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Kids & Coffee: Worrisome or No Big Deal?

Coffeehouses have become popular hangouts for teenagers after school, and many parents are now concerned that their coffee-drinking kids may be getting too much caffeine. Dr. Donald Hensrude, a nutrition specialist at the Mayo Clinic, tells us whether any of these concerns are warranted.

Concerns Versus Worries

Hensrude agrees that parents should be "concerned" about their kids drinking too much coffee but says there is no need to be "worried" about it. He says that moderation is the key and awareness is the first step.

The effects of caffeine aren't always obvious, and children are less likely to recognize these effects than adults. I don't advise caffeine for kids: There are no health benefits but there are lots of subtle side effects.

Although Hensrude doesn't believe drinking coffee will affect the health of children in a serious way, he says that we don't know everything about the possible subtle effects of caffeine over the long term--such as calcium loss. Kids build their peak bone mass as they grow through calcium intake and exercise. Yet caffeine causes calcium loss, so if they're drinking more coffee and soda, but less milk, they not only get less calcium from the dairy products but they also lose calcium due to increased caffeine intake. As for the milk in coffee, Hensrude says the amount is usually pretty small.

Side Effects

Among short-term side effects, Hensrude cites insomnia, heartburn, intestinal upsets such as constipation and diarrhea, and withdrawal headaches (Stopping consumption will cause withdrawal symptoms since caffeine is addictive.) The classic story, says Hensrude, is weekend headaches from drinking less coffee than during the week. Since caffeine is a stimulant, it can also cause jitters, irritability, and heart palpitations or rapid heart rate. In some cases, it can bring on a more serious rapid heart rate in those prone to abnormal heart rhythms. It can also cause short-term increases in blood pressure.

Moderation Is Key

There aren't any specific guidelines on the amount of coffee one should take per day, says Hensrude. But moderation--a couple of cups a day or the equivalent--shouldn't cause problems. More than four cups would definitely be excessive, according to Hensrude. Overall, soda is a bigger problem: Doctors call it "liquid candy." The caffeine and calories can be linked to increased weight and obesity. But there is no data linking caffeine to cigarette or alcohol use, says Hensrude.

The bottom line: This isn't life threatening; however, there are a lot of potentially significant side effects that can occur in some people. It's a matter of being aware of these potential side effects and tapering caffeine intake accordingly--so drink in moderation.
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