Gotta Have Java? Debunking Caffeine Myths

Are you and coffee BFFs? That’s not necessarily a bad thing—unless you’re like Joe, here…

“I only need one cup of coffee to get through the day.” #CupsNotCreatedEqual

There as many myths and mixed messages regarding caffeine as drink options at Starbucks. Since I’ve been reading loads of research on caffeine for my non-fiction work, I thought I’d share some of the highlights. Knowledge is power, right? Fueled up with facts, we can all make better-informed decisions.

Facts Behind Common Caffeine Myths

Caffeine promotes weight loss. Nope. Caffeine may give your metabolism a mild, temporary lift, but not enough to make a substantial difference. Caffeine consumed throughout throughout the day is more likely to trigger weight gain, says registered dietitian and diabetes specialist Robyn Goldberg. The peaks and lulls caffeine causes, particularly when consumed without fiber or protein-rich foods, can interfere with blood sugar control and metabolism. And creamy, sugar caffeinated drinks can add plentiful amounts of calories to your diet, without the satiating benefits of whole foods.

Caffeine helps us sober up. Also false. It does give us the impression that we’re more lucid—one reason blending caffeine with alcohol is so dangerous. Startling, particularly considering the fact that 31 percent of 12 to 17-year-olds and 34 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds consume alcoholic energy drinks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Coffee is unhealthy. On the contrary, coffee has been linked with a lowered risk diseases, including diabetes and dementia—likely due to its antioxidant content. A study conducted at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania showed that the average American adult consumes 1,299 milligrams of antioxidants daily from coffee. But that doesn’t mean coffee should substitute more valuable sources, such as fruits and vegetables, however—foods Americans tend to lack.

Caffeine is always healthy. Not for everyone, or in endless supply. Excessive caffeine intake is associated with insomnia, anxiety, digestive upset, a rapid heartbeat, agitation and muscle tremors. If you have a paradoxical reaction to caffeine, meaning it calms you slightly, excessive intake still causes side effects. And even small amounts can worsen symptoms of anxiety, ulcers, acid reflux and menopause. Heaps of sugar and cream, needless to say, aren’t nutritious.

Coffee is dehydrating. Caffeine is only dehydrating if we consume excessive amounts, or more than 500 milligrams (5+ cups of coffee) per day. In lesser amounts, the liquids in coffee and tea more than make up for the mild diuretic effect. Caffeine supplements and energy drinks are more likely to cause dehydration.

Caffeine makes us smarter. Sorry, no. Coffee can make us feel mentally sharper, but much like the sobriety factor, numerous studies have shown that we merely perceive those benefits. (Hmm… Sounds a lot like believing ourselves cooler while drunk.) If you’ve grown dependent on coffee, you’re likely to feel fuzzy until you get your fix. That dose may bring your brain back to ground level, but it won’t catapult you higher.

Caffeine makes up for lost sleep. There are some cases in which caffeine can be highly beneficial—when sleep deprived before a necessary drive, for example. But caffeine merely blocks receptors in our brains that indicate our sleepiness; it doesn’t undo it. Drinking more than four 8-ounce cups of coffee per day is a major risk factor for sleep problems, according to the National Sleep Foundation. And limiting daytime caffeine is one of the best ways to improve sleep.

FACT: Poor sleep leads to daytime grogginess, which leads to more caffeine, which leads to more sleep trouble. Sleep trouble also slows the metabolism, makes exercise less effective and increases our appetites. As we gain weight as a result, our sleep challenges increase. Like I said, a pretty unpleasant cycle.

So what’s a java lover to do?

