Health & Fitness

Caffeine can play havoc on kids’ health

Cathy Clark-Reyes, dietician with Baptist Health Primary Care, helps patients with nutrition issues to improve their overall well-being. Sometimes, the underlying issue she finds is too much caffeine consumption.
Cathy Clark-Reyes, dietician with Baptist Health Primary Care, helps patients with nutrition issues to improve their overall well-being. Sometimes, the underlying issue she finds is too much caffeine consumption.

Linette De Armas, a pediatric registered dietician at Holtz Children’s Hospital, says she sees more kids ask for coffee than ever before.

“I see 7- or 8-year-old kids that love their soda and Frappuccinos,” she says. “I see kids that want to drink a whole cup of coffee.”

A whole cup of coffee, though, isn’t good for a pint-size person.

Of 5,448 U.S. caffeine overdoses reported in 2007, 46 percent occurred in those younger than 19 years, according to a 2011 study in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Kids with too much caffeine can experience hypertension, cardiac issues — especially with an undiagnosed arrhythmia — lack of sleep and anxiety.

“Caffeine is a drug, it is very addictive,” De Armas says. “The FDA has no recommendations [for kids].”

Cathy Clark-Reyes, a dietician with Baptist Health Primary Care, says that on average, most adults should not drink more than two, 8-ounce cups of coffee a day.

Clark-Reyes, who mainly treats adults, says that although her patients usually come in for other reasons, the topic of caffeine often comes up as an underlying issue.

“How many coladas did you have today?” she will ask her patients.

In addition to the caffeine, people need to be more mindful of what they put in the coffee. Whipped cream, sugar, syrups — all add lots of calories. Take, for example, Starbucks’ popular Double Chocolaty Chip Frappuccino Blended Crème. The 24-ounce Venti size has 520 calories, with 69 grams of sugar — or 17.25 teaspoons of sugar. For the entire day, women shouldn’t consume more than 25 grams of added sugar, men, 37.5 grams, according to the American Heart Association.

Part of the problem: Kids have switched from soft drinks to coffee and caffeine-spiked energy drinks. De Armas says kids are picking up cultural cues from their parents, going to Starbucks and other coffee houses, eating coffee-flavored ice cream, or having their parents add coffee to their milk when they are small.

Once they have developed a taste for caffeine, kids will often gravitate to energy drinks, which have significantly higher caffeine levels than soda. An 8.4-ounce can of Red Bull, for example, contains 80 mg of caffeine, slightly more than a 12-ounce can of cola. Worse, a 1.93-ounce bottle of 5-Hour Energy contains 200 mg of caffeine, or half of your daily limit, medical experts say.

“People have died from these [energy] drinks,” De Armas says.

A person’s lifestyle can trigger a dependency on caffeinated drinks. Since she moved to Miami, De Armas says she has noticed how fast-paced people’s lives are, both for kids and adults.

“In bigger cities, you have long hours,” she says. “We want to keep up with everything, but we need sleep.”

De Armas has noticed that children often have crammed schedules, between school, after-school activities and homework.

“Sometimes I get exhausted just hearing about their day,” she says. “You see that kids are very tired.”

Another problem is fatigue due to dehydration. People who don’t drink enough fluids, especially in a hot city like Miami, feel tired and think caffeine is the quick fix.

“In general people either don’t get enough rest or are fatigued because they don’t drink enough fluids, especially water,” Clark-Reyes says.

Caffeine over-consumption is particularly risky for people who have certain health conditions, especially those with an arrhythmia, or an irregular heartbeat.

“Drinking high doses of caffeine is dangerous, especially if they are undiagnosed,” Clark-Reyes says. “You don’t know you have it until something happens.”

Clark-Reyes recalls a case where the patient didn’t realize they were drinking so much coffee, and began having frequent panic attacks.

“If there is a person that has anxiety, is nervous or gets panic attacks, they need to get off [caffeine],” she says.

A good alternative is tea, which on average has half the caffeine than coffee, Clark-Reyes says.

De Armas recommends that kids cut back to one caffeinated drink a day, only three days a week. That includes sodas or coffee drinks — and eliminating high-energy drinks entirely. When kids adopt these measures, parents have told De Armas they’ve seen significant behavioral changes in their children, such as being calmer, sleeping better and focusing more in school.

She also reminds parents to set a good example for their kids, because if they see adults drinking lots of coffee and caffeinated drinks, they will want to do the same.

“We hold parents responsible,” she says.