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? 

Health Benefits of Desserts

Ever feel like this?

Dessert deprivation is not a happy, healthy state.

In a culture that places excessive value on dieting and thinness, yet struggles increasingly with weight gain and obesity, it’s easy to view dessert as a tantalizing enemy. But according to many health experts, recovered dieters and studies, negative attitudes and avoidance of desserts—and other foods—can be more detrimental to our wellness than indulging.

But that’s not all. Desserts can actually boost our wellness. (Did she say boost?) Yep! Consider the following…

Benefits of Incorporating Desserts into a Healthy, Balanced Diet

Improved weight control.

In a recent study published in the journal Steroids, 195 obese adults followed calorie-controlled diets for 16 weeks. Both plans contained the same amount of calories and namely healthy foods, with one difference—one group consumed dessert daily. The dessert eaters lost slightly more weight than the non-dessert eaters and were significantly more successful at keeping lost pounds off.

“Most people simply regain weight, no matter what diet they are on,” Daniela Jakubowicz of Tel Aviv University and lead author of the study told the New York Times. “But if you eat what you like, you decrease cravings.”

Reduced unhealthy food cravings.

Dessert benefits are particularly acute for non-dieters. Why? Because routine indulgences and some amount of flexibility in your diet prevents feelings of deprivation, which can stimulate the weight gain that prompts dieting. And viewing desserts as savory treats rather than “bad” or “junk” foods can help diminish sugar cravings while making sugary fare less tantalizing.

Another study featured by Better Health Research showed that daily intake of dark chocolate helps keep cravings for unhealthy foods at bay. Participants who ate dark chocolate also ate 15 percent fewer daily calories compared to non-chocolate eaters.

Improved nutrient intake.

We crave dense foods when our bodies are lacking nutrients or calories. And eating too little is one of the top contributors to food cravings, according to the University of Rochester Medical Center.

In some cases, a rich dessert is just the fuel your body and brain needs—particularly if you consume too few carbohydrates. Are desserts the healthiest source of carbohydrates? Not usually. But consuming enough carbohydrates from any source is healthier than severely restricting or skipping them altogether.

Desserts can also provide essential nutrients from whole foods, such as whole grains, nuts, fruits and even vegetables. Consider the following:

  • Pumpkin pie contains rich amounts of fiber, calcium and vitamins A and C. One standard slice provides of 260% of adults’ recommended daily intake of vitamin A.
  • This strawberry rhubarb crisp with an oatmeal crust provides a full serving of fruit per serving and valuable amounts of B-vitamins, fiber and healthy fats.
  • Cheesecake provides valuable amounts of protein, calcium and vitamin D.
  • Blueberry pie provides plentiful antioxidants and about 8 grams of fiber per slice—about one-third of women’s daily minimum and one-quarter of men’s.
  • Dark chocolate is high in antioxidants and can have a positive impact on blood sugar control and heart-health. (The darker, the better.)
  • Oatmeal raisin cookies provide valuable amounts of fiber, B-vitamins, calcium and iron.
  • One cup of slow-churned ice cream provides 12 percent of adult’s daily calcium needs and as much protein as an egg.

Desserts should not replace nutritious whole foods in your diet, of course, but it’s nice to know that they aren’t devoid of nutrients. If you love sweets, the following tips can help keep your sweet teeth happy without compromising your wellness.

5 Ways to Have Your ‘Cake’ and Stay Healthy, Too

1. Go for quality, not quantity. It can be tempting to stock up on affordable or “diet” style desserts that seem oh-so-healthy. In reality, desserts made from natural, high-quality ingredients tend to be more satisfying. Artificial sweeteners and desserts that taste “diet-y” can leave us hungry (and reaching) for more.

2. To prevent blood sugar imbalances, pair sugary sweets with fiber or protein-rich foods. Because fiber and protein have a mellowing impact on blood sugar, foods like whole grains, berries, low-fat milk and yogurt, help keep us fuller longer and guard against dreaded crashes. Top ice cream with raspberries, for example, or have sorbet after a balanced meal.