  • If you love coffee, limit your intake to a max of three 8-ounce cups most days. (Coffee contains 100 – 200 milligrams per cup, and 500 milligrams or more is considered excessive.) If you’re highly sensitive to stimulants, drink less.
  • To avoid blood sugar imbalances, edginess and weight gain, have coffee with balanced meals or snacks.
  • Drink coffee and other caffeinated beverages early in the day—especially if you’re prone to sleep problems. It takes about 6 hours to eliminate half of the caffeine we’ve consumed, and 10 to 12 hours for the whole shebang. Count 10 hours back from your preferred bedtime, then aim to stop before then.
  • Don’t let coffee or tea be your primary source of antioxidants. The more whole foods we eat, the more energized, healthy and sharp we’re likely to feel and be. You’ll relay on caffeine less. Getting rid of crutches, in my opinion, is a great thing.
  • If you decide to cut back on caffeine, do so gradually to avoid withdrawal symptoms, such as headaches, nausea and vomiting.
  • Savor your sips! Eating and drinking mindfully—slowly and with awareness—keeps us from guzzling our way off the deep end. It also boosts overall health and enjoyment.

To learn the caffeine content of other foods and drinks, check out this detailed list via the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Are you a coffee drinker? What’s your favorite kind? Any thoughts on the benefits or risks? 

Leave a comment

66 Comments

  1. Sometimes I feel like the ONLY person in the world who doesn’t eat bacon, doesn’t drink alcohol and doesn’t drink coffee.

    Seriously.

    When people find out I don’t indulge in these three things, I feel like they think I’m not human.

    Truth is, all of these things bring on hideous migraine headaches — of which I am a sufferer. So no thank you, please.

    Just think of all the money I save so I can buy fabulous shoes. 😉

    Reply
    • I’m in the ‘seldom’ category for all three of those things, Renee. Nanu nanu! 😉 We should hang out and go close shopping. All three are pretty common headache triggers, too.

      Reply
    • I’m with you Renee – though not the bacon part. I love bacon. I don’t actually like the taste of coffee or alcohol so I don’t bother. Cdn Coca-Cola has more caffeine than Amn Coke – that’s what I’ve heard at any rate. That’s the only source of caffeine for me :/

      Reply
  2. I’m one of those who LOVES, LOVES, LOVES coffee, and not just the Starbucks variety. But I usually drink 1 or 2 cups a day, mostly because I’m trying to get a drink-more-water habit. Some days I’m successful. Some days not 🙂

    Reply
  3. I adore coffee but can’t really drink, or not much, as it causes migraines if I drink too much and I get really hyper on it. One called ‘lava java’ is the worst! 🙂

    Reply
  4. GReat stuff, August! Having lived in New England my whole life, where Dunkin Donuts coffee is a daily function for a lot of people in the same manner as breathing, eating, and sleeping, I just could never get into coffee. I even wrote about it……http://thoughtsfromthecornercube.wordpress.com/2012/08/22/brewing-up-coffee-thoughts/

    Reply
  5. Catherine Johnson

     /  October 1, 2012

    I still remember your anxiety tips, so the fact I had a yoghurt right before this coffee seems weird now. You’re so right about protein. I’ve had a lot of sleep deprivation and really headed for carbs but it’s protein that helps you more to stay alert and be healthy. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Glad the protein is helping, Catherine! The brain needs carbohydrates to stay energized and for the protein to enhance calmness, though. The key is balancing carbs with protein and choosing most healthy sources of both. Yogurt has both, so you’re good. 🙂

      Reply
  6. Danny and I have been out of coffee since Saturday and I do miss it! I did get a headache the last two days probably from withdrawal. I am going to make a hot chocolate and have a peanut butter toast… 🙂

    Reply
  7. So I sat down in the coffee shop with my laptop, and this was the first post I opened to read. Ha! However, I’m not drinking coffee. Hot cocoa for me, thanks. I do drink 2-3 diet sodas per day, but I try to balance it out with water, and that’s so much better than the 4-5 regular Cokes I used to drink.

    A few years back, I did stop drinking sodas after supper, and I have noticed a positive difference in how well I sleep. I always fell asleep fine, but I stay asleep better without the caffeine. Great info, August!

    Reply
  8. Great post, August. I had a hunch about the dehydration myth, but didn’t have proof for it. Thanks for enlightening me. And of course, I love the advice to drink coffee mindfully. It’s a rainy day in Georgia and the leaves are just starting to change. Today, nothing is better than a warm cup of coffee to sip slowly.

