Caffeine is No Better Than a Drug

As you know, caffeine is one of the most addictive substances in a standard diet, and there is some research that indicates that excessive consumption of caffeinated beverages may pose a risk to your well-being. Coffee, however, does contain chlorogenic acid, a phenol with strong antioxidant activity which may benefit people who hardly eat vegetables. So in spite of hundreds of studies showing slight increased risk of certain diseases such as osteoporosis and heart disease, there are also studies that show certain health benefits from coffee.1 Overall, both the risks and the supposed benefits are marginal either way. One or two cups of coffee per day is not likely to cause significant disease risks.

Besides the slightly increased risk of osteoporosis or heart disease, there are other problems. Caffeine is a stimulant, so it enables you to more comfortably get by on less sleep, and inadequate sleep promotes disease and premature aging.2 Drinking coffee also boosts estrogen levels, which worsens problems like endometriosis, breast pain, and menstrual disorders. Increased estrogen levels are also linked to higher risk of breast cancer.3 Overall, it is difficult to discern the precise risks from heavy coffee drinking because most people who drink lots of coffee, do lots of other unhealthy behaviors too.

My main objection to drinking coffee is that it may promote more frequent eating and a higher calorie intake in some people, so eliminating your caffeine intake may help you lose weight. Coffee drinkers—and tea and cola drinkers—are drawn to eat more frequently then necessary. They eat extra meals and snacks because they mistake unpleasant caffeine withdrawal symptoms with hunger. They can’t tell the difference between true hunger and the discomfort that accompanies caffeine withdrawal.

In essence, coffee is mostly like a drug, not a food. In spite of the presence of some beneficial antioxidants it also has some negative effects and withdrawal symptoms that may fuel drinking and eating behavior. Like most drugs, it could have some minor benefits, but its toxic effects and resultant risks likely overwhelm those minor advantages. It is best if we aim to meet our nutritional needs with as little exposure to stimulating substances as possible. This program will work more effectively, as you will be better connected to your body’s true hunger signals if you are able to gradually reduce and eventually eliminate coffee and other caffeine-containing substances.

This is an excerpt from Dr. Fuhrman’s book Eat For Health.

1. Melita A, Jain AC, Mehta MC, Billie M. Caffeine and cardiac arrhythmias, An experimental study in dogs with review of literature. Acta Cardiol 1997;52(3):273-283. Nurminen MI, Niittymen L, Retterstol I, et al. Coffee, caffeine, and blood pressure: a critical review. Eur J Clin Nutr 1999;53(11):831-839. Christensen B, Mosdol A, Retterstol I, et al. Abstention from filtered coffee reduces the concentration of plasma homocysteine and serum cholesterol-a randomized controlled trial. Am J Clin Nutr 2001;74(3):302-307. Higdon JV, Frei B. Coffee and health: a review of recent human research.Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2006; 46(2):101-123. Hallström H, Wolk A, Glynn A, Michaëlsson K. Coffee, tea and caffeine consumption in relation to osteoporotic fracture risk in a cohort of Swedish women.Osteoporos Int. 2006;17(7):1055-1064.

2. Spiegel K, Leproult R, Van Cauter EV. Impact of sleep debt on metabolic and endocrine function. Lancet 1999;354(9188);1435-1439.

3. Lucero J, Harlow BI, Berbieri RI, et al. Early follicular phase hormone levels in relation to patterns of alcohol, tobacco and coffee use. Fertile Steril 2001;76(4):723-729.

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Manda - September 1, 2009 1:29 PM

During college I started my daily coffee habit, and it rolled into a total caffeine addiction. I tried several times to cut back, even gave it up for the 40 days of Lent one year, but was drinking a latte early Easter morning. It was in college that I was diagnosed with migraines after I went into the student health center thinking I had food poisoning (oh, the lovely symptoms of migraine headaches). I was given some heavy-duty medicines that made me foggy and made my legs feel like lead - even without the migraine, I was not able to attend class or go to work. Eventually, I had to stop taking the medicines as I was frequently hypertensive (at 21!), which is a contraindication for those meds.
I continued to drink an excessive amount of caffeine after school as I worked 2-3 jobs with crazy hours. I remember complaining to my doctor that I always felt tired (he just checked my thyroid. Normal).
It was not until 10 years later that I discovered Eat to Live and decided to cut out the coffee once and for all. I have finally gotten off the caffeine roller coaster and the migraines are few and far between. When I do get one, it's often because I've been lazy about watching what I eat (processed foods are another trigger), but it still is not nearly as severe, and I'm able to function.
Where I used to drink three cups of strong coffee and still be able to nap, now I find I get jittery after green tea. My sleep cycles are much improved, and I've got energy even as I rotate back and forth between day and night shift.

Manda - September 1, 2009 1:55 PM

Oh, I wanted to add how I am seeing coffee touted in the mainstream media. I recently was reading a superficial women's magazine (it was either Self or Woman's Health, I believe) and there was a tease on the cover "Number 1 Superfood!" I flipped over to that page and saw the article was all about coffee - they were promoting coffee as the number one "superfood." It was touted to be protective of everything from diabetes to breast cancer, as something that we should all drink each day.

Joe Fitzpatrick - September 1, 2009 3:32 PM

Coffee is my achilles heel. It is always ready, hot, and free at work, and some days I will have five cups. Then I can't get to sleep at night. So guess what. I must drink more the next day. This continues till Friday, and I spend the weekend detoxing....

KK - November 25, 2009 2:59 PM

Just another word of warning about the risks of caffeine. I started a dreadfully boring job and felt like I needed to drink coffee to stay awake while at work. I was probably consuming 2-3 cups a day. After a month of this I noticed a problem with my monthly period - it lasted for weeks!!! My skin also broke out. I couldn't figure out what was going on but tried cutting out coffee to see if that made a difference. Sure enough - after cutting out the extra caffeine, everything returned to normal.

Susan - November 27, 2010 8:57 AM

I drink, at the most, 2 cups of coffee a day, because I enjoy it, no other reason. I have been reading tons and tons of articles lately, from many different sources, that are saying that coffee(drip coffee), may actually be preventing many types of diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimers, and others, due to the antioxidants that are in it. Black coffee has no calories or fat, and i think if it has no ill effects on a person, that there are far worse things they could be doing to themselves!

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