3. Don’t torture yourself with dozens of accessible faves. If your one donut tends to bring along friends and one cookie seems foreign, keep tempting fare out of reach. Like our diets, our kitchens should contain moderate amounts of sugary sweets at most. Recovering dieters are especially prone to the “feast or famine” mentality. As your attitudes about food and eating improve, the tempting nature of desserts will reduce, leaving you more capable of portion control. In the meantime, take yourself out for a single ice cream cone or slice of pie rather than rushing to Costco.

4. Top it with fruit. Or fruit with it. Most Americans fall short of the daily recommended 2 cups+ of fruits per day. (More is better.) There’s no time like dessert-time to start changing that. You’ll likely end up eating less of the cake/cookies/ice cream/pie, feel more satisfied—without feeling stuffed, and take a leap toward your antioxidant and fiber needs. A sweet win-win, in my opinion.

5. Eat more whole foods. The more whole foods we eat, the more our taste buds love them. As a kid, I ate sugar cubes from the bowl and plowed through my Halloween candy in days. Now that I eat namely whole foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, fish…), sugary sweets are too sugary. Some seem darn near flavorless. If you don’t currently eat healthy variations of conventional desserts, such as whole grain cakes, all-fruit pies and pumpkin tofu cheesecake (YUM!), I suggest trying it. And the more whole foods you incorporate into your overall diet, the better.

What do you love most about desserts?  Do you enjoy them with ease or grapple with guilt?  As always, I welcome your thoughts and questions.  I’m having so much fun with this, I’ve decided to carry the dessert party on via Twitter (#HealthySweet) today—sharing factoids, tips and more. Hope to see you and your sweet-teeth there. 😉

6 Common Diet Don’ts That Cramp Creativity

Have you ever tried to problem-solve, sculpt or write through major hunger pangs? What about after a huge, I’m totally stuffed! meal?

When our diets suffer, creativity is one of the first things to dwindle. Here’s what’s cool: Eating well makes way for a happy, healthy brain. And it isn’t hard. Avoiding these common “don’ts,” choosing primarily healthy foods and not going too long without eating, can boost your brain function, leading to sharper creativity and improved overall health.

1. Dieting. Roughly half of Americans are dieting at any given time, according to the National Eating Disorders Association, despite the negligible success rate and broad range of complications. Eating too little wreaks havoc on our metabolism and starves our brains. Restrictive diets—including those diet “plans” and “programs” that impose strict rules—can cause foggy thinking, poor concentration, fixation on food and weight-control and memory problems.

2. Overdoing protein. One macronutrient group Americans tend not to lack is protein. Most of us consume over twice the amount we need, which is around 7 grams for every 20 pounds of body weight. Protein plays an important role in brain function by supplying amino acids—the building blocks of our brains network. They allow for excitability and relaxation, as part of a balanced diet. But going overboard has been linked with brain shrinkage and an increased risk for dementia. It also leaves little room in our diets for brain-energizing foods. And don’t be fooled by the initial weight loss stimulated by high-protein/low-carb diets. It’s typically temporary, unhealthy loss, and our brains and bodies can suffer.

3. Skimping on whole grains. Our brains rely on carbohydrates more than any other nutrient. Drop too low, and we’re likely to feel sluggish, fatigued, agitated, blah and dulled creatively. Whole grains are among the most nutritious carbohydrate sources on the planet. Many large-scale studies have linked diets rich in whole grains with positive brain function. Sadly, most Americans consumes less than one-third of the recommended three-plus servings per day. Whole grains are top sources of brain-boosting nutrients, including B-vitamins, vitamin E, selenium and magnesium. Because they provide more fiber and protein than refined grains, such as white flour, they also provide more staying power for your brain and body between meals. Nutritious examples include brown rice, wild rice, quinoa, oats, spelt, buckwheat, whole wheat and popcorn.

4. Too few healthy fats—and excessive unhealthy fats. Our bodies make all the saturated fat we need, which are also found in fried foods, fatty meats and dairy products. And trans-fats, prevalent in hard margarine and commercially-prepared cookies, crackers and other foods containing hydrogenated vegetable oil, can reduce the effects of healthy fats, which are vital for proper brain function. Like protein, most of us are not fat-deficient. But many of us lack healthy fats. For improved brain function, choose cold-water fish, such as salmon, albacore tuna, mackerel and halibut, over fatty steaks most often. Other brain-healthy fat sources include flaxseed, walnuts, soybeans and canola oil.