    Reply
  9. Wow! What great information, August. I knew some of it, but most was new to me. I don’t drink much coffee anymore because it makes me ill, literally, but I drink tea. Funny, but yesterday as I was going over my menu for this week, I put a note on the side saying, ‘One cup of black tea in the morning, then switch to green tea and water for rest of day’. Yes, I need to write notes to remind myself to drink less black tea. I started to see the highs and lows each day like you wrote about.

    By the way, I was searching online for some symptoms I’ve been having and one of the hits that came up was an article you wrote for Livestrong. I got all excited and showed my husband. He was duly impressed. I thought it was totally cool and you gave great information in that article, too.

    Reply
  10. Running from Hell with El

     /  October 1, 2012

    Of course I’m sipping my cuppa Joe as I read your blog this morning! I read a really cool book on the history of coffee (including the origin of the phrase cuppa Joe). Loved your factual article above . . . reminds me of when I was pregnant the first time and the popular opinion was that coffee was deleterious for the baby. I cut back to half-caff and would get these looks from mommies as if I were tossing back shots of liquor, lol. By the third kid, this myth had been debunked (thank goodness).

    I thought your discussion of blood sugar was also really interesting.

    One other thing: I wonder if caffeine is more addictive (yep, had to know I’d go there lol) than many other substances?

    Have a lovely day! It’s a beautiful fall morning here on the east coast!

    Reply
    • Great and ever-so-El question. 😉 As far as I know, the addiction potential for caffeine depends on the person and consumption habits. If you have an addictive personality, it’s more likely. But it’s not the type of substance we can grow hooked on from one use.

      If we drink coffee daily, the body becomes desensitized to its effects over time, no matter how much we drink. Headaches, grogginess, moodiness and other symptoms one experienced until one’s had their fix are withdrawal symptoms. Caffeine dependency may be added to the DSMV-V (psychiatric diagnostic manual) as a disorder—but it’s not considered as serious as, say, cocaine or nicotine dependency.

      Reply
  11. I always thought the metabolism thing was true. Thanks for the advice… and tips! I usually stay at one cup in the mornings and water the rest of the day.

    Reply
  12. That’s the problem: you can look at 100 surveys, and half says that coffee is bad for you, the other half says it’s fine. I have one (large) mug in the A.M. and that’s it. No harm, no foul.

    Reply
    • That’s why I read current large-scale research and talk to neurologists. 😉 Fruits and vegetables are evil in some people’s eyes, too.

      Reply
  13. Caffeine is a solidly proven performance enhancer for physical exercises and reaction time: (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/26/health/nutrition/26best.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0).

    In the same way, caffeine has been shown to improve access to short term memory, which probably accounts for why some people feel like they are smarter after coffee-ing up. You don’t actually know more, but the information you have is more readily available.

    Reply
  14. prudencemacleod

     /  October 1, 2012

    August!!! Three cups per day??? Can I use a giant cup? No?? sigh All right girl, can I at least supplement with chocolate? Come on, I’m a writer, you know we mainline coffee. Help me!!!

    Reply
    • LOL I would never force you to change your ways, Prudence. Chocolate is lots lower in caffeine, by the way. 😉

      If you want to cut back, you could switch to tea part-way through the day. Green tea’s been shown to provide many of coffee’s benefits plus more antioxidants, without as many adverse effects.

      Reply
  15. Great research! I love when I find out that something I love is good for me – even in the quantities that I am currently consuming it! Thanks for the natural pick-me-up! I’m gonna go get a cup of joe right now! 🙂

    Reply
  16. I love coffee, but August you are correct with the weight gain. Caffeine causes the liver to release glycogen. The pancreas responds to the sudden rise in blood sugar by releasing insulin, the hormone that causes excess carbs to be stored as fat. A way to help avoid the weight gain, is to have your cup of java in the morning before you eat breakfast, not with it. Why must there always be a down side to everything? Arrggh

    Reply
    • Having your coffee right before a low-glycemic (rich in fiber and/or protein) meal could work. Otherwise, I generally recommend having caffeinated beverages with meals for enhanced blood sugar and insulin control. This also guards against other side effects. Thanks for weighing in, Marla!

