Thursday, October 2, 2014

Coffee: Good or bad for health and sports performance? Or just delicious?

Do you ever wonder if your daily cuppa joe is helping or harming you? Have you heard that caffeine can improve your sports performance? Like so many foods and drinks, coffee gets a fair amount of press for its health implications. Most is positive, but some is negative. Since it’s such a commonly consumed beverage (I myself enjoy a cup almost every morning), I decided to do a bit of sleuthing into the topic. Here’s what I found.

The Good News

  • Regular coffee consumption may lower your risk of developing: type 2 diabetes (via reducing insulin resistance), gout, Parkinson’s disease, gallstones, liver cancer, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Coffee contains antioxidants that have health benefits and may in part explain the lower risk of some cancers (although this link is not clear).
  • Despite what Cher would have you believe (think the movie Clueless), there’s no truth to the rumor that coffee stunts your growth.
As a caution, however, the amount of coffee used in the studies varied, and at least one study used 4-6 cups of regular coffee a day, which is more than the average coffee drinker consumes and enough to cause side effects in some people. The use of decaf vs. regular coffee in the studies also varied. Decaf coffee was only found to be helpful with some of these conditions.

The Bad News

  • Too much caffeinated coffee can cause jitteriness, rapid heart rate, dizziness, anxiety, and nausea (all temporary, thankfully).
  • Some studies have found an increased risk of pancreatic cancer and heart disease among coffee drinkers, although more recent studies have not. However, some people cannot metabolize caffeine as well as others and are therefore at an increased risk of heart issues.
  • Caffeine can temporarily raise blood pressure. If your blood pressure is normal, drinking coffee daily shouldn’t affect your blood pressure long term, but be aware of how much you consume if you have hypertension or pre-hypertension.
  • Large doses may not be good for pregnant women. It’s safe to consume 200mg per day or less, which is approximately the amount in 12 ounces of drip coffee.

Sports Performance

Athletes have long known about the ergogenic effects of caffeine; that’s why you’ll find it added to many sports gels and drinks these days. The main benefit is that caffeine helps enhance fat burning, and since fat is the main fuel used during endurance exercise, consuming caffeine can help you better utilize this fuel, resulting in the ability to work out longer and harder. Caffeine also stimulates the brain, improving alertness and reaction time, delaying fatigue, and even providing a slight analgesic (pain relieving) effect. Although once believed to be a diuretic, in moderation caffeine should not contribute to enough fluid losses to affect performance.

If you want to try using caffeine for sports performance, try using 3-6 mg of caffeine per kg of body weight, which is the range studies found to be beneficial. Some of these studies used a bolus dose of caffeine before the exercise, while others used it spaced out during the exercise, so experiment with what works best for you. For a 150-pound athlete, 3-6 mg/kg body weight would be 204-409 mg of caffeine, which is about the amount in two or three six-ounce cups of home-brewed coffee. Note that this is a lot more than the amount found in most gels, which typically range from 25-100 milligrams per gel.

It’s important to point out that this performance enhancement applies only to endurance exercise.  Caffeine does not seem to benefit strength or speed sports as much.

The Bottom Line

Take these findings with a grain of salt (and no, I don’t mean literally!). These studies can’t prove cause and effect, only an association. This means that some other commonality among coffee drinkers could be causing results of lower risk of the diseases mentioned. However, it does appear that the news is mostly good, so enjoy your coffee without guilt. Just don’t rely on it to meet your body’s fluid needs, and remember that tolerance to coffee and caffeine varies from person to person, so stop before you start feeling jittery. Also, although it’s unlikely to cause any health issues, don’t expect it to cure anything, either. If you don’t enjoy it, it’s not worth choking down just because you heard it was good for you.

For endurance athletes I believe that caffeine is definitely worth experimenting with. Whether you do this by coffee consumption or not is a personal preference.

Jen Sommer is a registered dietitian, a certified specialist in sports dietetics, a former NASM certified personal trainer, and a self-appointed mountain girl. As a cyclist, skier, hiker, and runner (among other things), she knows firsthand the importance of proper nutrition and training. She offers nutrition coaching and consulting through Peaks Coaching Group. Find more great tips, recipes, and articles at Jen's blog, Mountain Girl Nutrition and Fitness.

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