If you’re like many people, you may start your day with a cup of coffee. According to Health Magazine,1 about half of American adults stick to this daily ritual, despite conventional warnings that coffee might not be all that good for you.
My own understanding of coffee’s virtues and risks was greatly enhanced by my 2011 interview with Ori Hofmekler, author of The Warrior Diet and Unlocking the Muscle Gene, who has researched coffee extensively.
Ori explained how coffee, when consumed in the right way, can in fact be used as a health and fitness enhancing tool. There are caveats, however, and there are also points of contention, where the details still have not quite been teased out.
Despite that, it is possible to draw up some general guidelines that will allow you to enjoy your coffee with minimal risk. You may even be able to reap valuable benefits from your habit, provided you’re willing to make some slight alterations to how you drink it.
Ori specifically pointed out the benefits coffee might have when consumed prior to working out, and this is also the focus of the featured article.
6 Reasons to Drink Coffee Before Your Workout
Contrary to much of the conventional advice, which tends to revolve around coffee’s ability to raise your blood pressure, coffee does appear to have certain functional benefits—if consumed pre-exercise—that are supported by science. As reported by Health Magazine:2
“[A] Spanish study, published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism,3 found that trained athletes who took in caffeine pre-exercise burned about 15 percent more calories for three hours post-exercise, compared to those who ingested a placebo.
The dose that triggered the effect was 4.5 mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight. For 150-pound woman (68 kg), that’s roughly 300 mg of caffeine, the amount in about 12 ounces of brewed coffee, a quantity you may already be sipping each morning.”
According to Ori’s research, coffee can increase your metabolism by up to 20 percent, which seems to be in line with the Spaniards’ finding. Besides providing you with a temporary metabolic boost, other functional benefits of a pre-workout cup of coffee include:
- Improved micro-circulation. According to Health Magazine, Japanese researchers recently discovered that people who were not regular coffee drinkers experienced a 30 percent boost in capillary blood flow after drinking five ounces of regular coffee, compared to those drinking decaf.
Improved blood circulation typically equates to improved oxygenation of your tissues, which may boost your exercise performance.
- Pain reduction. The featured article notes research from the University of Illinois, which found that a caffeine dose equivalent to two or three cups of coffee taken one hour prior to a half-hour-long workout reduced the participants’ level of perceived muscle pain.
This pain reduction could allow you to push yourself just a bit harder, which is important during high intensity exercises.
Research from the University of Georgia, published in the March 2007 issue of The Journal of Pain,4 reported very similar findings. Here, consuming the equivalent of two cups of coffee an hour before training reduced post-workout muscle soreness by up to 48 percent.
To put this into perspective, studies using naproxen (Aleve) only achieved a 30 percent decrease in post-workout muscle soreness, and aspirin produced a 25 percent decrease.
- Improved endurance. A 2005 meta-analysis5 concluded that caffeine can reduce your perceived level of exertion by more than five percent—effectively making your exercise feel “easier.”
Moreover, caffeine improved exercise performance by more than 11 percent, which appears to be related to the reduction in perceived level of exertion.
- Muscle preservation. According to Ori, coffee triggers a mechanism in your brain that releases a growth factor called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). Besides the brain, BDNF also expresses itself in your muscles, where it supports the neuromotor—the most critical element in your muscle. Without the neuromotor, your muscle is like an engine without ignition. Neuro-motor degradation is part of the process that explains age-related muscle atrophy. So in this respect coffee may help maintain more youthful muscle tissue.
The featured article also notes recent research from Coventry University that supports this notion. In that study, they found that caffeine helped offset age-related loss of muscle strength, again suggesting that caffeine may help preserve your muscles as you age, and reduce your risk of injuries.
- Improved memory. BDNF also activates brain stem cells to convert into new neurons in your brain, which can have definitive benefits for your brain function. Indeed, research conducted at Johns Hopkins University6 found that 200 milligram (mg) of caffeine enhanced participants’ memory for up to 24 hours.
When and How to Drink Coffee for Maximum Benefit
As I mentioned earlier, there are some caveats to consider. You can easily eliminate any health benefits that coffee might provide by adding milk, creamer, sugar or artificial sweeteners to your cup, for example. Also, while some of the studies noted above used caffeine opposed to coffee, I agree with experts like Ori who warn that caffeine in isolation could be quite toxic.