      Reply
  17. Great post August; – we girls love talking about coffee and chocolate.

    I live in Ireland; – traditionally the land of tea and Guinness drinkers. In the past ten years however, coffee chains sprung up like dandelions, populating every street corner, so now it’s de rigeur to know your Espressos from your Americanos.
    Like Renée, I’m prone to migraine so mostly avoid real coffee. But here’s an anecdote for you Californian gals:
    Recently I met with a friend in an indigenous little cafe in Galway City. Without thinking I ordered
    ‘a soya decaf latte’. The proprietor scrunched his forehead as he strove to process what class of drink I had requested. Then his expression changed to mirth as he chuckled; –

    “Ha… L.A. has finally come to Galway. You want a coffee that isn’t a coffee!”

    And he delivered, proving there’s plenty of choice for those of us who like the taste but can’t neccessarly deal with the caffeine.
    A good tip for cutting down on coffee is to start supplementing with a good quality decaf, ie. begin by mixing half a spoon of real coffee with half a spoon of decaf. Unless you’re very cynical you can convince yourself with the placebo effect.
    Mary E. Coen @ http://www.goddessmeca.com

    Reply
    • That is funny.. yes, we Americans want what we want and drive people nuts! I am a Guinness fan.. it looks like chocolate and is oh so creamy.

      Reply
  18. Great information, August! I wish I could get my mom, sister and one brother to heed this information. My sister drove to another city during a power outage because she couldn’t go without her morning coffee (several cups). God only knows how many 32 oz mugs of the stuff my mom drinks every day. And my brother simply took the lid off a big cup and threw it away after a bird pooped on it. Can’t waste any coffee! (yeah, had that been me, the entire CUP would have been in the trash!). 🙂

    I gave up caffeine during a high risk pregnancy…and never started back up again. It was too miserable quitting, and I knew I’d want to stop it again someday so… It just made more sense to leave it alone. By that time I was already off all caffeinated sodas, too, so it worked for me. Occasionally I’ll have a hazelnut decaf (with more calories than a chocolate malted), but that’s maybe once every 2-3 months. If I screw up and get regular coffee, I get shaky and my heart will pound. So NO caffeine for me, thanks. I’ll stick with water, non/barely caffeinated herbal teas, and non-diet ginger ale or Sprite once in a while.

    Reply
  19. I’m clearly in the minority here, August. Coffee is a regular part of my morning routine and I’m not going to give it up. How about a post on the health benefits of coffee, sort of like the one you did on the health benefits of dessert? 😀

    Reply
    • See the tid bits about antioxidants above, Diane! 😉 Sticking to your morning coffee routine is probably fine and potentially beneficial, as long as you aren’t experiencing any ill effects.

      Reply
  20. FAB post August. But dang…here I thought I was getting smarter with each cup. Oh well…dang! LOL!

    But seriously, I love a cup or two a day. Something warm in the mornings is always nice and there’s something so…comforting…about a hot cup of coffee or tea. My favorite coffee to buy when out and about is a Butter Pecan Latte at Second Cup but that’s a rare treat. Normally, I do instant coffee at home with sugar and a little milk or whitener. I know most people “gasp” at instant coffee but…I love it! Got my own little formula down pat from weekends camping…

    Reply
  21. August, thank you. You just explained something for me that I’ve always wondered about. I can drink coffee at any time of the day, and still have no problems sleeping. In fact, when I’m stressed, my husband will buy me a cup of coffee and I feel calmer from drinking it rather than energized. If I drink too much caffeine (in whatever form), I get shaky, but still don’t have the regular “wake up” that everyone talks about from coffee. It sounds like I’m one of those people who experiences the opposite of the normal effects of caffeine.

