How Healthy Is Your Coffee Habit?

A morning cup of coffee is part of the daily routine for millions of us, with Brits set to spend more than £4bn getting their caffeine fix this year. Yet, despite dozens of studies purporting to show the positives of caffeine, its health benefits remain controversial. We caught up with two nutrition experts for the full story – from how caffeine affects the body to the signs it could be worth cutting back…

Firstly – what exactly does caffeine do?

Caffeine is a natural stimulant most commonly found in tea, coffee, soft drinks, energy drinks and chocolate. It works by stimulating the brain and central nervous system, helping you stay energised and alert. Once consumed, caffeine is quickly absorbed from the gut into the bloodstream. It then travels to the liver and is broken down by compounds that affect the function of various organs. It’s the brain, however, that’s most affected by caffeine. 

How much should you be having on a daily basis?

“Three to four cups of coffee will make up the daily recommended caffeine intake of 400mg,” explains Sana Khan, nutrition consultant and founder of Avicenna Wellbeing. But note we all have different levels of tolerance to caffeine. “If you feel dizzy, jittery and nauseous, or even have heart palpitations, this could be a sign you’ve reached your limit,” says Sana. A couple of years ago, research uncovered a gene that appears to wield influence over the amount of coffee people can drink. In short, how much coffee your body can tolerate without getting the jitters may depend on your genetic make-up, so there’s no hard and fast rule.

How much caffeine do different drinks contain?

When it comes to coffee, the amount of caffeine varies widely across brand and size. For example, a regular cappuccino at Costa contains 185mg of caffeine, while Caffe Nero’s equivalent contains 80mg and Starbucks’ 75mg. Generally, a single espresso will contain around 80mg (note: many coffee shops sell a double as standard), a can of Diet Coke around 50mg, a cup of tea 40mg and a serving of green tea 25mg. Dark chocolate can contain up to 45mg per 100g, meaning a square can contain around 15mg. Before you reach for the decaf, Sana saysthis may not necessarily be a better alternative because it’s been heavily processed, which can have its own side effects. 

Does drinking coffee have any benefits?

“Coffee possesses various antioxidant properties that can have a positive effect on the body. In addition to this, studies done on coffee over the years have exhibited a range of benefits that it may offer in relation to certain cancers such as throat cancer, boosting overall energy, and supporting cardiovascular health, as well as links to weight loss and improved metabolism,” says Sana. Studies show coffee drinkers have up to a 65% lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s than non-coffee drinkers, and that consuming caffeine on a regular basis can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes by up to 67%. Caffeine has also been proven to boost metabolism by up to 11% and can increase exercise performance by 12%. However, research also shows such effects are short lived – drinking coffee every day will build a tolerance, with any metabolic effects minimised over time.

If you find yourself struggling to switch off and are constantly anxious and irritated, as well as struggling to sleep, you may well benefit from cutting back your caffeine intake.

And the disadvantages?

Many health experts say that, while there are fewer reasons why coffee may be detrimental to your health, these can outweigh the potential benefits. “Caffeine has a direct impact on thyroid hormone function and the stress hormone cortisol,” says Sana. “There are studies that indicate caffeine is responsible for raising cortisol levels, which is something many of us should be looking to reduce. Cortisol overproduction has many detrimental side effects, including increased anxiety.” Caffeine can also wreak havoc with your blood sugar, disrupt sleep (it effectively resets the body clock by delaying a rise in melatonin, the sleep hormone) and can harm an unborn baby.

Are there any ways to boost energy levels without resorting to caffeine?

It may sound obvious, but paying attention to your diet is your first step to optimal energy levels, says nutritionist Rebecca Stevens. “The biggest mistake I see women making when it comes to their energy levels is not eating enough, particularly in the earlier part of the day at breakfast and/or lunch, so that by mid-afternoon a snack is needed. Cutting out carbs is also counterproductive to optimum energy levels.” Rebecca says around 50% of your daily energy intake should come from carbs – ideally those with a lower GI that won’t cause such a dramatic rise and fall in our blood sugar levels. “The benefit of this is a gentler and slower release of energy to support and sustain you throughout the day. Low GI carbs include oats, quinoa, couscous, wholegrain breads, potatoes with their skins on and sweet potatoes.” Rebecca also recommends steering clear of trends such as bulletproof coffee (when a teaspoon of coconut oil is added to black coffee – the thinking being the fats from the oil control the release of caffeine for prolonged energy levels).

How can you make your coffee habit healthier?

There’s a reason nutritionists advise you to drink your coffee black. Studies show adding milk decreases your body’s absorption of polyphenols, the antioxidants found in abundance in coffee. Adding a teaspoon of sugar may encourage further cravings as well as adding excess calories. If you’re looking to make your daily cup of coffee a little healthier, keep it organic and black – and if you do like it sweet, add a touch of stevia (a natural sugar alternative). 

The bottom line?

If you find yourself struggling to switch off and are constantly anxious and irritated, as well as struggling to sleep, you may well benefit from cutting back your caffeine intake. Because caffeine can affect cortisol levels, it could be worth scaling back if you’re struggling to lose weight, especially around your mid-section (weight gain around the tummy is often a sign of cortisol overproduction). If, however, you don’t suffer with anxiety, high blood pressure or insomnia, and aren’t expecting a baby, there’s nothing wrong with a daily cup of coffee, as long as it’s good quality and ideally eaten with food to minimise the risk of a sugar slump.

For more information, visit AvicennaWellbeing.com and NourishAndNurtureNutrition.com

*Features published by SheerLuxe are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure or prevent any disease. Always seek the advice of your GP or another qualified healthcare provider for any questions you have regarding a medical condition, and before undertaking any diet, exercise or other health-related programmes.

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