It’s important to remember that the natural blend of polyphenol antioxidants (including chlorogenic acids), bioflavonoids, vitamins and minerals in coffee beans all work together to help neutralize the harsher effects of the caffeine.7
Recent research from the University of Oslo, Norway, reveals that whole coffee possesses potent anti-inflammatory chemo-protective and anti-aging properties. Coffee has shown to inhibit the pro-inflammatory pathway NFkβ, which has been directly linked to inflammation, certain cancers and accelerated muscle aging.
Note that NFkβ is inhibited by certain phenols in coffee rather than caffeine. This indicates again the superior health and muscle preserving qualities of whole coffee over caffeine alone.
There are literally thousands of different natural chemical compounds in your brew, and science now suggests the synergy between them can pack a nice nutritional punch. You’re not likely to get this synergetic effect from caffeinated supplements and beverages like Red Bull! That said, some of the primary considerations and caveats will be discussed in the following sections.
Limit Your Consumption to One or Two Cups Per Day
Ori recommends having just one cup of coffee or one shot of espresso in the morning or before training, perhaps another cup during work and that’s it for the day. Coffee is a potent substance, and can have an adverse effect on your adrenal glands if consumed in excess. If you’re stressed, coffee can actually help you resist fatigue, hunger and hardship but you can overdo it; drinking a whole pot of coffee is going to put you at risk for adrenal exhaustion. Also make sure you’re properly hydrated, as coffee has a diuretic effect.
Caffeine can also cause a process in your brain called glutamate re-uptake inhibition, meaning it inhibits the cellular re-uptake of glutamate—an excitoneurotransmitter essential for keeping you alert. Like other neurotransmitters, glutamate must be tightly regulated.If your caffeine intake is too high and chronic, such as due to ingestion of caffeinated energy drinks, it can cause glutamate excitotoxicity.
Drink Coffee in the Morning, Before Exercise, Not After
When used before exercise, coffee will give you a good boost, and will work to accelerate the benefits of exercise; stimulating energy production and fat burning. However, after exercise your body needs a recovery meal, not caffeine, which will inhibit the mTOR (mammalian target of rapamycin); the mechanism that increases protein synthesis in your muscle. You do not build musclewhile exercising. Muscle building occurs afterward, so if your goal is to gain muscle mass, you do not want mTOR to be inhibited by caffeine…
That being said, if your main goal is to lean down and maximize fat burning, having coffee after exercise might be exactly what you need, as it will keep you burning fat while breaking down fat stores for energy. The post exercise coffee will continue mimicking the effects of exercise on your body for as long as you continue fasting; that’s until your next meal. If you exercise in the evening, you may want to skip the pre-workout cup of coffee however, as it can seriously disrupt your sleep cycle by keeping you alert well into the night.
Opt for Freshly Ground, Organic ‘Regular’ Coffee—Black, Without Creamer, or Artificial Sweeteners
Freshly ground organic coffee beans can be viewed as a nutritionally valuable whole food with neuroprotective properties. Decaffeinated coffee will not provide you with all these whole food benefits, as the antioxidant bioflavonoids are largely lost in the processing. So opt for “regular” if you’re going to drink coffee.
Also, opt for whole coffee beans and grind them just prior to brewing your coffee. Most coffee available today is already rancid, or close to it, by the time you get it home. This is because the rate of rancidity increases dramatically once you grind the beans. A coffee that doesn’t have a good aroma or taste is most likely stale and nutritionally useless.
Last but not least, choose organic coffee, as conventionally grown coffee beans are among the most heavily sprayed crops on the market, and pesticides will certainly not do your health any favors. To ensure compliance with organic industry standards, look for the USDA 100% Organic seal. If you have trouble finding organic coffee in your local grocery store, check online, as there are many organic coffees available. Whenever possible, purchase sustainable “shade-grown” coffee to help prevent the continued destruction of our tropical rain forests and the birds that inhabit them. There are many who say shade-grown coffee tastes better as well.
Which Is Better: Dark or Light Roast?
