with industry.

Chief executive Geoff Parker said it meant the industry could not work with health experts.

"The industry recognises the key role it needs to play in educating the Australian public about consumption of energy drinks," he said.

"As an industry that values open and collaborative approach to issues, we find this stance both perplexing and disappointing."

Mr Parker said the industry had a long history of taking a proactive approach, including a set of voluntary commitments that was taken up by all companies.

"These include not selling energy drinks in any school, not directing marketing or advertising towards children and ensuring no promotional activities encourage excessive consumption of energy drinks."

If this post brings up any issues for you, you can contact The Butterfly Foundation for Eating Disorders via their website ( or on their National Support Line (1800 33 4673).