To Drink or Not to Drink - Is Coffee Really Bad For You?
Nutrition

To Drink or Not to Drink - Is Coffee Really Bad For You?

Posted

15 June 2015

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Coffee is one of those things that never quite has a clear ‘bad’ or ‘good’ line drawn to make it easy for us. Margarine? Bad! Vegetables? Good! Easy! However when it comes to coffee, the line is fuzzy making it hard for us health conscious folk to decide whether to give it up or not. Is coffee good or bad? There is no definitive answer. Well, in order to answer this perhaps what you want to ask yourself is, “Why do I drink coffee?”

While you ponder on that, let’s take a walk into the world of coffee. First the basics; Coffee is a brewed drink prepared from roasted coffee beans. These beans are the seeds found inside the fruit of the coffee tree, which incidentally is one of 60 known plants that naturally contain caffeine. 

What is caffeine?

Ah caffeine, the ‘culprit’ often cited as the downfall of coffee beverages. Caffeine belongs to the group of medicines called central nervous system (CNS) stimulants. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that caffeine is both a drug and a food additive - things are getting interesting. Caffeine is used in both prescription and over-the-counter medicines to treat tiredness, drowsiness and to improve the effects of some pain relievers. Whether or not caffeine is consumed in food or as medicine, what’s important to note is that it changes the way your brain and body work. It is mood-altering (psychotropic), a mild diuretic and stimulates the central nervous system, heart rate and respiration. Which explains why many people get heart palpitations or need to go to the toilet after drinking coffee.

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How does caffeine work?

Caffeine is a stealthy impersonator. It basically confuses your body into thinking that it is not tired by blocking out a neurochemical called adenosine (the molecule that causes tiredness) from passing through the body’s receptors. Since it is the same size and shape as adenosine, your adenosine receptors can’t tell the difference. However instead of just passing through - like adenosine does - caffeine attaches itself to the A1 receptor thus preventing the real adenosine from entering and making you tired.

Now that all these receptors are clogged, neurotransmitters like dopamine and glutamate can get to work, swelling and giving you a mild jolt of energy. That’s where the whole ‘coffee keeps me awake’ bit comes from. Once consumed, caffeine hits you within one hour and then remains in the blood for the next four to six hours. While in theory it might not sound that bad, the reality is that coffee does have its downside (as well as upside).

The downside of caffeine

  • Makes you jittery and shaky
  • Makes it hard to sleep
  • Elevates heart rate
  • Causes uneven heart rhythm
  • Raises blood pressure
  • Causes headaches, dizziness, nervousness
  • Makes you dehydrated
  • It is addictive, making you dependent on it


The benefits of caffeine

  • Coffee is rich in antioxidants (4 times as much as green tea). The antioxidants are in the form of polyphenol which have powerful disease fighting properties.
  • Caffeine is a stimulant that keeps the brain active.
  • A study conducted by Alzheimer Europe and the Institute for Scientific Information on Coffee found that 3 to 5 cups of coffee a day is the optimal amount to protect the brain from degenerative illnesses such as Alzheimer’s.
  • Caffeine increases endurance during exercise.
  • Caffeine taken with carbohydrate helps speed up the replenishment of muscle glycogen.
  • Caffeine may help reduce post-workout muscle pain.
  • People who increased the amount of coffee they drank each day by more than one cup over a four-year period had an 11% lower risk for Type 2 diabetes than those who made no changes to their coffee consumption, according to a new study led by Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) researchers. In addition, the study found that those who decreased their coffee consumption by more than a cup per day increased their Type 2 diabetes risk by 17%

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How much can we consume

We recommend not drinking more than five cups [of coffee] per day," says Miriam Nelson, PhD, a professor of nutrition at Tufts University and a member of the 2015 USDA Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. Five cups is about 400 milligrams of caffeine, according to the FDA. They say that much caffeine a day is safe for healthy adults who aren't pregnant.
How to take your coffee
Don’t steer too far from drinking coffee in its natural form, i.e black. You can add a little bit of milk and a sprinkle of sugar but limit the fancy coffees such as the lattes, flat whites, cappuccinos and such. And definitely avoid (or leave as an occasional treat) decadent, full-of-sugar frappucinos, blends and the like. All that sugar will outweigh the benefits of the actual coffee.

So is it good or bad?

So here’s the thing, the question isn’t whether coffee is good or bad. Coffee is just part of a plant that has stimulative qualities. However, what we do with it is what matters.

Now that you have a better understanding of coffee, here are a few questions to ask yourself:

  • Must you have a coffee to start your day?
  • Can you get through the day without coffee?
  • Do you find yourself reaching for a cup of coffee every time you feel tired?
  • Does coffee elevate your heart rate?

If you answered ‘Yes’ to most of these questions, then perhaps you may need to look at other habits in your life - such as whether you getting enough sleep, and whether you are nourishing your body with the right foods to keep you energised throughout the day. Yes, the irony is that it is okay to drink coffee when you don’t actually need coffee. Once you start relying on coffee to keep you awake, give you energy or to elevate your mood, then perhaps it’s time to cut back on that cuppa joe.

References:

  1. Medicines in my home: Caffeine and your body - http://www.fda.gov/downloads/UCM200805.pdf
  2. Medicines in my home: Caffeine and your body - http://www.fda.gov/downloads/UCM200805.pdf
  3. http://www.coffeeandhealth.ca/antioxidants.htm
  4. http://www.netdoctor.co.uk/interactive/news/drinking-coffee-reduces-alzheimers-risk-id801762738-t116.html
  5. http://www.caffeineinformer.com/top-10-caffeine-health-benefits
  6. http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/press-releases/increasing-daily-coffee-intake-may-reduce-type-2-diabetes-risk/
  7. http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/20150311/coffee-health-faq?page=1


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