Many of us are addicted to our morning cup (or three) of coffee a day. And it's not uncommon for many to enjoy a cup in the afternoon to perk us up, too. While there have been plenty of studies on the health benefits of coffee — including a boost in your workout performance — there are also negative effects of drinking too much coffee. So just how much is too much? And how real are the health claims? We recently spoke with two health professionals to get the real deal on coffee.
The Real Health Benefits of Coffee
According to the American Chemical Society, coffee is the leading source of antioxidants in the American diet — in part because we drink a ton of it. Coffee beans contain antioxidants, called quinines, which actually become more potent after roasting.
"This type of antioxidant, along with the magnesium found naturally in coffee, affect blood sugar levels and are thought to be responsible for the link to a lower risk of type 2 diabetes," says Hollywood nutritionist and registered dietitian, Lisa DeFazio. "Coffee also contains trigonelline, an antibacterial compound that not only gives it a wonderful aroma but may also be a factor in preventing dental caries."
To boot, coffee also contains chromium, which helps the body use the hormone insulin, which further helps to control blood sugar. Studies have also shown that coffee may improve mood, stop headaches, and reduce the risk of colon cancer, liver cancer, gall stones, cirrhosis of the liver, dementia, stroke, heart rhythm problems and Parkinson's diseases, DeFazio says.
Because coffee is high in caffeine — about 85 to 100 milligrams per cup — java can also boost energy, increase focus and improve your workouts.
"Caffeine is known to release stored fatty acids that can be used for high-octane fuel for ATP production," says Dr. Barry Sears, one of the leading experts in the field hormonal responses induced by the diet and creator of the Zone Diet. "There is some intriguing data that caffeine can also help alertness and recovery after workouts."
The Downside of Coffee
Despite all of the health and workout benefits of coffee, you can get too much of a good thing. Excess caffeine can give you jitters due to increased blood pressure and act as a powerful diuretic. Too much caffeine can also raise blood levels of the fight-or-flight chemical epinephrine, and both regular and decaffeinated coffee contain acids that can make heartburn worse. Drinking too much coffee may also cause rapid heartbeat, sleeplessness and irritability.
You can also develop caffeine addiction with increasingly higher usage, which can affect its workout-boosting abilities. Sears says.
"The amount of coffee required to get these [workout] benefits probably depends on the amount you are accustomed to drinking," he says. "Like any drug, one develops resistance to the drug requiring more for to get the same benefits. An occasional coffee drinker will see a greater benefit of drinking two cups of coffee prior to a workout or competition than someone drinks coffee habitually."
Not to mention that if you skip your usual morning cup, you can develop a caffeine withdrawal headache, DeFazio says.
The Ideal Amount of Coffee to Drink
So just how much coffee should you drink to get the best health and workout benefits and avoid the negative consequences? Both Sears and DeFazio agree that two cups a day is the ideal amount.
"After about 250 milligrams [of caffeine] per day, it is possible to begin developing the effects of caffeine dependency and the side effects that come with it," Sears says. "So two cups of regular coffee per day is probably OK. To get the maximum sport performance benefit, don't drink any caffeine beverage and then drink one to two cups of regular coffee before working out or competition."
However, everyone is different, so listen to your body, DeFazio says.
"Coffee can give some people heart palpitations; for others it does not affect them," she says. "You have to do what is right for you. Personally, I enjoy my morning cup of coffee every day, and I do not leave the house until I have a cup. There are worse things in life to be addicted to, so I say go for it!"
Do you drink coffee? How many cups a day makes you feel good?
Jennipher Walters is the CEO and co-founder of the healthy living websites FitBottomedGirls.com and FitBottomedMamas.com. A certified personal trainer, lifestyle and weight management coach and group exercise instructor, she also holds an MA in health journalism and regularly writes about all things fitness and wellness for various online publications.