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Healthy Eating: Caffeine

Caffeine is a substance that occurs naturally in certain plants, including coffee, tea, cocoa beans, and kola nuts. Many people drink coffee or caffeinated products to get themselves going or to prevent fatigue. People ingest caffeine mostly from colas, soft drinks, coffee, tea, chocolate, caffeinated water, over-the-counter drugs, and prescription drugs. There are more than a thousand different over-the-counter and prescription drugs that list caffeine as an ingredient. There is even a very small amount of caffeine in decaffeinated coffee.

Caffeine can be safe and can be part of a healthy eating plan if consumed in moderation and not used to take the place of healthier fluids such as water, fruit juice, and milk. There is currently no scientific evidence that links moderate amounts of caffeine to any health risk such as cancer, heart disease, birth defects, or fibrocystic breast disease.

Effects of Caffeine
Caffeine is considered a mild stimulant. Caffeine affects the central nervous system by temporarily increasing heart rate and blood pressure. For some people this can cause effects such as jitters and anxiety. Caffeine can irritate the stomach, cause headaches, and can even cause insomnia. Caffeine can also slightly increase the amount of calcium lost from the body. Caffeine can have a diuretic effect by increasing water lost through urination. The more caffeine you consume, the greater its potential to increase water loss. Because of caffeine's diuretic effects, caffeine-containing beverages are not the best choice of fluids. The effects of caffeine don't last long, since caffeine is not stored in the body. Within three to four hours, most of the caffeine is excreted, and the effects decrease.

How Much Is Too Much?
The question of how much caffeine is too much depends on your individual tolerance. You may want to think about cutting back on your caffeine intake if you are consuming caffeinated beverages in place of juice or milk or if your intake is more than 200 to 300 milligrams a day (about 2 cups of coffee). For most healthy adults, consuming 200 to 300 milligrams a day poses no physical problems.

Fact: An average 12-ounce cola contains about 35 milligrams of caffeine, while an average 8-ounce cup of brewed coffee contains about 85 milligrams of caffeine. Keep in mind, too, that soft drinks other than colas also contain caffeine, sometimes even more.

Some people are more sensitive to caffeine and may feel the effects more easily. Others can develop a tolerance to caffeine over time and not notice the effects as quickly. If you have questions about caffeine and your health, you should consult your personal physician.

Who Should Cut Back?
In moderation, you can enjoy caffeine-containing beverages as part of your healthy lifestyle. People who may want to think about cutting back include pregnant or breastfeeding women; people with certain medical problems, such as high blood pressure or ulcers; younger children; and older adults. Sensitivity can increase during pregnancy, and caffeine can be passed to the baby through breast milk. Older adults may also experience an increased sensitivity to the effects of caffeine. Children, because of their smaller size, can easily drink enough caffeine to cause restlessness, anxiety, and jitters. At any age you should watch how much caffeine you consume each day.

ALERT! If you struggle with insomnia, you should avoid caffeine in the evening hours. Caffeine only takes fifteen to twenty minutes to get into your blood, and the caffeine effect lasts for about three to four hours. Remember to read medication labels carefully if you are trying to decrease or avoid caffeine intake. Over-the-counter pain relief tablets often contain as much caffeine as 1 or 2 cups of coffee.

To cut back, it is best to reduce caffeine intake slowly, especially if you have been ingesting heavy amounts of caffeine for some time. A gradual cutback can help you to avoid the temporary headache, restlessness, and drowsiness that can occur. If you currently drink more than 3 cups of coffee per day, cut down by a cup every three or four days until you are down to 3 cups. This will help reduce the symptoms of caffeine withdrawal. Try mixing half decaf and half regular coffee or drinking instant instead of brewed coffee; instant coffee is lower in caffeine than brewed coffee. Or replace your afternoon soda with a glass of juice or a glass of water—you'll get more nutrients without the caffeine.

Caffeine and Anxiety
According to the National Coffee Association, 80 percent of Americans drink coffee, and occasional coffee consumption rose 6 percent in the last year. At the same time, panic and other anxiety disorders have become the most common mental illnesses in the United States. Professionals agree that when caffeine overlaps with these disorders, the result can be trouble. Psychologist Norman B. Schmidt, Ph.D., states, "If you tend to be a high-strung, anxious person, using a lot of caffeine can be risky." Roland Griffiths, Ph.D., a professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and Neuroscience at the John Hopkins University School of Medicine states, "Caffeine is the most widely used mood-altering drug in the world. People often see coffee, tea, and soft drinks simply as beverages rather than vehicles for a psychoactive drug. But caffeine can exacerbate anxiety and panic disorders."

Fact: If you experience problems with anxiety, panic attacks, or nervousness, try to drastically, but slowly, cut down or cut caffeine out of your diet altogether. Cutting caffeine from your diet will not cure your anxiety problems, but may help decrease symptoms.

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Copyright © 2002 by Kimberly A. Tessmer. Excerpted from The Everything Nutrition Book: Boost Energy, Prevent Illness, and Live Longer with permission of its publisher, Adams Media Corporation.

To order this book visit Amazon.com.


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