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Nutrition 911, Part VIII: Coffee—Friend or Foe?

By Steve Edwards

Welcome to Part VIII of our oh-so-basic nutrition class designed to give you an overview of basic nutrition and make healthy eating much simpler. Please see the list of previous 911 articles below for more nutrition information.

Today we discuss the most popular drink in the world, coffee. I don't actually know where these statistics come from, but since we mainly want to discuss one ingredient, caffeine, I'll lump coffee, tea, and other caffeinated beverages into the same discussion so that we'll be sure to be addressing something that's pertinent to almost all of you. Coffee and tea have been around for the entirety of recorded history, so no matter what science tells us, we begin this edition with some time-tested knowledge that people don't go around dropping dead over the stuff, nor will it get you banned for cheating when you win the Olympics. Or will it?

Coffee and tea are probably the most controversial substances we consume. Unlike, say, soda, candy, chocolate, and fast food, all which we know are detrimental to our diets, studies swing both ways over the benefits and dangers of our morning cup of java. But whatever the outcome, we drink the stuff with an almost ritualistic glee. If you drink neither coffee nor tea, you're an outsider in almost any culture on the planet.

Coffee, tea, and other caffeinated drinks

First off, let's talk about the difference between tea, coffee, and other drinks laced with caffeine. Coffee and tea are both very simple products made from mixing ground-up plants with hot water. So they're both 100 percent natural, contain approximately zero calories, and a few nutrients. What they do contain is caffeine. A lot of it. Coffee has nearly twice the caffeine as tea but it varies by type and the brewing process. As a general rule, trendy green teas have less caffeine than black teas, which have less than coffee. Figure that for each cup of coffee or tea you consume, you'll get between 50 mg and 200 mg of caffeine.

Both have assorted other nutrients, mainly antioxidants, all of which are quite healthy. The downside is that both are acidic to the point that habitual consumption can cause stomach problems in some people. But the main hit or miss with folks when it comes to coffee or tea is the caffeine. After this, their choices are usually made by taste, ritual, or the culture they live in.

Caffeine gives you a jolt of energy, which we'll discuss later, and because of this, many other beverages now come with a healthy dose of the stuff. Most sodas have some caffeine but the big trend today is toward turbocharged "energy drinks." These are nasty concoctions of sugar, caffeine, and other assorted legal uppers designed to amp you sky-high and provide the illusion that you're having a good time. They may work, at least for a short time, but are basically just time bombs of euphoria. When you crash, you'll crash hard. Because these are soft drinks, their discussion belongs in this article.

Can coffee or tea make you fat?

There is one place we have a definitive answer on this subject and it's that neither of these drinks will make you fat. In fact, they should do the opposite. Caffeine is a diuretic, meaning it affects your metabolic process at a heightened level. Translation: they make you go to the bathroom more often. It also elevates brain activity which, technically, should make you less hungry. This is why caffeine is often added to diet aids.

The only things in coffee or tea that can make you fat are things you add to them. Most of the menu at your local Starbucks is stuff that makes coffee merely a side dish, if that. And traditional drinks such as Thai iced tea are only tea in name. Therefore, just because something calls itself "coffee" or "tea" doesn't mean that's all there is to the story. Like with most foods, reading labels is important. For more on coffee drinks, click here.

The latest research

Coffee has been in the headlines a lot recently. You may have caught the Yahoo headline this week stating it could give you a heart attack. Or maybe you caught the study touting it as a superfood last month. Certainly, you've heard it's a banned substance by the International Olympic Committee due to its performance-enhancing qualities but then why, you wonder, did you just see a headline saying you should avoid it prior to a workout? And what about that study stating that if you drank enough coffee, it would stave off the effects of all that alcohol you consume?

Coffee, tea, and caffeine are perhaps the most widely studied things we put into our bodies (over 19,000 recent recorded studies), yet no definitive stance can be found on the stuff. If this seems odd, we must consider the fact that studies need to be funded and a lot of money can skew a study to say this or that—a subject I touch on often in my blog. At any rate, let's wade into some of the more recent headlines and try to make some sense out of them.

Will coffee give you a heart attack?

Apparently it will—if you're "at risk for heart attacks," according to a syndicated article that was a Yahoo headline this week. But what does this mean? The article begins with the vague line about how coffee may trigger a heart attack in some people. If you delve deeper, the water becomes muddier, so, tired of sifting through their muck, I went to the source.

A large Costa Rican study over four years studied the relationship between 503 nonfatal heart attacks and found that most of the subjects drank coffee prior to having them. In the stats, it appeared that light coffee drinkers were at more risk than heavy coffee drinkers. This, as you might suppose, caused some confusion. Looking deeper into the abstract, we see that the researchers think that the coffee/heart attack relationship stems from a rare gene variation in some people. They also stated their research was "far from conclusive." The report on Yahoo made no mention of the gene variant and, instead, went with the more alarmist "those at risk" line because "who isn't, right?" The study also clearly stated that most of the population was at zero risk from drinking coffee.

