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?