A Dietitian’s Take on Common Caffeine Misconceptions

The Truth About Your A.M. Fix

By Janet Feinstein, RD, LD, CNSC

There are many misconceptions about caffeine. The two most common sources of caffeine are coffee and tea leaves, but kola nuts and cocoa beans are also included in the most common sources list.

Caffeine contents vary significantly depending on serving size and type of food/beverage. Caffeine content can range from >160ml in energy drinks to <4mg in chocolate flavored syrup.  Even decaffeinated coffee still has some caffeine. Many over-the-counter medications, pain relievers and diet pills contain some caffeine. In fact, caffeine itself is considered a pain killer and effective in increasing the effectiveness of other pain relievers.

#1: Caffeine is addictive

Caffeine is a stimulant to the central nervous system and regular use can cause mild dependence. However, caffeine does not cause the severity of withdrawal symptoms or harmful behaviors as either alcohol or other drugs.

#2: Caffeine causes insomnia

The body quickly absorbs caffeine and quickly eliminates it as well. The half life of caffeine is relatively short, within 5 to 7 hours, half of the caffeine is excreted. Therefore, most people will not be affected, as long as their last caffeinated item is six hours before bedtime.

#3: Caffeine increases risks of osteoporosis, heart disease and cancer.

Moderate amounts of caffeine ~300ml will not affect most healthy adults, others are more vulnerable to the effects of the caffeine.

  • Osteoporosis and caffeine: high levels of caffeine (>750mg) can cause excretion of both calcium and magnesium. But recent studies have shown that it does not necessarily increase your risk for bone loss.
  • Cardiovascular disease and caffeine: A slight elevation in heart rate and blood pressure is common in those sensitive to caffeine.  But several studies do not link caffeine to elevated cholesterol, irregular heartbeat or increased risk for cardiovascular disease.
  • Cancer and Caffeine: Studies involving >20000 people revealed no relationship between caffeine and cancer. In actuality caffeine may have a protective effect against some cancers.

#4: Caffeine is harmful to women trying to get pregnant

Many studies show no link between low amounts of caffeine and pregnancy or trouble conceiving.

#5: Caffeine can be dehydrating

Caffeine may cause you to urinate, however the fluid intake consumed from caffeinated beverages offset the fluid loss from urination. Even though caffeine may have a mild diuretic effect, it doesn’t actually cause dehydration.

#6: Caffeine harms children, who now, consume more than adults.

As energy drinks have become more popular, kids are drinking more caffeine. Some kids are sensitive to the caffeine and are at risk for developing temporary anxiety or irritability with a “crash” at the end.  Also, most caffeinated beverages that kids drink are higher in sugar content. These empty calories put kids at higher risk for obesity. Therefore, even if the caffeine itself isn’t harmful to children, the drinks have other harmful side-effects

#7: Caffeine can be used to “sober-up”

Actually research suggests that people only “think” that caffeine helps them sober up. However, reaction time is still impaired until the alcohol is detoxified in the body.

#8: Caffeine has no health benefits

Caffeine does have a few proven health benefits, and the list of caffeine’s potential benefits are interesting, but still more research is needed for proof.

Any regular coffee drinker will say they have increased level of alertness, concentration, energy and feeling of sociability. Despite its potential benefits, high levels of caffeine intake may have adverse effects, more studies are needed to confirm the actual benefits and potential risks.

Consultant dietitian

Janet, MS. RD, CNSC is Dietitians on Demand’s staff travel dietitian. She has more than 36 years of experience in clinical, wellness, foodservice and community nutrition.

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Janet’s other blog posts for Dietitians on Demand cover topics such as the latest nutrition support guidelines and CMS regulations.

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