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The question: My 14-year-old wants to drink coffee. Is it too soon?

The answer: While the occasional cup of coffee at this age is probably safe, I'm not so sure that I would be encouraging the habit.

Caffeine is the most widely consumed stimulant drug in the world. It is estimated that 90 per cent of North American adults consume caffeine daily (full disclosure: I am one of them!). The health research on caffeine is a mixed bag of potential benefits and troubling side effects. Like other stimulant drugs, caffeine has the potential to temporarily increase alertness and boost concentration. Some studies even suggest that regular caffeine ingestion may reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, and diabetes, although much more research is required.

It is the caffeine side effects that make me uncomfortable whenever I see young teens drinking coffee and other highly caffeinated beverages. The most common adverse effects include jitteriness, nausea, diarrhea, palpitations and insomnia. Insufficient sleep is particularly troubling at this age as sleep disorders have been linked to obesity, behaviour problems, and poor academic performance.

According to Health Canada, excessive caffeine ingestion may cause reproductive problems including decreased fertility and fetal growth restriction. Teens have slower rates of caffeine metabolism, putting them at even higher risk for unwanted side effects.

Perhaps most worrisome is the fact that caffeine is addictive. I don't think we are doing our kids any favours by encouraging dependency on any product at this early age. Caffeine withdrawal symptoms are not benign and include headache, nausea, irritability (ironically the same side effects as caffeine toxicity), and drowsiness.

Many children and teens find the strong, pungent flavour of coffee to be unappealing. As a result, they add large amounts of sugar to counteract the bitterness, making the final beverage a nutritional wasteland. Iced cappuccinos and other cold coffee beverages popular with teens are notorious for containing an artery clogging blend of sugar and saturated fats.

I encourage you to sit down with your son and try to understand his motivation to drink coffee. Perhaps he is curious about the taste, but maybe his friends are showing up at school with the beverage and he is feeling left out. Keep in mind that your son probably has other sources of caffeine in his diet in the form of tea, iced tea, soft drinks, and energy drinks. Health Canada recommends restricting caffeine intake in children and teens to a maximum of 2.5 mg/kg per day or about 1 mg of caffeine for every pound of body weight. A typical cup of coffee contains about 150 mg of caffeine.

Dr. Michael Dickinson is the head of pediatrics and chief of staff at the Miramichi Regional Hospital in New Brunswick. He's a staunch advocate for children's health in Atlantic Canada through his involvement with the Canadian Paediatric Society.

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