Here’s the short answer: even if consumed as a child in high doses, coffee does not stunt your growth.
You can pin this claim right next to “your face is going to get stuck like that” and other half-joked admonitions your mom or wily uncle may have delivered while you were growing up because it’s not found in evidence whatsoever.
Nonetheless, caffeine is an active stimulant that does affect the central nervous system, and to a very small extent, the body’s elimination of calcium.
So, rather than sloppily issuing a blanket “no” and moving on, let’s explore why people believed this myth for so long.
How the Myth Was Born
Science Fact Turned Science Fiction
Technically, the claim that coffee stunts growth is backed by research, but both the research and the interpretation are flawed.
People who believe that drinking coffee can stunt your growth often argue that caffeine consumption contributes to osteoporosis.
Sources differ slightly, but most agree that this myth was born in the findings of a few decades-old studies that proved caffeine causes an (almost negligibly small) increase in the body’s excretion of calcium.
The general public took this and ran with it, somehow conflating this tiny effect on calcium excretion with a 100% chance of developing osteoporosis.
Osteoporosis can indeed result in loss of height, and it is linked to deficient calcium intake, but can coffee stunt your growth by causing both of these issues?
It most certainly can’t.
As this article from Harvard Medical School points out, linking this minimal effect of caffeine on calcium output to osteoporosis while suggesting that post-pubescent coffee drinkers are stunting their (already finished) growth is extremely sloppy.
What Caffeine Really Does In the Body
Just like milk, red wine, and every other food and beverage that seems to have 20 benefits and 20 adverse side effects uncovered in each study, caffeine has been a source of great contention across health science experts across the spectrum.
On the one hand, some studies claim that caffeine intake may decrease cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk, while others argue it can increase this very same risk.
And so it goes for at least a dozen other health and wellness indicators, with opposing arguments on each side of the issue.
We’re not here to take a position for or against coffee, but to clear the record as much as possible, here’s a summary of some of the most solidly evidenced benefits and drawbacks.
Alleged Benefits of Caffeine Consumption
A study from Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute (Kansas City, MO) contributes several important pro-caffeine insights to the coffee debate, like the “inverse association between coffee consumption and all-cause mortality … in large prospective studies.”
As proposed by the finding, possible coffee-related mechanisms driving mortality down include lower risk of dying from a cardiovascular event or disorder, such as coronary heart disease, congestive heart failure, and stroke.
Indirectly, coffee may also decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease by ameliorating type 2 diabetes, depression, and obesity, all of which feed into the coronary vascular disease “loop.”
Finally, the study highlights the protective effect of caffeine against neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s, ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), Parkinson’s, and other potentially debilitating conditions.
Combine this peppy endorsement with confirmation bias, and anyone already inclined to a hot cup of coffee would likely be completely satisfied without searching for any conflicting evidence.
Rest assured, there’s plenty.
Researchers Warn of Adverse Effects
Of particular concern to health science experts when it comes to caffeine is the role of methylxanthines, a class of compounds abundant in coffee that can adversely affect heart health in a number of ways.
For example, this PubMed article authored by Polish researchers warns of the increased risk of coronary heart disease, arterial hypertension, arterial stiffness, and plasma cholesterol elevation that have been correlated with methylxanthine consumption.
In other words, these compounds increase blood pressure, decrease the ability of our blood vessels to flex, and increase cholesterol, three ingredients required for many cardiovascular issues.
Interestingly, these authors agreed with the previous study that long-term caffeine consumption reduces type 2 diabetes risk; however, they found caffeine exacerbates insulin sensitivity and blood sugar levels in the short term.
If your eyes are now perfectly crossed, then you’ve officially caught up with the research community on caffeine.
How Osteoporosis and Other Conditions Affect Growth
Different Mechanisms, Same Result
Osteoporosis, degenerative disc disease, and a range of developmental disorders can all affect height and/or overall development.
Coffee may be getting away clean from the growth-stunting myth, but there are still other issues that can negatively affect your height, physical maturity, and muscular development.
As mentioned, osteoporosis is likely the most common cause of height loss, as compression fractures along the spine or lower extremities can literally shorten the bone and your overall height like pulling out a Jenga block.
Degenerative disc disease, which is characterized by the drying up and wasting away of the shock-absorbing discs between our vertebrae, also causes loss of height and overall size in many cases using a very similar mechanism.
The excessive rounding of the upper spine (kyphosis), caused by poor posture or another issue, is another potential cause of height loss.
Finally, there are many developmental, metabolic, and other disorders that can affect a person’s physical maturity and size in various ways, such as anemia, down syndrome, fetal alcohol syndrome, celiac disease, and more.
Beyond the favorable roll of the genetic dice, as long as you exercise, keep the calcium intake up, and mind that posture, coffee alone isn’t going to make you shorter.
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TNI Editorial Team
We're health-conscious people who want to help others take control of their nutrition by offering spin-free, hype-free information that is medically accurate, confirmed by doctors.
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