5. Too few fruits and veggies. Fruits and vegetables aren’t just great for immune function, healthy skin and weight control. They supply rich amounts of antioxidants, water and fiber—ingredients our brains adore. (Antioxidants help reduce damage from free radicals in the brain, which can interfere with creative processes.) Aim for a variety of fruits and vegetables, and a variety of colors, for best results. Including colorful produce with all of your meals, and snacks as desired, is a great way to meet your daily needs. Particularly brain-healthy varieties include berries, plums, citrus fruits, tomatoes, artichokes, dark leafy greens, carrots and sweet potatoes.

6. Overdoing alcohol. We may feel hilarious, smart and savvy while boozing it up. Most of us know that’s largely drunkenness speaking. Studies have shown that the more alcohol we drink, the more likely we are to experience severe sleep problems, daytime grogginess and reduced cognitive function. And even moderate alcohol consumption has been linked with brain shrinkage over time. If you enjoy alcohol, aim for moderate and occasional indulgences—ideally after you’ve completed creative work. 😉

A Sample Brain-Healthy Day

Breakfast: Steel-cut oatmeal, organic or Greek yogurt, fresh fruit and ground flaxseed or walnuts

Lunch: Large veggie salad with balsamic vinaigrette, grilled salmon, 100 percent whole grain roll

Snack: Baby carrots with healthy dip and/or apple slices with almond butter

Dinner: Steamed or grilled veggies, brown rice, vegetarian chili or grilled tofu

Dessert/Snack: Dark chocolate-dipped berries with a glass of low-fat milk

Mmm… 

For more information, check out my LIVESTRONG.com article, The Diet, Exercise and Creativity Connection, featuring award-winning neurologist, Dr. Paul Bendheim.

Now I’m hungry. What about you? What brain-healthy “don’t” do you steer clear of? Which could use some work? Any questions for me? I’d love to support you toward your goals. 

10 Healthy Processed Foods

Yes, you read that right.

In an ideal world, we’d step into our backyards for fresh produce, whole grains and organic eggs, or into our aromatic dining rooms after our personal farmers and chefs did on our behalf. Busy work and home lives, finances and that little thing called reality seldom allow for that, but that doesn’t mean we can’t reap similar benefits.

‘Healthy processed food’ can seem like an oxymoron, but there are nutritious options available. By incorporating them into our diets, we can reap benefits ranging from improved nutrient intake and immune function, to sharpened creativity, weight control and moods. I’m not affiliated with the companies below, but I dig their products.

10 Processed Foods Worth Eating

1. Ezekial Bread When I first began studying nutrition 10-plus years ago, I had to venture to a health food co-op for Ezekial bread. Now most large grocery chains carry Ezekial bread. Thank goodness, because the sprouted grain bread is chock-full of whole grain nutrients, including protein, fiber, B-vitamins and potassium. Tip: If you haven’t yet adjusted to sprouted grains, toast Ezekial bread for enhanced texture and flavor. Your taste buds will gradually adjust.

2. Yogurt Yogurt is a rich source of protein, calcium, vitamin D and probiotics—healthy bacteria associated with healthy digestion, fewer yeast and H. pylori infections and, most recently, less anxious moods. Even people with lactose intolerance can often digest it with ease. And it’s scrumptious. Tips: Choose natural yogurt low in added sugars, such as organic Greek or Dannon Pure. Add fresh fruit to plain or vanilla yogurt for a naturally-sweet treat.

3. Nut Butters What Americans lack in healthy fats, we make up for 10-fold in unhealthy saturated and trans-fats. Nut butters can add healthy fats, fiber, protein, antioxidants and flavor to your meals and snacks. Tips: Reduced-fat varieties often contain hefty amounts of added sugars. Choose the most natural, regular varieties you can find. For a healthy snack, top Ezekial bread or fruit slices with almond or peanut butter.