    Reply
  22. I detest coffee! I have never acquired a taste for it and I think it smells like skunk.

    I do, however, drink tea. Every day I sip on iced tea until mid-afternoon, then I switch to water.

    I was surprised to learn, not too long ago, that coffee does actually have some health benefits. I was glad to see you posted them as well. Everything in moderation I guess.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

    Reply
  23. One cup in the morning is my limit. And then it’s lots of water through the day. I do also drink one glass of wine before dinner. I rarely drink soda—only once in a great while if I’m out for lunch. More studies continue to show soda is especially not good for women’s health. But I’d be in mourning if I ever had to give up chocolate entirely!

    Reply
  24. Jess Witkins

     /  October 1, 2012

    I savor my fancy coffee drinks on days off only. Writing and coffee go well together. Mmmm But I’m also a green tea fanatic, which I’ve read is better for you than water. What say you Obi Won of Nutrition?

    Reply
    • Green tea provides water, plus loads of antioxidants. So yes, it is more nutrient-rich than agua. And even decaf green tea gifts a slight lift, minus the potential edginess of coffee. May the healthy force be with you, love. 😉

      Reply
  25. No coffee for me (ever), but I do love my tea. On my whiteboard in my classroom sits a magnet, “While they is tea, there is hope.” 🙂

    Reply
  26. Kourtney Heintz

     /  October 1, 2012

    I’m a 1/2 a cup a day girl. I usually make my own latte–half a cup of coffee +1 cup of warmed milk. Otherwise it gives me belly burn. Maybe one cup of tea in the afternoon.

    Reply
  27. Caffeine doesn’t make us smarter? That’s a new myth for me. LOL. Thanks for putting all that information in one place. I’ve found a chocolate spice tea that I like.

    Reply
  28. Guarantee I go way over the 500 mg limit, however, it doesn’t seem to affect my sleep. Perhaps I’m one of the lucky ones. I have had exceptionally strong coffee (stand a spoon up in it) that made me jumpy but that is rare. On the daily side, we use a combination of dark roast with a variety of Jumpy Monkey (brand name) blends like creme brule or German chocolate flavor. And, of course, Starbucks where I do half blond/half bold (which is good flavor and solid caffeine). Excellent post, August 🙂

    Reply
    • I’d say you either have a paradoxical reaction to caffeine or a stable dependency. LOL Kidding! Caffeine definitely affects people differently… The key is finding what works best for us. Your daily combo sounds equal parts delicious and entertaining. Yum.

      Reply
  29. Coffee am my bestest friend….just saying. *s* But I have cut back. I now try to drink as much (or more) water for each cup of coffee. And I stopped the cream. The cat is hissed off.

    Reply
  30. Gosh this post sure got a lot of interest! I am enjoying reading what everyone has to say. I forgot to mention that I recently learned that coffee is a crop that is heavily sprayed with pesticides, so now I buy organic. It is the pesticides and toxins that keep extra fat around our mid section.. fat holds the toxins away from our organs. I am doing another cleanse now, and can’t have coffee. I did a cleanse to clean out the toxins last summer and released 12 pounds. I am doing one more month long one now, and when my husband is brewing his coffee in the morning, I take a good whiff, I do LOVE the smell….

    Reply
    • Glad you’re digging the conversation, too, Marla! My latest mag article sorts out facts and myths about cleansing. I’ll spare you the nitty gritty, but will happily share the link once it’s published if you’re interested.

      Reply
      • I would love to read your article about cleansing. It has worked wonders for me.. I do a full body nutritional cleanse. I don’t fast. It is a lot of nutrition in a small amount of calories, instead of the usual American diet of little nutrition in a lot of calories. Since I am post menopausal, if I don’t really keep the calories in check and the toxins to a minimum, I just have the hardest time staying lean and mean.. 🙂

  31. I have two cups of strong black coffee in the morning and that’s it- Deep Creek Blend roasted here at Smoky Mountain Roasters. We bought one of those grind and brews so we have whole beans – it really does make a difference!

