– My Love/Hate Relationship With Coffee

My Love/Hate Relationship With Coffee

How many people do you know that are trying to cut back on their coffee consumption? It’s a lifelong battle for some. Let’s talk about why this is a reality for so many people, what makes it difficult, and how we can find practical ways to reduce caffeine consumption. 

Coffee, Coffee, Coffee

Caffeine is a stimulant drug, which means it speeds up the messages traveling between the brain and the body. Caffeine is so widely available that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports that about 80% of US adults take some form of caffeine every day. Drinking a moderate amount of coffee has been linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease. Although researchers have yet to determine the exact mechanisms behind some of the disease-preventing effects, it is important to keep in mind that these compounds may be helping in other ways like preventing inflammation. Coffee also contains small amounts of some nutrients, including potassium, niacin, and magnesium.

How Much Caffeine Do You Consume?

The use of any drug always carries some risk; it is important to be careful when consuming caffeine. It affects everyone differently based on size, weight, overall health, and frequency of consumption. Caffeine is naturally found in tea leaves, coffee, and cacao beans, while added caffeine (the kind in most energy drinks, for example) is manufactured. See the average amounts of caffeine per product below:

ProductAverage Caffeine Content (mg per ml)
Espresso145 mg caffeine per 50ml cup
Caffeinated beverage or energy drink80 mg caffeine per 250ml cup
Instant coffee (1 teaspoon per cup)80 mg caffeine per 250ml cup
Black tea50 mg caffeine per 220ml cup
Soft drinks36.4 mg caffeine per 375 ml can
Milk chocolate10 mg caffeine per 50g bar

It’s important to note that the amount of caffeine may not be listed on a product and that some products contain other types of stimulants. Although undesirable symptoms, such as anxiety, upset stomach, and difficulty sleeping may be experienced with any amount, high doses of caffeine can be dangerous and are even considered to be a banned substance by the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

According to the 2020 Food and Health Survey, most consumers believe that natural caffeine has the same effects as added caffeine —and they are correct. Although natural caffeine and added caffeine come from different sources, they act similarly in our bodies — primarily, giving us a jolt of energy that helps us get through the day. Caffeine is absorbed from your stomach; it reaches its highest levels in your bloodstream within an hour or two. It increases the amount of acid in your stomach and may cause heartburn or upset stomach. Extra caffeine is processed in the liver and exits through your urine. This is why you might have an increase in urination shortly after having caffeine.

How Does Caffeine Affect Physical Performance?

Those participating in endurance activities, such as running or playing sports, may see more benefit than those doing resistance activities, such as weight lifting. Research consistently supports the positive role of caffeine on physical performance; however, it does not appear to affect everyone the same way.

How Much Caffeine Should You Consume?

To avoid the negative side effects that may come with caffeine overconsumption, the FDA and the 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans provide recommendations for daily caffeine intake. Healthy adults can safely consume 400 milligrams (mg) (equal to what is in about four cups of brewed coffee) of caffeine each day. For pregnant women, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends consuming no more than half that amount, or 200 mg of caffeine. Pregnancy and oral contraceptives can slow caffeine digestion. For pregnant women in their third trimester, caffeine can stay in their bodies for up to 15 hours. 

Another popular caffeinated compound is theobroma cacao, which is used in cocoa and chocolate. Here’s how much caffeine you’ll find in 3.5 ounces (100 grams) of different types of chocolate:

  • 100% Cocoa Chocolate: 240 mg of caffeine (equivalent to 2.5 cups of regular coffee)
  • Bittersweet Chocolate (55% Cocoa): 124 mg of caffeine
  • Milk Chocolate (33% Cocoa): 45 mg of caffeine (equivalent to a cup of black tea)

If you enjoy chocolate with your coffee, keep in mind that your chocolate treat is increasing your caffeine intake. Check out how much caffeine you are consuming through coffee and chocolate along with other products at

From the Dietitian

Starting in August 2021, I, a coffee lover, decided to cut back on my 2-3 cup daily ritual. It was easy to convince myself that I drink coffee for the taste, nothing else! However, I started realizing I would become very tired, sluggish, and irritated at work without my early afternoon cup. Seeing the physical coffee withdrawal effects and thinking I needed it daily to function made me realize I was dependent on it! Through a healthy disease prevention class, I decided to create an action plan to reduce my coffee intake. I decreased my average 16-20 cups per week to 4-5 cups of coffee per week. What happened? I did it successfully, but my body did not react well. I felt achy, tired, fatigued, and irritated. Sadly, I did not gradually limit my caffeine intake the right way.

Why do I share? Because I want to 1) pass along my experience so you do not have to go through major withdrawal symptoms like me and  2) on a deeper level, encourage you all to think about what foods or items are in your diet and the justification behind them. Maybe you have a certain food item or meal that tastes really good (like my cups of coffee) and it brings you happiness. But what is the food doing to your body and mind? What foods are we dependent on and why?

You Can Do It

If you’re trying to limit your caffeine intake, try these research-based tips:

  • Delay having coffee for at least an hour after you wake in the morning. Soon after waking, your body produces cortisol, a natural energy booster. Try saving your coffee breaks for mid-morning or the early afternoon when cortisol levels dip!
  • If you do not regularly drink caffeine, consider drinking it only when you really need a functional boost, like before a long drive, a workout, or a particularly long seminar…
  • Drink caffeine at least 6 hours before bed. Caffeine can interfere with sleep when consumed as long as six hours before bedtime. It can reduce sleep by an hour and interfere with sleep efficiency and REM patterns.
  • Switch out a coffee break for an exercise snack or mini-workout. 20 minutes of aerobic exercise can improve blood flow in the brain, releasing neurotrophic factors, dopamine, and epinephrine.
  • Gradually swap a cup of coffee for a cup of black tea or green tea; after one week, swap for herbal tea (caffeine-free).
  • Increase water consumption.

Ready for more nutrition tips and lifestyle recommendations? The YMCA Nutrition Counseling Program helps adults find a healthier way of eating that’s right for them with the help of our Registered Dietitian. Learn more »


Mattie Lefever, RDN, LDN

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