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Caffeine in the diet

Definition

Caffeine is a substance that is found in certain plants. It can also be man-made and added to foods. It is a central nervous system stimulant and a diuretic (substance that helps rid your body of fluids).

Alternative Names

Diet - caffeine

Function

Caffeine is absorbed and passes quickly into the brain. It does not collect in the bloodstream or get stored in the body. It leaves the body in the urine many hours after it has been consumed.

There is no nutritional need for caffeine. It can be avoided in the diet.

Caffeine stimulates, or excites, the brain and nervous system. It will not reduce the effects of alcohol, although many people still believe a cup of coffee will help a person "sober-up."

Caffeine may be used for the short-term relief of fatigue or drowsiness.

Food Sources

Caffeine is widely consumed. It is found naturally in the leaves, seeds, and fruits of more than 60 plants, including:

  • Tea leaves
  • Kola nuts
  • Coffee
  • Cocoa beans

It is also found in processed foods:

  • Coffee - 100 mg per cup
  • Tea - 14 mg to 60 mg per cup
  • Chocolate - 45 mg in 1.5 oz. bar
  • Most colas (unless they are labeled "caffeine-free") - 45 mg in 12 oz. drink
  • Candies, energy drinks, snacks, gum - 40 to 100 mg per serving

Caffeine is often added to over-the-counter medications such as pain relievers, over-the-counter diet pills, and cold medicines. Caffeine has no flavor. It can be removed from a food by a chemical process called decaffeination.

Side Effects

Caffeine can lead to:

  • A fast heart rate
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Nausea
  • Restlessness
  • Tremors
  • Urinating more often
  • Vomiting

Stopping caffeine suddenly may cause withdrawal symptoms. These may include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Headaches
  • Irritability
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

There has been much research on the health effects of caffeine.

  • Large amounts of caffeine may stop the absorption of calcium and lead to thinning bones (osteoporosis).
  • Caffeine may lead to painful, lumpy breasts (fibrocystic disease).

Caffeine may harm a child's nutrition if drinks with caffeine replace healthy drinks such as milk. Caffeine cuts down on appetite so a child who consumes caffeine may eat less. The United States has not developed guidelines for caffeine intake by children.

Recommendations

The American Medical Association Council on Scientific Affairs states that moderate tea or coffee drinking is not likely to be harmful to your health as long as you have other good health habits.

  • Four 8 oz. cups of brewed or drip coffee (about 400 mg of caffeine) or 5 servings of caffeinated soft drinks or tea (about 165 to 235 mg of caffeine) per day is an average or moderate amount of caffeine for most people. (However, it should be noted that 5 servings of regular soft drinks is over 700 calories and can contribute to obesity.)
  • Ten 8 oz. cups of coffee per day is considered excessive intake of caffeine.

You may want to limit your caffeine intake if:

Watch how much caffeine a child gets. Caffeine is a stimulant and a hyperactive child may need to avoid it. Small amounts of caffeine during pregnancy are safe. Avoid large amounts.

  • Caffeine, like alcohol, travels through your bloodstream to the placenta. It can have a negative effect on a developing baby. Caffeine is a stimulant, so it increases your heart rate and metabolism. Both of these can affect the baby.
  • During pregnancy, 300 mg of caffeine a day may increase the risk of miscarriage. It is fine to have 1 or 2 small cups of caffeinated coffee or tea a day during pregnancy. However, limit your intake to less than 200 mg per day.

Many drugs will interact with caffeine. Talk to your health care provider about possible interactions with the medicines you take.

If you are trying to cut back on caffeine, reduce your intake slowly to prevent withdrawal symptoms.

References

Chin JM et al. Caffeine content of brewed teas. J Anal Toxicol. 2008;32(8):702-4. PMID: 19007524 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19007524.

Gagne L, Maizes V. Osteoporosis. In: Rakel D, ed. Integrative Medicine. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2012:chap 37.

Simpson JL, Jauniaux ERM. Pregnancy loss. In: Gabbe SG, Niebyl JR, Simpson JL, et al, eds. Obstetrics: Normal and Problem Pregnancies. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2012:chap 26.

Review Date:4/25/2015
Reviewed By:Emily Wax, RD, The Brooklyn Hospital Center, Brooklyn, NY. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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