How do caffeinated energy drinks harm children’s health?

Up to a third of UK children — mostly young teens — and up to half of kids worldwide admit to drinking caffeinated energy drinks (CEDs) on a weekly, monthly, or sometimes almost daily, basis, according to new research.

And whilst these drinks may offer an instant energy boost, they could also be harming our children’s health and behaviour.

What does caffeine do to children?

The latest review, commissioned by the UK government, reported that frequent CED consumption (five or more days per week) was associated with low psychological, physical, educational and overall wellbeing.

Boys consumed more than girls, and consumption was associated with more headaches, sleep problems, alcohol use, smoking, irritability, and school exclusions.

As a stimulant, caffeine affects the central nervous system, increasing energy metabolism in the brain, which makes us feel more alert.

And whilst energy drinks do contain other caffeine-like stimulants such as ginseng and often high levels of sugar, the majority of energy drink-related health concerns could be primarily due to caffeine.

Caffeine quantities vary, but energy drinks pack a significant caffeine punch, which is why drinks containing over 150mg caffeine per litre are required to carry a warning: ‘High caffeine content. Not recommended for children or pregnant or breastfeeding women, or people sensitive to caffeine’.

Despite this, many consumers remain undeterred.

For children and teens with mental health issues, CEDs may also exacerbate symptoms.

One mum, who asked not to be named, observed the effects in her own teenage son, who has OCD and ADHD.

“It was probably a combination of too much caffeine, nicotine, stress and underlying mental health issues” she says.

“But he had an almost psychotic-like episode after drinking an energy drink — he thought he was going crazy and was begging me to give him something to calm him down and give him peace of mind.”

Is it illegal for kids to buy energy drinks?

Yet not all parents or carers are aware of the effects of caffeine.

Rachel, a schoolteacher, told Optimum Nutrition that one five-year-old pupil in her reception class was consuming energy drinks on the way to school.

“He was having difficulties with concentrating on tasks and engaging in one thing for a period of time, and was finding it difficult to stay in his seat in the classroom,” she says. “Mum came in for a chat to talk about how we could support his needs.

“It had been noted that the boy had been seen drinking energy drinks several times on the way to school, so we discussed whether these were suitable.

“It turned out she didn’t know they weren’t good for him and wasn’t aware of their possible side effects.”

This is where education and information can play a key role — as noted in the latest review.

Lead author Claire Khouja, from the University of York, said: “Our study also indicates that children who are better informed about the contents of energy drinks drink less, suggesting that an education campaign and/or more prominent warnings on packaging could reduce consumption.”

She also said the review’s findings supported a government policy banning the sale of energy drinks to children.

Currently, although many shops have already implemented such a ban, it is yet to become a legal requirement.

How much caffeine is too much?

Kirstie Lawton, a registered nutritional therapy practitioner and AfN-registered nutritionist, says there is no clear guidance in the UK on safe upper intakes of caffeine for children, and points to Canada’s more specific recommendations.

The European Food Safety Authority has also proposed a safe level of 3mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight per day for children and adolescents.

Yet energy drinks aren’t the only source of caffeine. Other caffeine products — fizzy cola drinks, coffee-based beverages, tea, or chocolate products — should all be factored into daily intake.

“A child who regularly consumes chocolate and energy drinks is likely to be consuming a significant amount of caffeine,” says Lawton.

“The most common effects I see clinically are hyperactivity, anxiety and impacted sleep, which would be expected when children are consuming a combination of caffeine and sugar in liquid form.

“Removing [these] from a child’s diet can greatly impact their overall health and wellbeing.”

How to cut down on caffeine

Lawton suggests small actions such as stocking up on caffeine-free drink options at home, and telling children to only consume caffeine in the morning so that sleep isn’t disrupted.

For teens and children who have become reliant on energy drinks to keep them awake or alert, or to increase performance, Lawton says the focus should be on eating a healthy, balanced, nutrient-dense diet, with lots of protein, complex carbs and healthy fats, and good hydration.

High protein snacks, she says, will also support energy levels and brain function without disrupting blood sugars.

Lawton’s snack recommendations include: nuts, nut butters and nut bars (if appropriate), seeds, plain yoghurt with fruit, and protein-rich smoothies (add in yoghurt, protein powder, nut butter).

Other options include cheese, cold meats, tinned or smoked fish, boiled eggs or egg muffins, falafels, and Quorn or soya products, although she says to consider how processed products might be.

Lawton says: “For any parent, it can be challenging to remove a food or drink item that their child likes or has become reliant [on].

“Slowly reducing energy drinks or caffeinated beverages while adding in naturally flavoured drinks over time, with open and honest communication about the health benefits, would be my approach.”

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