diet-sos

Caffeine SOS: Joy Bauer answers questions about our favorite stimulant

July 10, 2012 at 8:37 AM ET

If you're clutching your coffee mug right now, you're not alone. Plenty of us rely on that caffeine jolt to get going in the morning -- or in the afternoon. But how much caffeine is healthy? And how much are you really getting? TODAY nutrition expert Joy Bauer answers your questions, including two bonus online-only answers.

Ashley from Charleston, S.C.: Every day after lunch I hit a 2 p.m. crash where I just want to fall asleep. Instead of drinking high-calorie sodas and energy drinks, what is a good "wake-me-up" that’s healthy and stimulating? 

Joy Bauer: For a healthy afternoon boost, try sipping on unsweetened green or black tea; a hot mug or a refreshing iced version will do the trick. I'm suggesting tea because you'll get a modest hit of caffeine (about half the amount in a cup of coffee), and since it’s later in the day this smaller amount will be less likely to interfere with your evening slumber. And as a bonus, you’re taking advantage of all the beneficial antioxidants found in tea leaves.

If you prefer coffee, enjoy a version made with half regular and half decaf -- you'll get that same modest afternoon jolt and be ready to hit the sack by bedtime. If you'd like to add milk, go for skim, 1 percent low-fat, soy milk or unsweetened almond milk. Skim and soy lattes can also be made with half regular/half decaf.

And if you need to sweeten your tea or coffee, stick with one to two packets or teaspoons of sugar, max. 

Related: Read a month's worth of Joy's diet tips!

Abby from San Diego, Calif.: How much caffeine is too much and does it depend on your size?

Joy Bauer: For healthy adults, a moderate amount of caffeine generally appears to be perfectly safe and may even offer up some pretty impressive health benefits. A “moderate” dose is considered to be 300 milligrams to 400 milligrams a day, which converts to about three or four cups of coffee or six to eight cups of tea.

That said, sensitivity to caffeine varies from person to person and can be affected by body size, age, genetics and medication use. Plus, people develop an increased tolerance from regularly drinking caffeinated coffee and tea.

There’s no exact science to figuring out your personal tolerance; it’s a matter of listening to your body and adjusting your caffeine intake accordingly. Going over your personal limit can lead to jitteriness, irritability, upset stomach, or trouble sleeping.

*For pregnant women, one cup of coffee is considered safe. (Less than 200 milligrams per day does not appear to increase risk for miscarriage or premature birth.)

Elizabeth from Newark, Del.: I recently gave up caffeine cold turkey and suffered the three-day headache that followed. I do not want to add caffeine back into my diet via beverages but would like to enjoy chocolate occasionally. Will chocolate undo all my efforts?

Joy Bauer: It shouldn’t be a problem unless you’re super-sensitive to caffeine, because the amount of caffeine in chocolate is small. An ounce of milk chocolate has about 6 milligrams caffeine, and an ounce of dark chocolate has 20 to 30 milligrams. That’s far less than a standard cup of coffee, which typically has 100 milligrams to 150 milligrams of caffeine. So the answer is: No, enjoying a piece of chocolate now and then will not undo your "caffeine-free" efforts. That said, it’s probably a good idea to avoid eating it right before bed (since you're totally off all caffeine, even this tiny dose may be enough to keep you from falling asleep).

Dina from Phoenix, Ariz.: I’ve heard that caffeine can be a cause of belly fat. Is that true -- and is one or two cups of coffee bad for swimsuit season?

Joy Bauer: It's not true – caffeine itself will NOT cause belly fat. Belly fat accumulates from consuming more calories than you’re burning, and both plain coffee and plain tea (with caffeine) are virtually calorie-free. However, other fattening coffee ingredients like sugar, cream and flavorings WILL contribute to weight gain. In fact, coffee is often a sneaky fat trap because we forget to hold ourselves accountable for these "extra" flavoring calories and they can really add up by the end of the week.

Check out these stats:

Cup of black coffee = 0 calories

Cup of coffee with whole milk and two packets sugar  equals 70 calories. (That’s an extra 500 calories a week!)

16 ounce flavored latte with whole milk equals 290 calories. (That’s more than 2,000 calories a week!)

Drink your one or two cups of coffee black or with low-fat milk, go easy on the sugar and you'll be ready for the beach! 

SuEllen from Albuquerque, N.M.: I was advised to drink 4 ounces to 6 ounces of regular black coffee in the morning prior to exercising as this would increase my metabolism and optimize my workout. Does caffeine really boost metabolism and help your workout?

Joy Bauer: Caffeine does give your metabolism a slight boost, but the uptick is small. Caffeine’s real advantage here is improving your workout. We've learned through research that having three-quarters of a cup to 1 cup of coffee (or two cups of tea) about an hour before exercising can increase your endurance and decrease perceived muscle pain, which allows you to push harder and burn more calories during your workout. Small doses of caffeine seem to produce the same benefit as larger doses, so there’s no reason to drink more than this amount. Just make sure to drink your coffee about an hour before your workout to give the caffeine time to absorb into your bloodstream.

Mehmet from Turkey: Does caffeine deplete calcium in the bones?

Joy Bauer: Yes, but the effect is minimal. In fact, the amount of calcium lost is so small that it can be completely offset by simply adding one to two tablespoons of milk to each cup of joe. Even if you drink your coffee black, experts have concluded that moderate amounts of caffeine from coffee or tea do not negatively impact bone health or increase the risk of osteoporosis, as long as you consume adequate calcium in your diet (that’s 1,000 milligrams a day for adults under 50 and 1,200 milligrams a day for adults older than 50). So, provided that you eat a calcium-rich diet -- think milk, yogurt, cheese, broccoli, and kale -- you can continue to enjoy coffee without concern.

For more energy-boosting tips, follow Joy on Facebook and Twitter, and visit her website at Joybauer.com.

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