Wednesday, February 10, 2010

To Java or Not to Java? That is the Question

Coffee. As an educator, it's hard to find someone I work with that doesn't drink coffee. If I do find someone, they're usually drinking tea. It's well known that coffee/tea is addicting due to the caffeine, but what are the health pros/cons and how does it affect performance in the gym?

Coffee/tea can offer several health benefits. It has been shown to enhance memory in animals, increase concentration, and obviously up your energy. As a stimulant it will make you feel good, but it also tends to reduce inflammation and may increase blood flow by increasing blood vessel size (although in the 'cons' section there are some studies showing the opposite effect). Two key words you may hear are "polyphenols" and "flavonoids." Flavonoids are actually a subset of polyphenols, but all you need to know is that they are all good antioxidants that may help reduce the risk of liver disease, cardiovascular disease, and some cancers.

Besides the aesthetic downfalls of stained teeth and bad breath, caffeine also may cause jitters, heartburn (acid reflux), and possible reduced blood flow.It seems that the majority of deleterious effects of caffeine involve people with pre-existing conditions: it has been shown to increase blood sugar levels in people with Type 2 diabetes and has been associated with non-fatal heart attacks for those with slow caffeine metabolism. In other words, it can make bad things even worse. At 600mg of caffeine (about 6 cups of regular coffee) people can experience upset stomach, anxiety, sweating, and other negative effects. See below for caffeine dosages per different types of drinks.

Food/Beverage Caffeine (milligrams)
Espresso coffee, brewed, 8 fluid ounces 502
Coffee, brewed, 8 fluid ounces 85
Coffee, instant, 8 fluid ounces 62
Coffee, brewed, decaffeinated, 8 fluid ounces 3
Coffee, instant, decaffeinated, 8 fluid ounces 2
Tea, brewed, 8 fluid ounces 47
Tea, herbal, brewed, 8 fluid ounces 0
Tea, instant, 8 fluid ounces 29
Tea, brewed, decaffeinated, 8 fluid ounces 3

Some athletes also experience better performance IN the workout due to caffeine releasing adrenaline. (I have personally found some benefit to having espresso pre-wod) Besides performance, it can also boost recovery.  In this study, athletes who had caffeine recovered 50% faster than those who didn't. Faster recovery means getting back in the gym quicker and better gains over time.

-Is it Paleo/Primal?
     Technically no. Cavemen didn't climb up the mountains of Bolivia to pick some beans, roast them, grind them, put them in hot water, and then filter it all. However, at the end of the day, you can treat coffee/tea like high percentage chocolate or wine. They are not paleo, but the benefits outweigh the technical guideline of "being available 10,000 years ago."

-What about Sugar?
     It should be understood that your coffee/tea has no sugar or artificial sweeteners. I will do a post soley on sugar, but for now, just know that the body has a natural blood sugar level of 1 teaspoon, or 5 grams. If you have one Starbucks Caramel Frappaccino (grande, w/whipped cream) you are consuming 16 teaspoons of sugar. (that's 48 grams!) Some folks may recommend agave nectar (this still contains sugar even though it is a "natural" sweetener) or stevia (may still produce insulin response). Either way, try to wean yourself off the urge for a "sweet" taste.

-What about Milk/Cream?
     If you must have milk or cream, you do have some decent options. Depending on how strict you want to be, you can go with heavy cream, (raw) milk, or coconut milk. At the end of the day, plain black coffee or straight up tea is the best way to go. 

-Do you "need" caffeine or do you WANT caffeine?
     Figure out for yourself why you drink coffee/tea. If it is to wake yourself up, are you getting enough sleep? If you need it to boost your mood, why are you down in the first place? (e.g. are you getting enough sun and/or Vitamin D?) If it is to get you moving, why are you lacking physical activity in your life? If it is to come out of an afternoon slump, are you having a carb-rich lunch causing a big sugar rush and then crash? These are probably reasons to NOT have caffeine and address the real issues at hand. 

-Isn't coffee made from beans and aren't beans considered bad? 
    If you are referring to the lectin containing legumes such as black beans, red beans, peanuts, etc. then no, coffee beans do not fall in this category. You are good to go. 

-What if I'm pregnant?

At the end of the day, figure out why you drink coffee/tea and as long as you don't have any major conditions (Type II diabetes, slow caffeine metabolism, or are pregnant) you should be good to go.  In other words, if you respond fairly well to caffeine, indulging is relatively ok. Even then, drink it in moderation (just like high percentage chocolate and wine). Go simple: no sugar or artificial sweeteners, and if you want dairy, stick with the good stuff. As for tea, ideal is white, then green, then black (in order of the amount they are processed). For both, avoid drinking it past the afternoon so you can get good sleep. Personally I find I will go in spurts of a few weeks on one cup in the morning, off for a few weeks, including the occasional pre-workout espresso.  As with everything, figure out what works for you. If you are a drinker and need more reassurance, other fans of java include nutrition experts Mark Sisson, Robb Wolf, and Melissa Urban. 

My Coffee Setup 
whole beans, measuring cup, AeroPress (better than a French Press and definitely better than drip machine), and blade grinder (not as good as a burr grinder, but cheaper!)


  1. Don't forget that caffeine stimulates the adrenal glad releasing cortisol. Good for performance in the short term but can help lead to weight gain in the long term!

  2. There have also been studies that it increases your endurance in athletic events.

    I think your numbers for espresso are a bit high. Espresso is not usually served in an 8 ounce cup, its usually about 1-1.5 oz and has approximately the same amount of caffeine as a cup of cofee, maybe even less.

    "The USDA value for Espresso coffee is 64 mg caffeine per fluid ounce."

    Great stuff though! Personally I like to save the cafeine for when I really need it...which in my job can be quite often.

  3. Kit, agreed! I got the chart from that listed website and I think they did all 8oz. coffees to show exactly how strong certain ones are. Good point though, in case people weren't sure how much espresso was served. (the AeroPress I use makes coffee concentrate, so not as strong as espresso but probably around 400mg per 8oz. which is what I have. I love the motor oil!)

  4. For me the benefits out weigh the negative effect. I love the taste and feeling of coffee. There are so many factors that go into athletic performance that I really cannot say the caffeine affects me. Thanks for the insight!


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