Depending on how you use it, coffee can be a pick-me-up or a real downer. A cup of coffee with breakfast, another during the morning commute, a few lattes at the office, and an espresso after dinner — is this a healthy habit or an addiction?
Coffee’s caffeine jolt can temporarily boost alertness, perk up performance, and possibly even improve concentration.
But before you pour yourself another cup of joe, experts say it’s important to remember coffee’s main ingredient, caffeine, is a drug and not a nutrient required for good health like vitamins and minerals. And as with any drug, there are right ways and wrong ways to use it.
“The right way is to know how it affects your body and your reasoning,” says registered dietitian and epidemiologist Gail Frank. “The wrong way is to use it in an abusive way, and that means going without sleep and then drinking a lot of coffee to get the perk.”
In fact, too much caffeine may also lead to health problems like high blood pressure, brittle bones, trouble sleeping, and just plain irritability.
“The other wrong way, as a parent, is to allow young children to use it and have it as crutch — not only for the perk but because it may also displace nutrient-rich beverages for kids,” says Frank, who is professor of nutrition at California State University at Long Beach.
Frank says the caffeine in coffee is especially dangerous for young children and teenagers with growing bones because caffeine leaches much-needed calcium from the bones and may retard growth or make the bones weaker.
Five milligrams of calcium is lost for every six ounces of coffee that is consumed, says Frank. But the good news is you can put back some of those lost nutrients by adding two tablespoons of milk to your coffee or making your espresso a latte.
The Good Coffee Habits
Here are some other tips to help you keep your coffee habit as healthy as possible:
Some people feel the buzz of caffeine more than others. Listen to your body and know when to say “when” to that extra cup of coffee, even if your friend says he can drink it ’til the cows come home and still get a good night’s sleep.
Most research suggests that drinking one to three cups of coffee a day (up to 300 milligrams of caffeine) does not seem to have any negative effects in most healthy people. However, pregnant women, children, people with heart disease or peptic ulcers, and the elderly may be more susceptible to the effects of caffeine and are advised to restrict caffeine.
Be aware that the caffeine content of coffee varies widely depending on roasting and brewing methods as well as the size of the cup you’re drinking. For example, a recent study showed that a 16-ounce cup of the house blend at Starbucks had an average of 259 milligrams of caffeine compared with only 143 milligrams in the same-sized cup of coffee at Dunkin Donuts.
Although coffee is the main source of caffeine for many people, other items, such as soft drinks, tea, chocolate, and cold and headache medicines also contain caffeine and can add substantially to your daily caffeine quota.
Regular coffee drinkers who skip their daily java fix may experience temporary “caffeine withdrawal” (usually in the form of a headache or drowsiness), but these symptoms will go away within 24-48 hours or after getting a new dose of caffeine.
Some medications may interact with caffeine. Consult with your health care provider or pharmacist about potential interactions with caffeine whenever you take medications.