The Skinny on Caffeine

Coffee, teas and sodas all have one thing in common - caffeine. Caffeine, an alkaloid chemical, is a drug that stimulates the central nervous system making you more alert and giving you that necessary boost of energy to get your gears turning in the morning. This is the world’s most popular psychoactive stimulant. Did you know we consume 120,000 tons per year? Clearly it works! People have been drinking and eating caffeine as far back as the Stone Age, and far be it from me to tell you to stop drinking that morning cup o’ joe to get you ready for the day, but knowing the facts surrounding both the benefits and the negative side effects of caffeine may have an impact on your daily consumption.

How much is too much? While there is no recommended daily intake for caffeine, generally speaking 200-300 milligrams (equates to 2-4 cups of drip coffee) is considered moderate intake and should not cause any harmful effects. Studies do show that heavy daily caffeine consumption, more than 500-600 mgs a day (4-7 cups of drip coffee), may cause insomnia, nervousness, anxiety, tremors, headaches, gastrointestinal symptoms, abnormal heart rhythms and possible increases in blood pressure. However, a little does go a long way. The majority of individuals will see an increase in alertness and begin to experience the effect of caffeine about an hour after ingesting only 25-50 mg. At lower levels of consumption, the negative side effects decrease as well, which means there's less of a chance of an energy crash 4 hours later.

Give it to me straight, what are the negatives? One of the most common negative side effects of caffeine is a headache or migraine. The exact connection between caffeine and headaches/migraines is still questioned and unknown, but a direct correlation has been established. So if you find yourself suffering from headaches or migraines more frequently, cutting back on your caffeine consumption can be an initial step.

Caffeine’s effect on body weight is a question that has been posed by many doctors and researchers alike. Caffeine is believed to give a slight boost to individuals seeking weight loss or preventing weight gain, but only temporarily. There is no evidence suggesting long term effectiveness.

Caffeine is known to toy with your blood sugar levels, which is the reason you experience the initial boost of energy followed by the unwanted midday fatigue. Research shows that reducing your caffeine intake throughout the day can not only be good for your health, but also for your productivity. Alternatively, switching from a caffeinated beverage or snack to an alternate energy booster such as Dandy Blend (a natural, herbal coffee substitute), vegetable juice or pack of almonds and cashews, can keep you alert and ward off the feeling of restlessness without excess caffeine intake. Caffeine can also cause dehydration, so be sure to drink plenty of water throughout the day.

Ok, I got the bad, but are there any benefits? Before you swear off coffee completely, there are a few interesting possible benefits to consider. The most well known is that awake and alert feeling. This ergogenic acid can increase both your mental and physical capabilities. Studies show that the benefits of moderate (200-300mg/day) caffeine intake can be associated with a reduced risk of inflammation, cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease in women. There is also some evidence indicating that caffeine can protect the brain and help preserve long-term cognitive skills.

How do popular sodas, tea and coffee stack up on the caffeine scale? Not all caffeinated beverages and foods are created equal. The table below will aid you in finding out your daily caffeine consumption, which may lead you to rethink how little or how much you should drink. But remember, when you walk into Starbucks, or whichever coffee shop you frequent, a lot of the fancy drinks (lattes, frappuccinos etc.) may have less caffeine, but most likely have more sugar than coffee or tea. When I’m not in the mood for plain coffee or iced coffee, some of my favorite low calorie and low sugar picks are:

  • Nonfat Cappuccino: at 8 oz, it's only 50 calories
  • Nonfat Tall Iced Sugar Free Vanilla Latte: 60 calories
  • Frappuccino ® Light Tall Blended Coffee: 100-150 calories

    * Surprised? Even medications contain caffeine!
    Heather Bauer, RD CDN
    Heather Bauer, RD CDN


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