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Caffeine and Health: Just The Facts

By Melinda Maryniuk, MEd, RD, CDCES

If you’re like the majority of Americans, you start your day with at least one cup of a caffeinated beverage. Whether it’s coffee or tea (or one of the popular energy drinks), most people agree that caffeine in the morning helps jump-start the day.

What is caffeine?

Caffeine is a bitter substance that occurs naturally in more than 60 plants. It acts as a natural stimulant. Caffeine can help you stay alert and awake.

Where is caffeine found?

The most common source of caffeine Is in coffee beans. It is also found in tea leaves, kola nuts (used to flavor cola soft drinks) and cacao pods (chocolate). There is a synthetic (man-made) caffeine that is added to some medicines, food and drinks such as some pain relievers, cold medicines, over-the-counter medicines for alertness and some “energy-boosting” drinks, gums and snacks. Up to 400 mg caffeine per day is considered safe.

Common Sources of Caffeine (per 8 oz)

– Coffee, brewed: 95-200 mg

– Starbucks, drip: 173 mg

– Dunkin, drip: 143 mg

– Espresso: 250-700 mg

– Decaf coffee: 0-50 mg

– Black tea: 45-90 mg

– Green tea: 30-50 mg

– Hot chocolate: 5 mg

– Cola soda: 35 mg

Red Bull drink: 76 mg

– Cocoa beverage: 2-7 mg

What about coffee-based beverages?

With the rise of coffee shops on every corner, a huge array of coffee-based beverages have been created. Most have lots of added sugars (and maybe cream) pushing the calories per serving to over 500! Yes, you’ll get a boost of caffeine if that is what you want, but you may also be getting lots of unwanted calories, sugars and fat. Bottom line: watch out for specialty drinks like “Coolatta” and “Frappuccino.”

Should I limit the amount of caffeine I’m consuming?

This is something you’ll want to talk with your doctor or healthcare provider about. Generally, up to about 400 mg caffeine per day is considered safe. There are some situations where less caffeine (or avoiding it altogether) is recommended – as it may interact with some medicines, or may be linked with increased blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, anxiety or trouble sleeping.

Is caffeine addictive?

This is debatable. Caffeine is a stimulant to the central nervous system. Regular use of caffeine does cause a mild physical dependence and if you stop consuming it abruptly, you may feel symptoms for a day or two – including headache, fatigue, and anxiety. However, it does not threaten your physical, social, or economic health the way addictive drugs do. Thus, while symptoms of a caffeine withdrawal can be uncomfortable for a few days, it is not serious, and most experts do not consider caffeine dependence an addiction.

Can caffeine help with weight loss?

Not really. It is true that caffeine is a stimulant and may increase metabolism by up to 10% and increase fat burning by up to 13%. Stated another way, drinking beverages containing 300 mg of caffeine each day may allow you to burn an extra 79 calories. It is interesting to note that a 12-year study on caffeine and weight gain noted that the participants who drank the most coffee were, on average, only about one pound lighter at the end of the study. Bottom line: Caffeine may boost metabolism and promote fat loss, but these effects are small over the long-term.

How does caffeine affect blood glucose?

For people with diabetes, you may notice that mornings when you drink more caffeinated beverages you may have slightly higher glucose readings. Caffeine increases insulin resistance and stimulates the release of adrenaline, which leads to a rise in glucose. For most people the rise is small (20-40 mg/dl), and for others there may be very little or no rise.

How else does caffeine affect my health?

In addition to its effects on mildly stimulating metabolism and increasing energy, research is showing several benefits that seem to be attributed to caffeine:

  • Improved mood and brain function: Caffeine has an effect on brain signaling molecules (such as adenosine and dopamine). There may be a link between caffeine and improved mood, decreased likelihood of depression and some protection against Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. 
  • Improved exercise performance: Studies are finding links between caffeine intake and improved focus, as well as better performance in several types of exercise, including endurance, strength-training and high-intensity.
  • Reduced risk of heart disease: Despite what you may have heard, caffeine does not raise the risk of heart disease. While some may find that blood pressure increases, the effect is generally small (3-4 mmHg) and tends to fade for most people when coffee is consumed regularly. Several studies have shown a lower risk of heart disease in men and women who drink 1-4 cups of coffee or green tea daily. 
  • Reduced risk of type 2 diabetes: Several studies have shown a link between increased coffee /caffeine intake and a decreased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
  • And more: Scientists are seeing links between caffeine/coffee intake and some other health benefits including decreased risk of premature death, liver damage, certain cancers (such as skin cancer) and gout.

Does this mean that more caffeine is better?

No. Most studies showing benefits are only looking at 1-4 cups of coffee /day (or up to about 400 mg caffeine). Moderation is best!

Bottom line: We are learning more and more about caffeine but know that individual responses may vary. As a general guideline – we are seeing benefits to consuming moderate amounts of coffee/tea/caffeinated beverages daily. Talk with your doctor or healthcare provider about what might be right for you.

While this article provides guidance about eating habits, it’s important to stress that for many people, diet and exercise alone aren’t enough to reach a healthier weight. The good news is that there are safe and effective medical treatments available that can address the biological issues that make sustained weight loss difficult. To find a physician near you who specializes in weight management, click here.