Nutrition 911, Part VIII: CoffeeFriend or
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Welcome to Part VIII of our
oh-so-basic nutrition class designed to give you an overview of basic nutrition
and make healthy eating much simpler. Please see the list of previous 911 articles below for more nutrition
we discuss the most popular drink in the world, coffee. I don't actually know
where these statistics come from, but since we mainly want to discuss one
ingredient, caffeine, I'll lump coffee, tea, and other caffeinated beverages
into the same discussion so that we'll be sure to be addressing something
that's pertinent to almost all of you. Coffee and tea have been around for the
entirety of recorded history, so no matter what science tells us, we begin this
edition with some time-tested knowledge that people don't go around dropping
dead over the stuff, nor will it get you banned for cheating when you win the
Olympics. Or will it?
Coffee and tea are probably the most
controversial substances we consume. Unlike, say, soda, candy, chocolate, and
fast food, all which we know are detrimental to our diets, studies swing both
ways over the benefits and dangers of our morning cup of java. But whatever the
outcome, we drink the stuff with an almost ritualistic glee. If you drink
neither coffee nor tea, you're an outsider in almost any culture on the
Coffee, tea, and other caffeinated
First off, let's talk about the difference between tea, coffee, and
other drinks laced with caffeine. Coffee and tea are both very simple products
made from mixing ground-up plants with hot water. So they're both 100 percent
natural, contain approximately zero calories, and a few nutrients. What they do
contain is caffeine. A lot of it. Coffee has nearly twice the caffeine as tea
but it varies by type and the brewing process. As a general rule, trendy green
teas have less caffeine than black teas, which have less than coffee. Figure
that for each cup of coffee or tea you consume, you'll get between 50 mg and
200 mg of caffeine.
Both have assorted other nutrients,
mainly antioxidants, all of which are quite healthy. The downside is that both
are acidic to the point that habitual consumption can cause stomach problems in
some people. But the main hit or miss with folks when it comes to coffee or tea
is the caffeine. After this, their choices are usually made by taste, ritual,
or the culture they live in.
Caffeine gives you a jolt of energy,
which we'll discuss later, and because of this, many other beverages now come
with a healthy dose of the stuff. Most sodas have some caffeine but the big
trend today is toward turbocharged "energy drinks." These are nasty concoctions
of sugar, caffeine, and other assorted legal uppers designed to amp you
sky-high and provide the illusion that you're having a good time. They may
work, at least for a short time, but are basically just time bombs of euphoria.
When you crash, you'll crash hard. Because these are soft drinks, their
discussion belongs in
Can coffee or tea make you fat?
There is one place we have a definitive
answer on this subject and it's that neither of these drinks will make you fat.
In fact, they should do the opposite. Caffeine is a diuretic, meaning it
affects your metabolic process at a heightened level. Translation: they make
you go to the bathroom more often. It also elevates brain activity which,
technically, should make you less hungry. This is why caffeine is often added
to diet aids.
The only things in coffee or tea that
can make you fat are things you add to them. Most of the menu at your local
Starbucks is stuff that makes coffee merely a side dish, if that. And
traditional drinks such as Thai iced tea are only tea in name. Therefore, just
because something calls itself "coffee" or "tea" doesn't mean that's all there
is to the story. Like with most foods, reading labels is important. For more on
The latest research
Coffee has been in the headlines a lot
recently. You may have caught the Yahoo headline this week stating it could
give you a heart attack. Or maybe you caught the study touting it as a
superfood last month. Certainly, you've heard it's a banned substance by the
International Olympic Committee due to its performance-enhancing qualities but
then why, you wonder, did you just see a headline saying you should avoid it
prior to a workout? And what about that study stating that if you drank enough
coffee, it would stave off the effects of all that alcohol you consume?
Coffee, tea, and caffeine are perhaps
the most widely studied things we put into our bodies (over 19,000 recent
recorded studies), yet no definitive stance can be found on the stuff. If this
seems odd, we must consider the fact that studies need to be funded and a lot
of money can skew a study to say this or thata subject I touch on often
in my blog. At any rate, let's wade into some of the more recent headlines and
try to make some sense out of them.
