The current guideline for caffeine consumption is about three or four average cups of coffee per day. (Thinkstock)

The current guideline for caffeine consumption is about three or four average cups of coffee per day. (Thinkstock)

Caffeine: It can be healthy or harmful to our health

Millions of people of all ages get a hefty and habitual dose of caffeine every day, whether it’s from coffee, energy drinks, chocolate or soda. Are you one of them?

Caffeine is a legal stimulant that can quickly move in a chameleon-like way from helpful to hazardous to our health.

Caffeine is widely sought out for its positive effects on focus, concentration and alertness. It even serves as a performance enhancer when taken before hard exercise or training workouts. Emerging research has shown the antioxidants in coffee may provide health benefits.

Many people, however, experience negative effects — irritability, stomach upset, increase in heart rate and blood pressure — when taking it in high doses. Some people react this way even with low-level consumption.

What’s considered a high dose? What is a reasonable daily target? The current guideline is to keep it below 400 mg per day for adults — about three or four average cups of coffee.

The American Academy of Pediatrics just established new limits for kids to warn parents of the possible dangers of this seemingly harmless substance. Kids under 12 should consume no caffeine, since more research is needed into the effects on children.

Guidelines set by the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend kids 12 to 18 keep daily intake below 100 milligrams. It’s crucial to teach teens and young adults about the possible dangerous consequences of caffeine and where it’s found.

The Food and Drug Administration has begun to investigate the trend of putting caffeine into food products, especially those marketed to kids.

Food manufacturers add caffeine to marshmallows, sunflower nuts, syrup and even gum. One pack of gum CAN equal four cups of caffeinated coffee! It’s especially dangerous when combined with beverages like energy drinks or shots that contain herbal stimulants (like guarana) that magnify the effects of caffeine.

What are the main sources of caffeine to be aware of? The list is long, but includes: coffee, energy drinks, soda (some amped up with mega-doses of caffeine) tea, cold medications, chocolate and No-doze. The amount you consume makes a huge difference, so be aware of the mega-sizing of energy drinks, sodas with added caffeine ( Mountain Dew Red) and know what you — and your kids—are drinking.

A reference for learning how much caffeine is in foods or beverages is www.energyfiend.com.

What’s the takeaway? Caffeine in reasonable amounts is generally safe for most people, so you can enjoy your coffee or tea as usual. Kids and young teens need to be educated on the dangers of caffeine, where it’s found and how much they should drink.

Kim Larson is a registered dietitian nutritionist, founder of Total Health, www.totalhealthrd.com, and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition &Dietetics.

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