For many busy families, a trip to the coffee shop is a regular occurrence, and many of their kids’ favorite drinks are covered in whipped cream and drizzled with caramel and sprinkles.
When teens aren’t sipping an iced venti mocha, they’re reaching for a high-octane energy drink for a boost to cram for a test or feel ready to excel at sports.
Caffeine might seem like a harmless indulgence, and in moderation, it may well be. But chronic overconsumption of the caffeine and copious amounts of sugar in these drinks can negatively affect your child’s heart health long term.
Caffeine is the most consumed psychostimulant in the world, according to recent studies. U.S. teens and children drink excessive amounts of it daily – 30-50% of teens report drinking energy drinks, which can contain two times or more the caffeine of a cup of coffee. Add in sodas, teas, and chocolate drinks, and parents have every reason to wonder about the effects of caffeine on their children.
In the short term, some data suggest caffeine may improve mental and physical performance. The long-term effects of caffeine on children’s health, however, are not yet fully understood. Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have shown that increased caffeine consumption resulted in hundreds of emergency department visits for dehydration, anxiety, insomnia, and arrythmia – irregular heartbeat.
Excessive caffeine consumption also contributes to:
- Increased heart rate and blood pressure
- Upset stomach, diarrhea, and nausea
- Increased urination
- Jitteriness and irritability
- Headaches and dizziness
- Shakiness and muscle tremors
The wallop of added sugar in many caffeinated drinks also adds empty calories that can increase the risk of obesity and heart problems over time. Monitoring our kids’ caffeine intake now and teaching them how to make smart choices can go a long way toward helping them establish good habits and long-term heart health.
Caffeine and sugar content in popular drinks
Though many adults rely on the energy boost from morning or mid-afternoon caffeine, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) suggests that healthy adults cap consumption at 400 mg of caffeine a day. That’s approximately four 8 oz. cups of coffee.
For teens and kids, experts agree that much less is more. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children:
- Ages 12 to 18 should limit caffeine to less than 100 mg per day
- Younger than 12 should avoid caffeine entirely
With those guidelines in mind, let’s review just how much caffeine – and sugar – is in kids’ favorite drinks.
An 8-ounce cup of regular coffee contains an average of 95mg of caffeine. Many energy beverages and coffee drinks far exceed the recommended amount for healthy teens. Even certain sodas have more sugar and caffeine than you might think.
- 16 oz. can of original Monster Energy contains 160mg caffeine and 66g sugar
- 24 oz. (venti) Starbucks iced caramel macchiato contains 225mg caffeine and 49g sugar
- 12 oz. can of original Red Bull contains 114mg caffeine and 37g sugar
- 12 oz. can of Mountain Dew contains 54mg caffeine and 46g sugar
- One shot of regular 5-Hour Energy contains 200mg caffeine (sugar free)
- 1 scoop of C4 Ultimate pre-workout drink mix contains 300mg caffeine (sugar free)
Teach your kids to read nutrition labels closely. Large cans of energy or coffee drinks often contain more than one serving, but just one serving’s worth of sugar and caffeine may be listed on the label.
For young athletes, it’s especially important to understand the difference between sports drinks and energy drinks. Non-caffeinated sports drinks like Gatorade or Powerade rehydrate you after a workout and replenish your electrolytes, and many types of these drinks contain a lot of sugar. Caffeinated energy drinks have the opposite effect – dehydration – while still adding sugar. Pre-workout drink mixes can also be dehydrating.
Related reading: Curbing your kids' summertime sugar intake
Immediate and long-term impacts on kids’ health
Caffeine is a stimulant that affects the central nervous system – kids are more likely to experience adverse effects due to their smaller body mass. Additionally, caffeine can increase the side effects of stimulant medications prescribed for conditions like ADHD or ADD.
Immediate symptoms of excessive caffeine consumption in kids might include:
- Heart arrhythmia
- Heart palpitations or racing heartbeat
- Increased anxiety or feeling jittery
- Trouble falling or staying asleep
- Dizziness or fainting
- Gastrointestinal issues
- Hyperactivity or problems focusing
The effects of caffeine can last for several hours, taking up to 10 hours for it to clear your bloodstream. Over the course of the day, the amount of caffeine in your child’s system can add up quickly, especially if caffeine-packed energy drinks or energy shots are part of your teen’s routine. In these cases, the risk of caffeine-related complications such as seizures and heart arrhythmia increases.
Long-term overconsumption of caffeine can lead to high blood pressure, a form of heart disease that increases stroke and kidney failure risk. Approximately 1 in 25 children age 12-19 have high blood pressure and 1 in 10 have elevated blood pressure.
Drinking too much added sugar found in popular beverages can strain the heart and kidneys, as well as increase the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. Approximately 30% of U.S. teens meet criteria for prediabetes.
Children with existing heart conditions such as arrhythmias or cardiomyopathies, abnormalities of the heart muscle, are at increased risk of complications from caffeine – it’s best for these kids to avoid it entirely. Talk with your child’s pediatric cardiologist if you are concerned about their caffeine intake.
Healthy, satisfying beverage swaps
Water is the best choice for kids and adults, though sometimes we want a pop of flavor. Try one of these refreshing, non-caffeinated drinks instead:
- Sparkling water with slices of fruit to enhance the flavor
- Caffeine-free soda, in moderation
- Decaf coffee, which has about 2% the caffeine content of regular coffee – cut back on the sweeteners to make this a healthier option
Your child doesn’t have to eliminate all caffeine. A cup of coffee or an energy drink every now and then likely won’t cause most kids harm. But continual caffeine and sugar overconsumption can be habit-forming and it is not good for their overall health. Weaning them off caffeine and added sugar slowly can help fend off withdrawal symptoms such as headaches, irritability, or sleepiness. These symptoms are normal and should subside within a few weeks.
However, if your child is still struggling with daytime fatigue or moodiness after a couple weeks with reduced caffeine, they might have a disrupted sleep cycle, which can interfere with everything from focus at school to emotional and cardiovascular health. Talk with your pediatrician, who can help create a plan to improve your child’s sleep hygiene.
It’s tough to help kids understand that small, healthy swaps they make now can have a ripple effect on their future. They’re living in the moment, and after the challenges of the last few years, many are looking for a renewed rush of energy.
The best thing parents can do is set a good example by making healthy choices themselves. While you can’t control everything your child consumes – especially in the teen years – you can provide valuable guidance and help set them up for good cardiovascular health down the road.