Will coffee give you a heart
Apparently it willif you're "at risk
for heart attacks," according to a syndicated article that was a Yahoo headline
this week. But what does this mean? The article begins with the vague line
about how coffee may trigger a heart attack in some people. If you delve
deeper, the water becomes muddier, so, tired of sifting through their muck, I
went to the source.
A large Costa Rican study over four
years studied the relationship between 503 nonfatal heart attacks and found
that most of the subjects drank coffee prior to having them. In the stats, it
appeared that light coffee drinkers were at more risk than heavy coffee
drinkers. This, as you might suppose, caused some confusion. Looking deeper
into the abstract, we see that the researchers think that the coffee/heart
attack relationship stems from a rare gene variation in some people. They also
stated their research was "far from conclusive." The report on Yahoo made no
mention of the gene variant and, instead, went with the more alarmist "those at
risk" line because "who isn't, right?" The study also clearly stated that most
of the population was at zero risk from drinking coffee.
The bottom line of the study was that
most of the population was not at risk and the few that might be, also may not
be. So, for now, I'll side with Dr. Robert Eckel, former president of the
American Heart Association, and remain "unconvinced."
Furthermore, a study done over two
decades using 120,000 subjects concluded there was no relationship between even
heavy coffee drinking and heart disease. This study, done in part by the
Harvard School of Public Health, stated there was no link between heart disease
and a daily intake of six or more cups of coffee per day. It also stated the
risk was the same for those who consumed less than one cup of coffee or tea per
month. This study also addressed the Costa Rican findings, stating they were
"possible" but "require confirmation."
Can you lose your gold medal?
Not anymore. In 2004, the International
Olympic Committee (IOC) removed caffeine from its banned list. Prior to that,
athletes could be busted for drinking about five cups of coffee or more.
Certainly, this means that some highly-thought-of scientists once thought is
was an ergogenic (performance enhancer). But was it removed because it was
found not to be effective, as there are now better ways of "cheating," or
because the coffee lobby contributed to the IOC? Time may or may not tell, but
one thing's for sure: many people feel caffeine enhances performance.
A recent Swiss study, however, refutes
it, at least in one sense. The study of 18 individuals showed that coffee prior
to exercise restricted heart blood flow by 22 percent. Obviously, this would be
a detriment to performance but, again, the research is far from conclusive. For
one, the study used regular coffee drinkers and then did not let them drink
coffee for 36 hours prior to the experiment, so their results may have had to
do with a coffee-withdrawal effect. And two, no study of 18 people can be
anywhere close to conclusive. But it's interesting, for sure, and certainly
much more will be done. I'd keep an eye out for more on this.
But, again, there's a lot more science
showing it has positive physical effects, even if they stem from better brain
function. An Austrian study using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)
to assess memory skills showed a marked improvement in motor skill and memory
after ingesting 100 mg of caffeine. The study cautioned that the progression
was not linear, meaning that more is not definitely better. But it was a
conclusive test as a performance enhancer.
According to physiologist Terry
Graham, PhD, of the University of Guelph in Canada, "What caffeine likely does
is stimulate the brain and nervous system to do things differently. That may
include signaling you to ignore fatigue or recruit extra units of muscle for
intense athletic performance." And, as to whether this better aids strength or
endurance sports he adds, "What's amazing about it is that unlike some
performance-enhancing manipulation athletes do that are specific for strength
or endurance, studies show that caffeine positively enhances all of these
Is coffee a superfood?
This would depend, I guess. We've seen some
downsides and I've yet to mention two others. One, it's addictive, and two,
it's been linked to insomnia. Performance-wise, sleep is crucial for your body
to recover and recharge itself. No matter its benefits, if coffee negatively
affects your ability to rest, it's not going to help you much.
Yet, analyzing data of 126,000 people
over 18 years has led to an almost astonishing number of likely health
benefits, including lowering your risk of diabetes, Parkinson's disease, colon
cancer, and improving mood, headaches, and even lessening the risk of cavities.