Other issues that can come to bear on the end health effects of the coffee include the way it’s dried and roasted, as this will not only affect the beneficial antioxidant content of the coffee, but also the formation of toxic acrylamides. Here, making any definitive recommendations becomes quite tricky…
In general, it has been shown that when it comes to the health benefits of organic whole-bean black coffee, the darker the roast, the better.8 It’s often the case that foods with the darkest pigments offer the most robust benefits to health, and dark roast coffee, such as French or Italian Roast, or roasts used to make espresso or Turkish coffee, appear to be no exception.
Roasted coffees are higher in neuroprotective agents than green (unroasted) coffees. For example, a study in Molecular Nutrition & Food Research9 found that dark roast coffee restored blood levels of the antioxidants vitamin E and glutathione more effectively than light roast coffee. The dark roast also led to a significant body weight reduction in pre-obese volunteers, whereas the lighter roast did not. Other studies have shown that dark roast coffee produces more of a chemical called N-methylpyridinium, which helps prevent your stomach from producing excess acid, so darker roast coffee may be easier on your stomach than lighter roast coffee.10
That said, the process of roasting will also produce acrylamide—a toxic byproduct created when you expose a food to high heat. Acrylamide has been associated with an increased cancer risk. From the perspective of limiting your exposure to this toxin, a light roast might be preferable. I don’t claim to have the answer here, but the evidence supporting dark roast for higher antioxidant content is quite compelling. It could be that a higher antioxidant content of a dark roasted organic coffee might outweigh the acrylamide formed during the roasting process… Unfortunately, I have no evidence to support such a proposition. In the end, the best recommendation I can come up with is to simply use coffee in moderation. Most studies find no added health benefits above two or three cups a day at the most.
Be Selective with Your Choice of Cups, Containers, and Filters
If you use a “drip” coffee maker, be sure to use non-bleached filters. The bright white ones, which most people use, are chlorine bleached and some of this chlorine will be extracted from the filter during the brewing process and they are also full of dangerous disinfection by products like dioxin. Also be careful about the coffee container and coffee cups you use. Avoid plastic cups and containers as the BPA from the plastic can leach into your coffee.
Also avoid styrofoam cups, as they can leach polystyrene molecules into your blood. Your best options include glass, ceramic, or even stainless steel travel mugs and storage containers. Many have now started using Keurig coffee makers, which brew a single cup at a time, using small plastic coffee inserts. While the inserts claim to be BPA and phthalate-free,11, 12 they still contribute to the ever-growing problem of non-biodegradable waste.
Fortunately, the machine comes with reusable pieces that allow loose coffee grounds to be used instead of the pre-made disposable plastic cups, which would be a better option. One of the most effective tools for making coffee is good old French press. All you need is to put the freshly ground coffee inside, add hot water and press down. The coffee that you get is highly aromatic and pure with no plastics or chemicals involved.
Avoid Coffee While Pregnant
For all the potential health benefits of coffee, it is not advisable to drink coffee during pregnancy, even if it’s organic. Caffeine easily passes through both the blood brain barrier and the placenta, and it’s also transferred through breast milk. Here, research has shown that ingesting caffeine during pregnancy can result in a wide range of problems for your baby, including:
- Increased risk of miscarriage
- Low birth weight
- Birth defects such as cleft palate
- Increased risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)
- Decreased cardiac function (Please note that the equivalent of just two cups of coffee during the entire pregnancy – not two cups of coffee per day—has been shown to affect your child’s heart function!)
If Consumed Correctly, Coffee Can Be Part of a Healthy Lifestyle
Like anything, coffee should not be used in excess. However, study after study has failed to prove that moderate coffee consumption increases your risk for cardiovascular disease or any other serious illness. Moreover, mounting research suggests it may have a number of previously unrecognized health-promoting properties.
Part of the confusion is likely rooted in the fact that while caffeine in and of itself is a potent and addictive drug, coffee made from whole roasted coffee beans is also a whole food, containing a wide range of micronutrients in addition to caffeine. The key to a healthy cup of coffee centers around treating it like a whole food; knowing how to select high-quality coffee, and not ruining it by adding health-harming sugar or milk to your brew.