The bottom line of the study was that most of the population was not at risk and the few that might be, also may not be. So, for now, I'll side with Dr. Robert Eckel, former president of the American Heart Association, and remain "unconvinced."

Furthermore, a study done over two decades using 120,000 subjects concluded there was no relationship between even heavy coffee drinking and heart disease. This study, done in part by the Harvard School of Public Health, stated there was no link between heart disease and a daily intake of six or more cups of coffee per day. It also stated the risk was the same for those who consumed less than one cup of coffee or tea per month. This study also addressed the Costa Rican findings, stating they were "possible" but "require confirmation."

Can you lose your gold medal?

Not anymore. In 2004, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) removed caffeine from its banned list. Prior to that, athletes could be busted for drinking about five cups of coffee or more. Certainly, this means that some highly-thought-of scientists once thought is was an ergogenic (performance enhancer). But was it removed because it was found not to be effective, as there are now better ways of "cheating," or because the coffee lobby contributed to the IOC? Time may or may not tell, but one thing's for sure: many people feel caffeine enhances performance.

A recent Swiss study, however, refutes it, at least in one sense. The study of 18 individuals showed that coffee prior to exercise restricted heart blood flow by 22 percent. Obviously, this would be a detriment to performance but, again, the research is far from conclusive. For one, the study used regular coffee drinkers and then did not let them drink coffee for 36 hours prior to the experiment, so their results may have had to do with a coffee-withdrawal effect. And two, no study of 18 people can be anywhere close to conclusive. But it's interesting, for sure, and certainly much more will be done. I'd keep an eye out for more on this.

But, again, there's a lot more science showing it has positive physical effects, even if they stem from better brain function. An Austrian study using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to assess memory skills showed a marked improvement in motor skill and memory after ingesting 100 mg of caffeine. The study cautioned that the progression was not linear, meaning that more is not definitely better. But it was a conclusive test as a performance enhancer.

According to physiologist Terry Graham, PhD, of the University of Guelph in Canada, "What caffeine likely does is stimulate the brain and nervous system to do things differently. That may include signaling you to ignore fatigue or recruit extra units of muscle for intense athletic performance." And, as to whether this better aids strength or endurance sports he adds, "What's amazing about it is that unlike some performance-enhancing manipulation athletes do that are specific for strength or endurance, studies show that caffeine positively enhances all of these things."

Is coffee a superfood?

This would depend, I guess. We've seen some downsides and I've yet to mention two others. One, it's addictive, and two, it's been linked to insomnia. Performance-wise, sleep is crucial for your body to recover and recharge itself. No matter its benefits, if coffee negatively affects your ability to rest, it's not going to help you much.

Yet, analyzing data of 126,000 people over 18 years has led to an almost astonishing number of likely health benefits, including lowering your risk of diabetes, Parkinson's disease, colon cancer, and improving mood, headaches, and even lessening the risk of cavities.

In some cases, even the "all things in moderation" cliché was put to the test. For example, drinking one to three cups a day reduced type 2 diabetes risk by single digits, whereas drinking six or more cups per day slashed men's risk by 54 percent and women's by 30 percent.

These findings have been routinely backed up by further studies. At least six studies indicate that coffee drinkers are up to 80 percent less likely to develop Parkinson's disease, with three showing the more they drank, the lower the risk. Other research shows that compared to not drinking coffee, at least two cups daily can cut your risk of gallstones in half, provide a 25 percent less chance of contracting colon cancer, and a whopping 80 percent decline in liver cirrhosis risk. So abundant is this research that caffeine is added to certain medications to treat headaches, mood, asthma, and now Parkinson's.

So is it time to hit Starbucks?

Since, as I've said before, this isn't politics class, I won't tell you not to, but I'm certain that your local organic, fair-trade, mom-and-pop coffeehouse with the open mic on Thursdays will have better coffee anyway (wink). Back to the subject, coffee or tea certainly don't seem to be harmful as a part of your diet. The problem with them, I suspect, is more often what we add to them than the coffee itself. So if you enjoy your morning or afternoon (maybe skip the evening) ritual, then by all means indulge. Just keep it traditional, pure, simple, and forget the word Frappuccino was ever invented.

Nutrition 911 articles
  • Part I addresses the terms organic, grass-fed, free-range, and farm-raised.
  • Part II analyzes the ever-popular "fat-free" and trendy "low-carb" slogans.
  • Part III takes the CliffNotes approach to reading food labels.
  • Part IV tackles dessert.
  • Part V concerns what to eat.
  • Part VI tackles soda pop, the worst food on the planet.
  • Part VII takes a look at the so-called "best" foods on the planet.

If you'd like to ask a question or comment on a newsletter article, just email us at mailbag@beachbody.com. Check Steve Edwards' Mailbag for his responses to reader comments.

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Guilt-Free Pizza

By Joe Wilkes

When the moon hits your eye
Like a big pizza pie
That's amore!

When you eat that whole pie
It goes straight to your thighs
That's obesity!

Pizza. Delicious, hot, and cheesy. It tastes good hot. It tastes good cold. It can be used effectively to treat both depression AND hangovers! It feeds a family of four in 30 minutes or less with no dishes! Now that's a miracle food. But there's a catch. It has tons of calories and is chock-full of bad carbs and fats. Oh, why must the nutrition gods be so cruel?