In some cases, even the "all things in
moderation" cliché was put to the test. For example, drinking one to
three cups a day reduced type 2 diabetes risk by single digits, whereas
drinking six or more cups per day slashed men's risk by 54 percent and women's
by 30 percent.
These findings have been routinely
backed up by further studies. At least six studies indicate that coffee
drinkers are up to 80 percent less likely to develop Parkinson's disease, with
three showing the more they drank, the lower the risk. Other research shows
that compared to not drinking coffee, at least two cups daily can cut your risk
of gallstones in half, provide a 25 percent less chance of contracting colon
cancer, and a whopping 80 percent decline in liver cirrhosis risk. So abundant
is this research that caffeine is added to certain medications to treat
headaches, mood, asthma, and now Parkinson's.
So is it time to hit Starbucks?
Since, as I've said before, this isn't
politics class, I won't tell you not to, but I'm certain that your local
organic, fair-trade, mom-and-pop coffeehouse with the open mic on Thursdays
will have better coffee anyway (wink). Back to the subject, coffee or tea
certainly don't seem to be harmful as a part of your diet. The problem with
them, I suspect, is more often what we add to them than the coffee itself. So
if you enjoy your morning or afternoon (maybe skip the evening) ritual, then by
all means indulge. Just keep it traditional, pure, simple, and forget the word
Frappuccino was ever invented.
Nutrition 911 articles
Harvard study: Esther Lopez-Garcia, DrPH; Rob M. van Dam, PhD; Walter
C. Willett, MD, DrPH; Eric B. Rimm, ScD; JoAnn E. Manson, MD, DrPH; Meir J.
Stampfer, MD, DrPH; Kathryn M. Rexrode, MD, MPH; Frank B. Hu, MD, PhD. Coffee
Consumption and Coronary Heart Disease in Men and Women. Circulation.
2006;113:2045-2053. Costa Rican study: Marilyn C. Cornelis, BSc; Ahmed
El-Sohemy, PhD; Edmond K. Kabagambe, PhD; Hannia Campos, PhD. Coffee, CYP1A2
Genotype, and Risk of Myocardial Infarction. JAMA. 2006;295:1135-1141.
Swiss study: Mehdi Namdar, MD, Pascal Koepfli, MD, Renate Grathwohl,
MD, Patrick T. Siegrist, MD, Michael Klainguti, MD, Tiziano Schepis, MD,
Raphael Delaloye, MD, Christophe A. Wyss, MD, Samuel P. Fleischmann, MD, Oliver
Gaemperli, MD and Philipp A. Kaufmann, MD. Caffeine Decreases Exercise-Induced
Myocardial Flow Reserve. J Am Coll Cardiol, 2006; 47:405-410. Florian
Koppelstätter, MD, PhD., Thorsten D. Poeppel, MD, PhD, Christian M.
Siedentopf, Ilka Haala, Anja Ischebeck, PhD, Felix M. Mottaghy, MD, PhD, Paul
Rhomberg, MD, PhD, Michael Verius, PhD, Stefan M.
Golaszewski, MD, PhD, Christian Kolbitsch, MD, PhD, Stephan R. Felber, MD, PhD,
and Bernd J. Krause, MD, PhD Coffee Jump-starts Short-term Memory. Radiological
Society of North America's annual meeting, Chicago, Nov. 27-Dec. 2, 2005.
American Dietetic Association: "Cutting Down on Caffeine." News release,
Radiological Society of North America. Guelph study: Terry E. Graham,
PhD. Caffeine and Exercise: Metabolism, Endurance and Performance. Sports
Medicine, Volume 31, Number 11, 1 November 2001; 23:785-807.
- Part I addresses the
terms organic, grass-fed, free-range, and farm-raised.
- Part II
analyzes the ever-popular "fat-free" and trendy "low-carb" slogans.
- Part III takes the
CliffNotes approach to reading food labels.
- Part IV
- Part V
concerns what to eat.
VI tackles soda pop, the worst food on the planet.
VII takes a look at the so-called "best" foods on the planet.