Kids Drinking More Coffee, Energy Drinks

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Harvard Medical School
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Kids Drinking More Coffee, Energy Drinks

February 10, 2014

News Review From Harvard Medical School -- Kids Drinking More Coffee, Energy Drinks

Every day, 73% of children in the U.S. consume caffeine in some way. Soda remains the main culprit, even though its use dropped over a 10-year period. But use of coffee and energy drinks, like Monster and RedBull, shot up, especially among teens and young adults. So says a study in the journal Pediatrics. Researchers used data from the 1999-2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. They looked at trends in caffeine use by age (from 2-22), gender, race and ethnicity, as well as income level. Among the findings: Coffee drinking more than doubled. Boys drank more caffeine than girls. Kids in higher-income families were more likely to have caffeine than those in lower-income families. The study was published in Pediatrics online. HealthDay News reported on it Feb. 10.


By Henry H. Bernstein, D.O.
Harvard Medical School


What Is the Doctor's Reaction?

Some adults say they cannot get through the day without a cup of coffee. It must be the caffeine that coffee has in it. This makes people feel more awake. They feel like they have more energy. Caffeine is also found in other types of drinks and foods like soda, energy drinks, tea and sweets.

Caffeine might seem harmless. But that is not always the case. Too much caffeine causes:

  • The heart to race
  • Hands to shake
  • A nervous feeling (being jumpy)
  • Bellyaches
  • Headaches
  • Trouble staying focused on something
  • Trouble sleeping

These bad effects can be worse in children and teens. Plus, it does not take all that much caffeine to cause these effects in kids.

A study just published in the journal Pediatrics looked at trends in caffeine intake by children, teens and young adults, ages 2-22 years. Study subjects answered a series of questionnaires about their diets as part of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). Information was collected from 1999 to 2010.

The researchers found that about 3 out of 4 kids reported having a caffeine drink in the day prior to completing the survey.

  • Soda was most common. Its use went down from 62% to 38% over the 10 years.
  • Tea was second most common. It stayed between 20% and 30% over the 10 years.
  • Coffee drinking more than doubled by the end of the study (from 10% to 24%).
  • Energy drinks did not exist at the beginning of the study. They quickly increased to 6% by 2010.

Differences based on age were noted:

  • Caffeine intake increased with age. It became more common in older children and young adults; it went down in children under 12.
  • For 19- to 22-year-olds, coffee was the most common caffeinated drink by 2010. Energy drinks also were more common in this age group.
  • For 2- to 5-year-olds, soda was the most common caffeinated drink in 1999. By 2010, tea became the most common.

There were also differences based on gender, race/ethnicity and income:

  • Boys had more caffeine than girls.
  • White children had more caffeine than black or Mexican-American children.
  • Children in higher-income families were more likely to have caffeine than lower-income ones.
  • Over the 10 years, caffeine intake went down in Mexican-American children and kids from families in the lowest-income bracket.

The researchers point out that overall caffeine intake has not increased since 1999. But the sources of caffeine have changed. Kids are drinking less soda. That’s good. Energy drinks and coffee are becoming more common. That’s bad. This is real cause for concern.


What Changes Can I Make Now?

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends all children and teens avoid caffeine. The bad effects of caffeine can be much worse in kids than in adults. This is because kids weigh less and are still growing. Caffeine can also be very harmful to children with heart or brain problems.

To keep your child healthy and caffeine-free, here are some tips.

Do away with soda. This will cut out caffeine AND added sugar (empty calories). Remember that drinking soda and other sugary drinks (with or without caffeine) also can lead to obesity and tooth cavities.

Cut out coffee and tea. Coffee has even more caffeine than soda. Some parents may give their kids iced tea instead of soda, thinking it is healthier. Iced tea can have as much caffeine and sugar as soda. Teas can be okay for children, as long as they have no caffeine or added sugar in them.

Do NOT allow energy drinks.

  • The "energy" comes from large amounts of caffeine and sugar. Some have as much caffeine as 3 cups of coffee and up to 14 teaspoons of sugar!
  • They also have other things that are supposed to give more energy. These have not been tested in children and may be harmful.
  • Energy drinks promise to boost energy or make the drinker a better athlete. Kids should learn instead that they can improve their game with hard work and practice.

Watch out for "hidden" caffeine. Some sources of caffeine are surprising, like chocolate and cold medicine. Carefully check the ingredients listed on foods, drinks and medicines.

Give your child water and milk. These are the best choices for children of all ages. You cannot go wrong with water. Milk has a lot of nutrients that your child needs to grow and stay healthy. Once your child is 2 years old, you should choose fat-free (skim) or low-fat (1%) milk products.

Support a healthy lifestyle. Don’t forget that all adults (especially parents) are also role models for children. Your child will do as you do, and not as you say. Your child is much more likely to drink and eat healthy if you do. Of course, you'll be healthier, too!


What Can I Expect Looking to the Future?

Families must be better educated about the risks of coffee and energy drinks. More research is needed to know how often children and teens are drinking coffee and energy drinks instead of soda. And how much of it they're drinking. These trends should be monitored closely. In addition, we need to know more about what the impact of these drinks is on the overall health of children and teens.

Last updated February 10, 2014

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