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Information provided by each respective company.  It is important to note that the caffeine totals are estimates.  Levels may vary from one batch of coffee beans to another.

The downside of a caffeine high

by Lisa Watson
Jan 23, 2008

Gourmet coffee chains have created a culture in the U.S. where a midmorning or mid-afternoon trip to the shop around the corner is the standard, even though many people know the increased calories might have a negative impact on their health.

Aware of this, Starbucks recently introduced its “skinny latte,” a nonfat, sugar-free version of the popular drink. But most people still overlook another downside of their daily caffeine high.

The Chicago-based American Dietetic Association defines a “moderate” caffeine intake as 200 mg to 300 mg per day.  According to Dawn Jackson Blatner, a registered dietitian and ADA spokeswoman, that translates into about two or three cups of coffee if you brew it at home.

“In moderate amounts we’re really looking at a lot of benefits,” Blatner said.   Studies have shown caffeine to be beneficial for headaches, athletic performance, mental alertness and controlling diabetes, she said.

But if you get your coffee from the shop around the corner -- be it Starbucks, Caribou Coffee, Dunkin Donuts or Peet’s Coffee & Tea -- you could be getting twice the recommended daily allowance from just one large cup.

This is a concern because high levels of caffeine can lead to increased blood pressure, insomnia and ulcers.  High levels of caffeine can also lower calcium absorption, which is particularly a concern for women, said Colleen Lammel-Harmon,  a spokeswoman for the Illinois Dietetic Association and executive director of the Mayor’s Fitness Council in Chicago.

Quick Fix

If you really need the some caffeine, you can limit it.  Of the retailers studied, Starbucks coffee is the strongest. There, a 20 oz. Venti coffee has 415 mg of caffeine -- more than the ADA recommended dose in itself.  To stay within the healthy limits, Blatner recommended opting for a half-caf; that is, half caffeinated and half decaf coffee.

She also recommended having caffeine earlier in the day so that it doesn’t affect your sleep.  The half-life for caffeine is six hours, meaning that’s how long it takes for your system to process what you’ve consumed.  So if you have a coffee at 3 p.m., only half of it will be processed by 9 p.m.

Lammel-Harmon stressed the importance of being aware of caffeine in places you wouldn’t expect it, and said it is present in more than 1,000 prescription and over-the-counter drugs, including Midol, Excedrin and Bayer Aspirin. “You have two cups in the morning and you think you’re safe,” she said.  “You do have to be careful and really read your labels.”

She suggested switching to black or green tea, which has about half as much caffeine as coffee.  Green tea, she said, has the added benefit of reducing the risk of breast cancer.

Other Risks

The caffeine isn’t the only risk that coffee trip poses to your health.  While black coffee generally has a low calorie count, espresso drinks that use milk and often syrup are a significant source of calories and fat. 

Another risk comes from the baked goods at coffee shops.  Though it varies by location, an average muffin from any of these stores has between 450 and 500 calories.  That’s nearly a quarter of the USDA recommended daily calorie intake for most people.  A low-fat muffin still has around 300 calories.  Surprisingly, scones and bread loaf have a  caloric content similar to muffins.

Quick Fix

Special requests such as nonfat milk and no whipped cream can make a significant difference.

For example, a standard Starbucks latte has 150 calories, but the “skinny” version has only 90.  That represents about a one-third decrease in calories, and has the added bonus of eliminating the fat.

And if you really need that jolt of caffeine with as few calories as possible, skip the milk-based drinks and stick to black coffee.