Dave Shaw 's Opinion

NZ dietitian, performance nutritionist and health expert. Dave does his best to make sense of what we eat.

Dave Shaw: Highs and lows of our caffeinated culture

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There's nothing 'naughty' about enjoying the boost of a morning coffee.
Photo / 123RF
There's nothing 'naughty' about enjoying the boost of a morning coffee. Photo / 123RF

Caffeine is what lubricates the wheels of our fast paced, goal driven society. It's a drug, but most of us don't think of it in that way. Caffeine makes us happy, alert and more energetic. We have embraced it into our culture and, many of us, into our daily lives.

We have been using caffeine for a long time and it's been acceptable for a long time. But it hasn't always been like this.

At one point or another, caffeinated drinks like tea and coffee have been scrutinized for their links to heart disease, cancer, bone degeneration and hypertension. And to this day, we continue to look for the bad in a drink that we love. It's like a bad marriage.

Thankfully, coffee and tea have come out with only a few bumps and bruises from the onslaught of scientific enquiry, so our relationship with these brews can continue. But before you declare your allegiance to the caffeinated culture, here's a quick update about the drug our society chooses to celebrate.

Where is caffeine found?
Caffeine is essentially found everywhere these days and this is where the problem lies. Not only is caffeine naturally found in coffee, tea and chocolate, it's being pumped into energy drinks, supplements, drugs and even some chewing gums. It's inescapable and this has started to worry many public health experts.

The caffeine half-life
When our bodies take in caffeine, it hangs around for hours. Usually, our blood concentrations peak after about an hour and slowly decline from then on. Caffeine has a half-life of about 3 to 4 hours, so half of that coffee you had at 5pm may still be streaming through your body when you're thinking about bedtime, preventing you from getting to sleep. For most people, it's best to get your caffeine earlier in the day.

Is the caffeine in coffee the same as the caffeine in an energy drink?
On a molecular level, they're identical. But lets get this straight, there is nothing good about caffeinated energy drinks. They're marketed to give us wings, but what good are wings when you've given your health away? The main difference between the most caffeinated beverages is the amount of caffeine that each hold. Check out this caffeine calculator to learn more.

Is caffeine harmful?
There are some people that are recommended to stay away from caffeine: children, people who are pregnant or planning to be, those who have a heart condition or have another underlying medical condition. But for the majority of us, it's not harmful when consumed in moderation. So you can stop telling yourself you're being 'naughty' when you wind up having a flat white for a morning kick. Too much, though, and you may be feeling some jitteriness, anxiousness and nervous sweating.

Is caffeine healthful?
Caffeine provides us with no nutrition, but that doesn't mean it's of no value. Coffee beans and tea leaves both naturally contain caffeine and are high in antioxidants that have proven health benefits. Regular coffee drinkers may even be at less risk of getting type 2 diabetes. So, although caffeine is not necessarily good for us, we are far better off getting it from a plant rather than a factory.

Is caffeine good for performance?
It can be depending on what your chosen event or task is. Most of us already know a couple cups of coffee can allow us to get through a long, hard day. Some athletes can even take caffeine in small doses strategically around events to give themselves an edge over fellow competitors. But remember, just because a little is good, that doesn't mean more is better.

Caffeine and alcohol
The combination of the two is crazy. Since alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, the more we drink the more tired we become. Eventually falling asleep before a toxic level causing irreversible harm is reached. Well, in most cases. But caffeine is a stimulant and helps to combat fatigue. So when the two combine in your body, even though you are completely intoxicated from the booze, you are too wired on caffeine to notice it. Please don't go there.

Caffeine and sleeping pills
The tragic caffeine-sleeping pill combo has recently seen some time in the media. It's the craziest mix you could imagine. Strangely, some people claim to receive a buzz from taking large doses of each together, but it's a death wish if you choose to venture down this path. Like the caffeine-alcohol combo, please don't go there.

- www.nzherald.co.nz

Dave Shaw

NZ dietitian, performance nutritionist and health expert. Dave does his best to make sense of what we eat.

Dave works in public health and alongside some of New Zealand’s top athletes. Whether it's for vitality, performance, identity or spirituality, Dave loves the way food brings people together. He believes that no one diet is the cure for our growing rates of chronic disease, but a diet based on wholefoods is the perfect start. Always keeping up-to-date with current evidence and food trends, Dave is a relentless researcher for how we should eat and likes to challenge what we may think about nutrition.

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