Energy drinks can be found in almost every convenience store, but a new directive puts an end to energy drinks in Air Force dining facilities downrange. DFACs in the U.S. don't stock them either. (Airman 1st Class Austin Harvill/Air Force)
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A February memo from the Air Force Personnel Center directs all downrange food operations to stop buying energy drinks, nutritional shakes and energy bars — and to use up what they’ve already bought.
There had previously been no such guidance on the purchase of so-called dietary and nutritional supplements with appropriated Defense Department funds.
Dining facilities at Air Force bases across the U.S. don’t buy them. But the Air Force has received multiple requests to add them in the Area of Responsibility, according to the memo.
The new guidance, which could go into effect in the next few months, stems from health concerns associated with energy drinks, William Spencer, head of the Air Force Food and Beverage Section, said in emailed responses to questions. “Dining facilities offer numerous healthy beverages and food items to include juice, milk, fresh fruit and vegetables,” among others.
Energy drinks wouldn’t be off-limits altogether. The guidance doesn’t apply to vending machines or base exchanges or shops, and airmen are free to buy them with their own money, Spencer said.
“What we’re really trying to do is make sure our service members and airmen are informed consumers and that they are aware of all the potential risks and side effects,” said Col. John Oh, chief of health promotion at the Air Force Medical Support Agency.
Here’s what you need to know:
1 Health risks. The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate energy drinks, which means only independent research offers information on the effects on the body, according to an Air Force news release. Since energy drinks have only been widely available for about five years, the long-term effects of regular use is still unknown.
Levels of additives in most energy drinks overload the body with energy-inducing chemicals and restrict water absorption in blood cells, the news release said. Too much consumption can lead to hypertension and increased stomach acid, which could cause heartburn and stomach ulcers. It can also lead to dehydration, since the body’s efforts to get rid of all the chemicals mean frequent bathroom trips.
Some energy drinks have double the daily recommended amount of sugar, which can pack on the weight, Oh said.
2 Airmen’s habits. Nearly 90 percent of active-duty airmen surveyed in 2012 reported consuming energy drinks in the past, said Lt. Col. Nicholas Milazzo, chief of pharmacy research at Travis Air Force Base, Calif. That was up from 61 percent in 2008.
Fifty-four percent of those who said they’d used energy drinks consumed less than one per week, Milazzo said. Sixty-one percent said they used them to increase their mental alertness, energy and stamina.
3 Downrange. A study by Army researchers published by the Center for Disease Control in 2010 revealed about 45 percent of service members deployed to Afghanistan consumed energy drinks daily, Oh said. Fourteen percent drank three or more a day.
“Clearly it’s a high-op tempo environment. There are operational stressers. We know sleep is a big problem in deployed settings for various reasons,” he said.
That’s all the more reason not to binge on energy drinks, Oh said.
4 Side effects. The 2012 Air Force study, which surveyed nearly 10,000 active-duty airmen and civilians across 11 bases, including two in Europe, reported a number of effects from consuming energy drinks, Milazzo said. Sixty-nine percent reported being more awake or alert. Twenty-eight percent said they felt nervous or had the jitters after having an energy drink; a quarter reported feeling drained four to five hours afterward.
In the Army study, “those that use a lot of energy drinks — three or more a day — were more likely to report sleeping problems,” Oh said. “That seems counterintuitive. But in fact, if you have too much caffeine it can be counterproductive and create problems with staying awake. These researchers found in addition to sleeping problems, they are more likely to report falling asleep during briefings and while on duty. If not used properly, these energy drinks can lead to problems that may affect performance.”
5 Healthy habits. “We want to emphasize fatigue countermeasures and the way to provide energy the natural way,” particularly downrange, Oh said. “Healthy diet, exercise and everyone needs to get seven hours of sleep at a minimum.”
If you do use energy drinks, Oh recommends limiting them to one serving a day, and to never mix them with alcohol.