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Great news: Caffeine doesn’t stunt growth

by Mark Miller October 10, 2017

Great news: Caffeine doesn’t stunt growth

Does caffeine stunt growth? A lot of people may say that, but the science doesn't support the contention. It's an urban legend now. About 90 percent of Americans consume caffeine in one product or another.

Caffeine is the world's most popular stimulant. It and coffee are legal, and in moderate doses do no harm but actually may help people by decreasing the risk of several conditions.

Harvard Health tackles the question of caffeine and stunting and says:

Whether or not coffee turns out to have significant health benefits, this popular beverage doesn't stunt your growth. Your height is largely determined by the height of your parents and the quality of your diet and overall health while growing. If you eat a balanced diet and take measures to avoid osteoporosis, you're likely to achieve the maximum height "allowed" by your genes. And, sorry: Just as drinking coffee won't make you shorter, avoiding it won't make you any taller.

A most studied comestible

The Harvard Medical School article says few drinks or foods have been studied more than coffee. Researchers have analyzed coffee for evidence of increasing the risk of heart disease, infertility, cancer and several other health problems. Most studies have found no increase in risk to these diseases linked to coffee.

Harvard says the belief held by some people that coffee stunts growth may come from a debunked claim that it causes osteoporosis or a decrease in bone mass or density. Osteoporosis can shorten people if there are compression fractures of the spine. But the fractures are what cause height loss, not the osteoporosis in and of itself. Still, osteoporosis does not routinely cause people to become shorter.

Refuting the idea coffee stunts growth

But there is another fact that strikes down the coffee stunts growth idea: Most people attain their maximum height in their late teens, well before they start drinking coffee habitually.

Years ago, some studies reported a heightened risk of osteoporosis among coffee drinkers. The studies said caffeine stimulates the body to eliminate calcium, which can be a factor in osteoporosis.

There was some alarm over this because millions of coffee drinkers could be at risk for calcium loss leading to osteoporosis. But the loss of calcium from caffeine consumption was small. Also, a link between osteoporosis and coffee was never substantiated.

Harvard Health reports:

In fact, when the studies suggesting a link were analyzed, it turned out that people who drank more coffee drank less milk and other calcium-containing beverages. So it was probably the dietary intake of calcium and vitamin D among coffee drinkers, not the coffee, that increased the risk of osteoporosis.

Harvard advises people who may have lingering uneasiness about calcium loss from coffee to take calcium and vitamin D supplements or to get them in their diets.

How about kids?

In an article questioning whether caffeine stunts growth in kids, Smithsonian reports:

Theoretically, the closest thing we do have to evidence that caffeine affects growth is a series of studies on adults, which show that increased consumption of caffeinated beverages lead to the body absorbing slightly less calcium, which is necessary for bone growth. However, the effect is negligible: The calcium in a mere tablespoon of milk, it's estimated, is enough to offset the caffeine in eight ounces of coffee. Official NIH recommendations state that, paired with a diet sufficient in calcium, moderate caffeine consumption has no negative effects on bone formation.

The concern about coffee goes back at least to the 16 th century, when it was banned in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, for health reasons. King Charles of England banned coffee in1675 for similar health concerns.

Advertising sabotaged coffee

In more modern times, the hysteria over coffee goes back to C.W. Post of Post breakfast cereals and other foods, who also manufactured Postum, a grain-based drink for breakfast time. Postum became popular and the advertising of it was aimed at parents who were told caffeine damages children. Postum was advertised as a coffee alternative without caffeine.

Mark Pregendergast wrote Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World.He told Smithsonian: "Postum made C.W. Post a fortune, and he became a millionaire from vilifying coffee, and saying how horrible it was for you .The Postum advertisers had all kinds of pseudoscientific reasons that you should stay away from coffee."

Post ascribed kidney and heart dysfunction, nervousness and indigestion to coffee. He said it also led to sallow skin. Post died in 1914, but even thereafter ads for Postum said children should never be given coffee because it makes them sluggish, sleepless, irritable and robbed them of rosy cheek and sparkling eyes. Plus, the ads said, it hampers proper development and growth.

"To my knowledge, no one has ever turned up evidence that drinking coffee has any effect on how much children grow," Pregenderast said.

Smithsonian points out that the evidence that coffee doesn't stunt growth is lacking because long-term effects haven't been studied. Parents may be reluctant to submit their children to drinking coffee every day for multiple years.

Caffeine interferes with sleep

Caffeine taken late in the day can cause sleep loss. Sleep is essential to children's development, so it is important not to let them drink cola or eat chocolate, both of which contain caffeine, later on in the afternoon.

On the flipside, many studies have shown possible health benefits in drinking coffee. According to various experts, coffee:

  • Reduces risk of heart disease, cancer and multiple sclerosis
  • Boosts semen production
  • Invigorates
  • Enhances memory
  • Alleviates fatigue
  • Reduces the risk of kidney stones
  • Helps alleviate migraine headaches 
  • Enhances the effect of over-the-counter painkillers
  • Enhances athletic performance

And it tastes great. The caffeine in coffee is slightly addictive, but it is not a dangerous, life-destroying drug like opiates or meth.

A Viter Energy blog post pointed out that caffeine can boost athletic stamina and speed so much that the International Olympic Committee once limited how much of it Olympic athletes could take. Caffeine was categorized as a performance-enhancing substance.

Apparently, coffee and caffeine don't stunt growth, but care should be taken by all people, children and adults, not to have more than 300 to 400 mg a day of caffeine.

Mark Miller
Mark Miller


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