4. Mango Veggie Naked Juice I’m not generally a fan of commercial juices; they tend to contain rich amounts of sugar and little, if any, fiber. Many bottled “green,” aka “superfood” juices consist of apple juice with some kale, wheat grass or other vegetables added in. This pretty little number provides 2 servings of vegetables and 1 serving of fruit per serving—all the fiber, pulp and antioxidants of whole produce included. Tip: When purchasing prepared smoothies and juices, choose those that list whole fruits and pulp. They should also contain fiber.

5. Kashi 7 Whole Grain Pilaf Rice that appears brown isn’t necessarily nutritious. This mix by Kashi, however, contains brown rice, oats, hard red wheat, triticale, buckwheat, barley and sesame seeds—top sources of whole grain nutrients. It’s a versatile mix that can be used in soups, side dishes, as an entree and even as a hot cereal. Tips: Prepare a large batch of whole grain rice or pilaf to last for several days, or freeze portions in air-tight containers for quick, healthy meals later on. For a gluten-free option, try this wild and brown rice pilaf with butternut squash and cranberries recipe. It’s simple and DELISH.

6. Canned Fish Yeah, the name doesn’t thrill me either. But canned fish, particularly salmon and tuna, provide the omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, vitamin D and other fish-containing nutrients so many of us lack. The American Heart Association recommends eating 3.5 ounces of fish at least twice per week for improved heart health, and choosing fish more often than red and fried meats. Tip: To cut back on salt, choose low-sodium varieties or rinse the fish well before eating it. If you eat an overall low-sodium diet, regular canned fish is typically fine.

7. Frozen fruits and vegetables Because frozen produce is flash-frozen at its nutritional prime, it contains as much, if not more, nutritional value than produce sitting on the raw shelf. Tips: Add frozen fruit, without added sugar, to fruit smoothies and baked goods, and frozen vegetables to casseroles, soups, pizzas and mashed potatoes. You’ll feel more satiated on more nutrients and fewer calories and start craving fruit and veggie-containing meals in general.

8. Amy’s Organic Lentil Soup Most of us can stand to increase our legume intake. Beans, lentils and split-peas are some of the most nutritious foods on the planet. They’re rich in protein, fiber and complex carbohydrates, as well as a slew of micro-nutrients. Amy’s lentil soup is great to keep on hand for days when you don’t have your crock-pot and dried legumes handy, or the hours lentil-preparation can take. Tips: Spice Amy’s soup up with natural herbs or other seasoning. Serve it with fresh fruit salad, stone-ground whole grain crackers or toasted Ezekial bread.

9. Old-fashioned or steel-cut oats Oats are a hearty whole grain that can help keep you energized and full throughout the morning. Steel-cut oats, which consist of the inner kernel of the oat plant, take an hour-plus to make. Tips: Either prepare a pot in advance to last a few days or make old-fashioned oatmeal, which takes 2 to 5 minutes via stove or microwave. For added nutrients, prepare oats with low-fat soy or cow’s milk and top it with fresh or dried fruit.

10. Natural microwave popcorn Popcorn is a whole grain that contains more antioxidants than many fruits. (Seriously? Yep.) If you don’t have time to pop kernels over the stove and don’t have an air-popper, packaged microwave varieties are just as nutritious. Tip: Avoid the gooey buttery varieties. Natural, low-fat and herb-seasoned varieties are healthier.

Now if you really want to make like that organic farm resident, you’ll also partake in a few valuable behaviors:

  • Eat mindfully, in a pleasant atmosphere with your food served on nice dishes—yes, even processed foods.
  • Choose whole, fresh foods as often as you can. Shop at your local farmers’ market. Interact with the sellers.
  • Learn to cook or expand your skills.
  • Dine with loved ones when you can. Savor solo meals, too.
  • Say please and thank you.
  • Stay active and spend time outside.
  • Do your best to sleep well.

It sounds so easy, right? It actually is, once you get the hang of it. Taking steps—even tiny ones—is all it takes to get us moving in the right direction. And since the way we approach food and eating can say a lot about how we approach our lives, the benefits can extend well past our plates and pantries. Just a little food for thought. 😉

I’d love to hear from you. What healthy steps are you working on? Any challenges I can support you with? What healthy processed foods top your list?