Can We All Calm Down About Coffee?
Recent news raised questions, again – about the health risks of coffee. How seriously should you take the warnings, and what about the athletic up-side of a little caffeine?
Coffee is never far from a headline. It’s the fuel that runs many of us. It’s something we enjoy. It’s part of many cultures. But we’re never sure whether it’s good or bad for us.
First, the good.
• Caffeine has been shown to reduce sleepiness and increase alertness, as anyone whoʼs ever used an espresso to power up after a sleepless night knows.
• Caffeine from coffee can also, it seems, improve athletic performance and endurance. Itʼs thought that because caffeine stimulates and boosts alertness, it allows athletes to train harder, for longer.
• Itʼs possible, based on the current research, that we may experience the same endurance-enhancing effects as athletes do. Caffeineʼs benefits peak about an hour after ingestion, so having a coffee an hour or so before a workout would be the best way to see if it works for you. Going easy on the milk and sugar means you wonʼt cancel out your workoutʼs benefits with extra calories.
• Thereʼs much hype online about the potential of caffeine as a “fat burner”, and itʼs included in supplements to supply this reputed benefit. It is possible caffeine helps muscles burn more fat, but the evidence is conflicting so far. There is some research associating caffeine with weight loss. But itʼs not a magic solution.
• Coffee may also have some other benefits in disease prevention: itʼs linked with reduced risk for type 2 diabetes, Alzheimerʼs, Parkinsonʼs disease and liver cancer. Coffee, like tea, also contains antioxidants which are beneficial to health.
So what about coffee’s downside?
• The main thing to note is that caffeine has a long half-life: about six hours, depending on the individual. That means that six hours after your espresso drink, half of its caffeine is still in your system, and could stay there for even longer. Not a problem at 2pm; potentially an issue at 10pm, because caffeine interferes with the duration and quality of your sleep. You might fall asleep, but have less of the deep, restorative sleep you need to wake up feeling rested. ▪ If youʼre worried you might be overdoing it, lay off the coffee in the late afternoon and evening, and if youʼre finding sleep a problem, try cutting back.
• There are few official guidelines on how much coffee is okay. Itʼs partly because we all tend to process caffeine at different rates; one personʼs mellow buzz turns another into a jittery wreck. Iʼm a two- coffee-a-week person; I know someone who happily drinks five or six coffees a day. Pregnant women are advised to limit coffee to about one a day.
• Whatʼs more, the caffeine in a cup of coffee can vary widely ‒ from 80mg to 150mg, depending on the variety and how itʼs roasted and brewed. Espresso has more caffeine than instant coffee, and cold-brew coffee can pack an even heftier punch. Large coffee drinks, of course, have more caffeine. It can be tricky to know how much youʼre getting in a specific cup.
So where does that leave us with our morning double-shot? As with everything, moderation is a good idea. And as always, it pays to look at the big picture. In a plant-based diet full of colorful, whole foods, a little coffee can be enjoyed without worry.
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