McDermott: Is Coffee Good or Bad?

Scott McDermott’s monthly column about health and fitness

Oh boy. Nothing like tackling a big question full of opinion and controversy! Let me see if I can make sense of it all.

Let me start by saying that I stopped having all forms of caffeine as of last week (it has been five days now). Before I answer why I would do that, let me start by addressing why I started in the first place.

As you may have heard, I crashed on my bike in a race in 2015 and my neurologist suggested that coffee would help me focus and concentrate and remember things as my brain healed from the injuries sustained. He was right. I was never a coffee drinker and think black coffee is quite simply awful, so I drank mochas. It started with one medium mocha (half hot chocolate, half coffee) on weekdays while at work, and then soon it was large, then extra large, then two a day. Every single day.

At 330 calories each, it was not long before my two years of surgeries and inactivity led me to gain 37 pounds (ouch).

Coffee was what I thought about when I woke up and what I did to start the day. I added powdered coffee to my protein shakes and when I started to get back in shape again after my last surgery in 2017, I started drinking coffee with yummy protein powder in it to replace all the bad calories of the mochas I had grown to love.

Fast forward to now, and the observation from my nutrition coach (Dr. Trevor Kashey, PhD) that perhaps it was time to surrender the bean and go without.

So is coffee good or bad?

Well, if you have ever read my stuff or listened to my talks on nutrition you already know that I firmly believe that nothing is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, it is merely appropriate, or inappropriate for your goals. It is either helping you get better or feel better, and those may be in opposite directions. Like I said, that is not good or bad, just a decision that moves you ahead or holds you back.

So with that said, coffee is a drink (usually hot) made from the roasted and ground beans of a tropical shrub. Coffee was discovered in Ethiopia and the tribal healers said it had magical healing properties when boiled in water. It quickly spread around the world and as early as the 1500’s, coffee houses began to open. Coffee is high in anti-oxidants as well as B vitamins and some minerals such as potassium, magnesium and a few others. In fact, the polyphenols and hydrocinnamic acids in coffee combined with how much we drink of it, makes it the best anti-oxidant blend in the world, giving us more than fruits and vegetables combined for the average person. Anti-oxidants help prevent diseases, including some of the big ones like cancer and type 2 diabetes. So that’s good.

Coffee has caffeine in it, which is a stimulant. In particular it blocks the function of adenosine, a neurotransmitter in the brain. This blocking increases brain activity and releases norepinephrine (adrenalin) and dopamine which reduces tiredness and makes you feel more alert (and happy, I would add). It has also been shown to improve reaction time and understanding things (cognition) as well as increasing athletic performance by 11-12 per cent.

However, it is addictive and the more you drink, the less effective it becomes, leading you to drink more. It can cause anxiety and disrupt sleep and the ability to rest. If you have heart issues, it can make those worse by causing your heart to beat faster. Too much coffee can cause digestive issues like ulcers or loose stool.People who drink lots of coffee and train really hard are much more likely to be at risk for rhabdomyolysis, a potentially deadly condition that can cause kidney failure.

I find this ironic because ‘pre-workout’ drinks are very popular and many contain really high amounts of caffeine – above 250mg, which puts you at risk (some people can tolerate more).

Coffee can lead to exhaustion – which is why I quit. Coffee will cause your endocrine system to block or release hormones that give you more energy, and that will be great for 90 to 120 minutes, and then you will suddenly have less energy as the caffeine leaves your system. Of course this is when many of us go for another ‘hit’, and on it goes. This can actually be masking the fact that you are genuinely exhausted to the core and that can become adrenal fatigue which takes months to recover from (caffeine free).

Withdrawal can lead to headaches, exhaustion, irritability and ‘brain fog’ where your body and brain are no longer used to working without the ‘kick start’. I am happy to report that personally, I have managed to avoid any serious issues so far and mostly feel a more level, steady energy.

So at the end of all of this, is coffee good or bad? It is both. I think that it can have a place, in moderation, but that can also lead to excess. I think like anything, it can be used responsibly. It’s tempting to use it as a way to work and train way harder than you should be, never stopping, never resting.

Yup, that sounds like me, so I quit. Cold Turkey. I am sleeping better already and feel a more ‘steady’ energy all day. I also made it through all of my usual Sunday night paperwork, writing and planning work without it.

Happy Training!

Scott

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