Teens Are Waking Up To the Caffeine Habit

By Joseph Ax
The Record of Hackensack
Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Like many people, Nicole Rivera uses coffee to survive a long day of hard work.

One cup in the morning, and sometimes a second at lunch for a little pick-me-up. Another cup in the afternoon to avoid a late-day slump. A final mug around 7 p.m. to help her finish the work she's brought home.

"Without coffee, I'm dead to the world," she says.

Rivera may sound like a veteran of the corporate world, but she just finished ninth grade.

With Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts seemingly around every corner, educators and nutritionists say more and more teens are consuming coffee drinks, from caramel lattes to coffee coolers. But is all that caffeine -- not to mention sugar -- a good idea for kids whose bodies are still developing?

No definitive studies on the effects of caffeine on children have been done. But while caffeine doesn't stunt one's growth, as one myth suggests, it is an addictive drug that can have lasting effects -- and coffee contains as much as five times the amount of caffeine as soda.

Some nutritionists worry that adolescents are substituting coffee for meals, while others fret that some popular drinks feature as many calories as a Big Mac. And with sodas still a frequent choice and so-called energy drinks becoming more and more commonplace, the number of caffeinated beverages that teens consume seems almost limitless.

"When I was younger, you didn't drink coffee until you were 16," said Jacqueline Baumrind, a registered nutritionist in the New York area. "Now you have kids 12 or 13 years old drinking coffee. Sometimes they don't have time to eat breakfast or lunch, and they'll have a cup of coffee to keep their energy up -- especially girls trying to lose weight: Coffee and a cigarette, that's breakfast. When you're a growing teenager, you need nutrition."

While market analysis firms do not track coffee consumption for youths younger than 18, the percentage of people ages 18 to 24 who drink coffee every day has doubled since 2003, from 16 percent to 31 percent, according to the National Coffee Association.

By itself, caffeine is not particularly harmful, and may even have some health benefits. Some studies have shown caffeine may reduce the risk of Parkinson's disease, diabetes and certain forms of cancer. Other studies have shown that caffeine increases mental acuity and physical performance.

"In general, caffeine has not been proven to be as harmful as many people once thought," said David Schardt, a senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a health advocacy group. "There's really no health downside to caffeine if you consume it smartly. It has a lot of benefits."

Yet it can cause anxiety, insomnia and a handful of stomach and cardiovascular problems, and doctors recommend that pregnant women avoid it. Some studies have shown that excessive caffeine may cause people to lose calcium.

But the main downside to caffeine is its addictive properties and the effects on the body when one stops ingesting it -- effects that may be magnified in children.

"Caffeine is the most widely used mood-altering drug in the world," said Roland Griffiths, a professor of behavioral biology at Johns Hopkins University who has studied its effects. "We know that caffeine produces physical symptoms, that is, withdrawal symptoms, after abrupt cessation for people that chronically consume caffeine. . . . Although extensive research hasn't been done in children and adolescents, there's no reason to suppose these effects aren't identical in adolescents."

Griffiths has found that as little as 100 milligrams of caffeine a day is enough to induce withdrawal symptoms. (A typical 12-ounce cup of Starbucks coffee has approximately 260 milligrams of caffeine.)

The symptoms are familiar to anyone who has missed their daily dose of java: headache, lethargy, depression, irritability.

The Food and Drug Administration does not provide any recommendations for caffeine consumption for adolescents; the American Dietetic Association also does not, but states that 200 to 300 milligrams a day -- about two to three cups of coffee -- is safe for adults. ยท

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