Is coffee actually good or bad for you?

16 November 2015
Man with phone and coffee

The effects of caffeine on the body have been widely researched, so what’s the verdict? This article looks at both sides of the debate.

Coffee lovers tend to be passionate about their caffeine fix and can be reluctant to give it up. The good news is that although consuming too much caffeine can carry health risks, there’s little problem with enjoying it in moderation. But if you’re trying to cut back, there are some great, healthy and tasty alternatives available.

Coffee can improve sports performance when used correctly, and it also contains antioxidants. But the best way to get antioxidants into your diet is to consume plenty of fruit and vegetables as part of a healthy balanced diet.

In short, there isn’t much justification to start drinking coffee for health reasons but in moderate amounts, it doesn’t seem to do any harm.

The downside of too much coffee

Too much caffeine can make you feel irritable and light-headed. Other problems linked to consuming too much caffeine include anxiety, dehydration, headaches, an increased heart rate and stomach pains. Caffeine toxicity is seen most often in people who drink lots of energy drinks because these can contain huge amounts of caffeine.

Caffeine is a stimulant drug that acts on your brain and nervous system. In moderate amounts (4–5 cups of coffee a day) it can make you feel more alert and stop you feeling sleepy. However, the downside is that it’s possible to become dependent on caffeine and get withdrawal symptoms if you stop drinking it. These symptoms may include headaches, anxiety, muscle pain and tiredness. It can be too much of a good thing – combatting tiredness is the reason why a lot of people drink coffee in the first place.

How much caffeine is in your drinks?

The amount of caffeine in your coffee depends on how the beans are roasted, brewed and ground – and the size of your cup. For example, if you’re a coffee connoisseur, you probably know that Arabica beans contain less caffeine than Robusta beans. The table below is an approximate guide from the European Food Safety Commission that shows you how much caffeine is in some foods and drinks.

Food or drink Amount of caffeine in mg
Cup of filter coffee (200ml) 90
Can of energy drink (250ml) 80
Espresso (60ml) 80
Cup of black tea (220ml) 50
Can of cola (355ml) 40
Plain chocolate (50g) 25
Milk chocolate (50g) 10

Guidelines for coffee intake

It’s recommended that you have no more than 400mg of caffeine per day. And it’s best not to have any caffeine in the six hours before you go to bed so it doesn’t affect your sleep. Some people will need a longer caffeine-free period before sleep, some people are less affected. Your body weight, age and health can all affect how you react to caffeine.

If you consume high amounts of caffeine when you’re pregnant, it may increase your risk of having a low birth weight baby. During pregnancy, it’s recommended that you limit your caffeine intake to no more than 200–300mg per day.

So all in all, for most of us, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying coffee or tea in moderation, alongside plenty of other fluids.

Six drinks to help you cut back on coffee

If you’re trying to reduce your coffee intake, try these alternatives.

Black tea

Black tea has a distinctive flavour and colour. Keep in mind there is some caffeine (around 50mg per cup) in black tea.

Green tea

This type of tea may contain more antioxidants than black and herbal teas.

Green tea does still contain caffeine, though generally less than coffee or regular tea (around 15–40mg per cup depending on how long you steep it for).

Rooibos or Redbush

This South African drink comes from a red shrub plant. Like other herbal teas, it doesn’t contain caffeine so it’s a great drink to enjoy at night.

Herbal teas and infusions

Herbal teas (such as peppermint or ginger) don’t contain caffeine. They can be a great way to stay hydrated and enjoy a caffeine-free hot drink.

Dandelion ‘coffee’

Made from the dandelion plant, this herbal drink has some similarities to coffee in terms of appearance and taste, but has the benefit of being naturally caffeine-free.

Decaf coffee

Perfect for people who love the taste of coffee but who want to avoid the caffeine. Decaf coffees usually contain no more than 5mg of caffeine per cup.

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Dietitian at Bupa UK

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