    When I visit my son in Oregon, he uses a French Press, and he buys only the “best” beans – 😀 – and that coffee is some good, too. You have to make it just so – it’s a whole process and part of the enjoyment of the coffee, or so I have learned!

    The last memory I have of not drinking coffee, in my 20s, I had the worst withdrawal headache – it mimicked a migraine! And I felt like hell . . . . never again.

    Sometimes I think “What if we have some natural disaster and I can’t get to my coffee! OMG! WIthdrawal headache! NOOOOO!” So I picture myself eating coffee beans and weaning myself off of them – even if I have to break into a coffee house – coffee looter! *laugh*

    How come I always ramble so on your blog in the comments? Huhn. *craaaaazzzzzzzyyyyy*

    Reply
    • Uh… Because you’re awesome? 🙂

      My professional, unsolicited advice would be this: Add caffeinated beverages or No Doz capsules to your emergency supply kit. If the big whatever comes, step down gradually. Storms are tough enough sans migraines.

      Reply
  32. mgedwards

     /  October 2, 2012

    As a coffee snob, I wholeheartedly agree, August, and appreciate the reprieve that gives me the flexibility to drink up to 24 ounces of coffee per day. The only points I would add that not all coffees are equal — different mixes and bean types contain different caffeine levels. Also, there are other ways to intake caffeine (e.g. sodas and chocolate), so it’s probably better to limit caffeine in coffee and consider decaf, especially in the afternoon. You are absolutely right about caffeine affecting sleep. Better to avoid the caffeine cycle and aim for a good night’s sleep.

    Reply
  33. YAY! I LOVE LOVE LOVE coffee. Thanks for the informative post. I hear so many mixed messages about coffee, it’s good to know I can still enjoy my medium coffee in the morning without feeling guilty.

    Reply
  34. Coleen Patrick

     /  October 3, 2012

    I love coffee–soy lattes to be specific. I typically only drink it once a day but when I see people drinking coffee drinks in a movie or on TV, I automatically want it! Highly suggestive. 🙂

    Reply
    • Me too! Vanilla soy lattes to be exact. In my memoir, Diary of a Beverly Hills Matchmaker, I am always drinking a vanilla soy latte… Starbucks should pay me for advertising.. heheheh

      Reply
  35. along with everything else, I’m off coffee too. nothing left for me that’s bad. I’m so sad.

    Reply
  36. Are you sure it doesn’t make me smarter? More creative? OK, it does make me more talkative. Today went out to lunch with friends and had to ask the waiter who kept refilling my mug to cut me off so I would still have friends. Fun fact: in Montreal, people drink so much coffee that researchers look for caffeine in the water when they are trying to find sewage leaks. “If there’s an abundance of caffeine in the water, “it means you have a leaky sewage pipe somewhere,” lead researcher Sébastien Sauvé told the Post.”

    When my children were young I took to double shots of espresso with cream at 3:30 p.m. to get through the witching hour, until I realized that 2 hours later my ears were ringing and I was raising my voice inappropriately. Caffeine free (except for tea) for 15 years — and then … the kids left, we visited Europe, and somehow the real deal made it’s way back into my life. Sigh. Nice post, lots of good information, and thanks for the go-ahead for (moderate) coffee drinking.

    Reply
  37. I refuse to drink coffee; I’d hate to be awake enough to be aware of my surroundings…

    Reply
  38. Its kind of funny to me, as soon as I mention coffee as a writer, other writers automatically assume I spend my days guzzling cup after cup of coffee. I never got that one!
    I don’t drink coffee every day and I never drink more than one cup. It just clears the fog long enough for me to figure out what on God’s green earth I’m supposed to be doing right then. 😉
    I love all the information – I always wondered why coffee made me feel “more clear headed” but never gave me any energy, like others say it does for them.
    Also – the link at the end is majorly cool!

    Reply
    • Forgot… coffee does have the reverse effect on me sometimes, and about fifteen to thirty minutes later I feel more calm and tired than before. Very strange.

      Reply
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