Even if you possess the incredible self-control required to stop after eating one slice of pepperoni, you're still getting about 300 calories, half of which are from fat; and half the fat calories are saturated fat—the bad kind. After all, when there's enough grease in your meal to soak through a cardboard box, it's a good sign you might not have made the healthiest choice. Also, most of your carbs are coming from the white-flour crust, which will give you plenty of empty calories but very little fiber. And these nutritional facts apply to almost every commercially available pizza out there. You pretty much have a better chance of seeing Mel Gibson at synagogue than having a healthy pizza delivered to your house.

But, don't give up, pizza lovers. By making your own pizza, you can make smarter choices for almost all of the ingredients, and you can have your pie and eat it, too.

The Crust

One of the things that really jacks up the calories in pizza is the crust. It's typically made from refined white flour, a simple carbohydrate your body metabolizes quickly into sugar and then into stored fat, while providing very little fiber. Basically, it just provides a porous matrix for all the greasy drippings from the toppings. But if you make your own dough, you can substitute fiber-rich whole wheat flour for white in your favorite dough recipe, or you can check your local health-food supermarket for a mix or frozen whole wheat dough. As with all bread products, remember to look for WHOLE wheat flour. If the ingredient list only says "wheat flour," it's no different than white flour; they've just usually added a little molasses to give it that healthy brown look. The other advantage of making your own dough is you can roll the crust much thinner. Just thick enough to hold the toppings—it doesn't have to be the inch-thick oil sponge that Pizza Hut calls a pan pizza.

If you don't feel the need to knead, you could look to other whole wheat bread products that are already cooked. Check out Turbo Jam® creator Chalene Johnson's Pita Pizza recipe, for example. English muffins, tortillas, lavash bread, even plain old whole wheat toast can make a great base for your creation. Just watch your cooking time. Premade bread products will obviously require much less time to cook than raw dough and much less time to burn.

The Sauce

Sauce is just tomatoes, right? How bad could that be? They've got lycopene, a great antioxidant. The problem with most delivery pizzas is that the sauces are likely to contain a fair amount of tremendously unhealthy high-fructose corn syrup (as will the crust and any toppings the fast-food conglomerates can manage to inject HFCS into). So make your own sauce. Just dump a couple of cans of crushed tomatoes into a saucepan, add some oregano, basil, garlic, onions, or any other spices you like, and cook it down to a thick consistency. Or, use a store-bought marinara or pizza sauce. Just check the ingredient label to make sure you're getting tomatoes, not corn syrup.

The Cheese

When I was a teenager, I visited Italy, and was gravely disappointed when I had my first slice of real Italian pizza. The bread was great, but there was just a smear of tomato sauce and only a light sprinkling of cheese. Nothing like the greasy delights of New York and Chicago. Since then, my palate has matured to appreciate the flavors of the noncheese ingredients. America, in its never-ending pursuit of obesity, has found very few foreign dishes that couldn't be improved by melting a pound of cheese on them. (It's even stuffed in the crust now.) It may be time to rethink the model of pizza as cheese delivery system. A little cheese is OK for flavor, but there's no need to smother it. If you can't see the tomato sauce, you're using too much cheese.

There are plenty of nonfat and low-fat cheeses on the market, as well as some cheese substitutes. You'll have to experiment to see which ones melt well and don't taste like plastic. Or, you could have some of the real thing if you can train yourself to enjoy the taste of a little cheese, instead of a pound. Just sprinkle enough on for flavor. A good guideline should be a shred of cheese per bite. Also, try some alternatives to mozzarella and provolone, like a little blue cheese or goat cheese. A little bit of a strong-tasting cheese can give your pizza more flavor than a lot of a milder one.

The Toppings

This is where the rubber meets the road nutritionally. No surprise, the best toppings are vegetables. Onions, peppers, mushrooms, artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, fresh herbs, fresh garlic, eggplant, zucchini, spinach—this is a great way to load up on all the healthy fiber-and-vitamin-rich veggies you should be eating every day. For carnivores, try some chopped chicken breast, lean ham, or low-fat turkey, chicken, or soy sausage. Anchovies are a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, and taste great. Watch the sodium levels, though. Some gourmet stores offer meatier anchovies that aren't as salty.

Be creative and think outside of the pizza box for topping combinations. Seafood lovers, try a pizza with salmon, goat cheese, and fresh dill. The popular Hawaiian pizza with lean ham and pineapple is a good choice, if you stay light on the cheese. A vegetarian friend of mine made me a pizza with veggie sausage and chopped fennel bulb that was so good, I forgot there wasn't meat in it. Instead of ordering Domino's Buffalo-style calorie bomb, try substituting hot sauce for marinara sauce, with some chopped chicken breast. Make a Mexican pizza, substituting nonfat refried beans for the sauce, and using ground turkey, salsa, and avocado for toppings. Use your imagination, and you'll be serving gourmet pizza instead of diet pizza.

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