Caffeine: Friend or Foe? (Part 1)

How many of you make a morning pilgrimage to Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts? How many of you grab an icy can of diet cola to jump-start your day? How many of you reach for a caffeinated beverage to "perk" you up when the midafternoon slump hits you like a ton of bricks?

If you mentally raised your hand in the affirmative to any of the above questions, chances are you’re a caffeine-craver. About 90% of Americans consume caffeine in some form every day, and more than half of us consume 300 milligrams (mg), which is equivalent to about three cups of coffee, or more every day. In fact, caffeine has been dubbed the most popular drug of choice in our country.

Caffeine, in its pure form, is a white, bitter-tasting powder that has addictive properties. It works pretty much like heroin, cocaine, and amphetamines on the brain (albeit in a milder manner). And, just like many other drugs, caffeine “users” quickly feel the effects of withdrawal when they cut back on their intake: headache, fatigue, and decreased alertness.

Coffee beans, tea leaves, and cocoa nuts are natural sources of caffeine, but caffeine is added to many other beverages and foods, including colas and “energy” drinks (e.g., Red Bull). Because it isn’t strictly regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), caffeine has now found its way into innocuous-sounding foods, such as jelly beans, candy bars, gum, oatmeal, and even beer!

The amount of caffeine in a food or beverage can vary widely. Here’s a quick look at the caffeine content of some of the more popular foods and drinks that Americans consume every day (some information obtained from Nutrition Action Healthletter, March 2008):

Even coffee-flavored ice cream contains caffeine, anywhere from about 15 to 50 mg per 1/2 cup. Don’t be fooled into thinking that “decaf” versions of tea and coffee are caffeine-free, either. While decaf teas and coffees contains much less caffeine than their regular counterparts, they do have some. For example, one cup of decaf tea or coffee contains about 2 mg caffeine. That’s not a lot, but depending on how much you drink, it could possibly add up.

By the way, caffeine is added to some medicines, too. Excedrin and Anacin, popular over-the-counter painkillers, have it. (Caffeine helps the body better absorb medication). In fact, two Extra Strength Excedrin tablets contain 130 mg caffeine. Some prescriptions painkillers that contain caffeine include Darvon, Fiorinal, and Norgesic.

Taking in more than 500 mg per day of caffeine (about 6 or 7 cups of coffee) may cause restlessness, disturbed sleep, headaches, anxiety, heart palpitations, and gastrointestinal distress. Some people should probably not consume caffeine, or only take in small amounts, including pregnant and breastfeeding women.

Next week: Caffeine’s effect on diabetes—good or bad?

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Amy Campbell: Amy Campbell is the author of Staying Healthy with Diabetes: Nutrition and Meal Planning and a frequent contributor to Diabetes Self-Management and Diabetes & You. She has co-authored several books, including the The Joslin Guide to Diabetes and the American Diabetes Association’s 16 Myths of a “Diabetic Diet,” for which she received a Will Solimene Award of Excellence in Medical Communication and a National Health Information Award in 2000. Amy also developed menus for Fit Not Fat at Forty Plus and co-authored Eat Carbs, Lose Weight with fitness expert Denise Austin. Amy earned a bachelor’s degree in nutrition from Simmons College and a master’s degree in nutrition education from Boston University. In addition to being a Registered Dietitian, she is a Certified Diabetes Educator and a member of the American Dietetic Association, the American Diabetes Association, and the American Association of Diabetes Educators. Amy was formerly a Diabetes and Nutrition Educator at Joslin Diabetes Center, where she was responsible for the development, implementation, and evaluation of disease management programs, including clinical guideline and educational material development, and the development, testing, and implementation of disease management applications. She is currently the Director of Clinical Education Content Development and Training at Good Measures. Amy has developed and conducted training sessions for various disease and case management programs and is a frequent presenter at disease management events.

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