What We Should Account For in Food More Often, But Probably Don’t (Hint: it’s not fiber or added sugar)

Well folks, it’s time to celebrate: Happy 100 Years of Popularized Calorie Counting! Yep, calorie counting propelled in prominence beginning in the post-war era during the 1920s, though the existence of the calorie was discovered long before. Ever since we began viewing the numbers on our food labels and instructed to pay more attention to nutrition, the presence of calories became more significant in human health. However, with varying scientific studies and research endeavors, the spotlight shifted towards assessing grams of fat, then (net) carbohydrates and protein, and now grams of sugar.

All of these macronutrients as well as micronutrients play a crucial role in our health. But because of the convoluted maze of SO many nutrients to account for such as trace minerals and amino acids, it’s easy to get overwhelmed enough for anyone to say “f*ck it, I’ll just take two multivitamins” or “who cares about biohacking anyways, I just need to do my job”. Having said that, there’s one ingestible substance that many of us know about, consume almost every day (even in slivers), and see printed on the front packaging of many products, but never really obsess over as much as net carbs or saturated fat. It is absolutely pivotal in your metabolism, stress levels, and long-term mental and physical well-being. Can you take a wild guess before scrolling down?

Hint: not fiber. Not added sugar.

Not even water.

One word: caffeine.

If your gut reaction is either “WTF?!” or “Please, I knew you’d say that” or “What’s even the big deal?”, keep reading. Oftentimes, we overlook caffeine because it’s not a nutrient that counts as a caloric value, plus there are . It’s a stimulant and psychoactive drug that children are not allowed to eat but that adults gobble up like free merch. Most people avoid coffee, tea (specifically green and black tea), soda, and Red Bull if they aren’t interested in caffeine, but caffeine is also found in all kinds of global favorites such as chocolate, energy drinks, flavored water, bottled smoothies, chocolate and/or coffee-flavored/covered/coated products, and even anything labeled “decaf” or “caffeine free” can technically contain some small quantities (I was also super shocked to find out that trace amounts linger in gum, peanut butter, and shampoo! But also…don’t eat shampoo, please.). Heck, your PMS medication and headache medication might contain caffeine, but by all means, do NOT cut out your PMS medication without seeing your OBGYN.

While there are no serious health detriments to drinking 1 cup of coffee or even 1-2 cups of green tea, let alone a square or two of 72% dark chocolate on the daily, what matter most are dose, timing, and biochemical individual processing. The former two are the most familiar, but the latter might be new!

  • Dose: certain variations of coffee drinks will have more caffeine than others (i.e. espresso vs. cold brew), as well as types of tea (i.e. ginger vs. green). It really depends on the quantity included in the product itself as well as how much of that product you consume. I couldn’t find any resources that specify if caffeine metabolism is hindered by other foods, but I would assume so given that dark chocolate contains more caffeine per ounce than in every ounce of milk chocolate.
  • Timing: pretty much common knowledge, but if you want to find a way to stay awake for as long as possible, drink a cup of coffee (or eat anything with a hearty dose of caffeine, really!) after lunch, after dinner, and right before you go to bed! This is where the caffeine really jolts up your bodily and neurological functions, keeping you alert and wide-eyed.
  • Biochemical individuality: many studies reveal that the way you metabolize caffeine is enlisted in your genetic composition. A special liver enzyme known as CYP1A2 shuts off caffeine activity, BUT this enzymatic activity varies depending on how much of this enzyme your genetics code for. Some people tolerate higher doses of caffeine incredibly well and others can’t even finish one cup of coffee without bouncing off the walls! Granted, most people lie in the middle where they can consume whatever they feel like. However, more recent research asserts that genetics should not be the basis of consumption guidelines and doses should be more strict.

Currently, the maximum tolerable intake of caffeine is 400 mg per day, though I’d argue that this number varies across the board for many. Many consumers go about their days colloquially drinking coffee and/or green tea whenever they want the taste, but honestly, this is where they should be a little bit more of a stickler. It is such a powerful stimulant that can easily diminish your ability to sleep adequately and properly, elevate your levels of nervousness and anxiety, trigger irritability, and prompt headaches if ingested at certain times and at high doses. Moreover, with long-term uses and in chronic situations, caffeine elevates ones’s blood pressure, heart rate, and dehydration levels.

However, if you find that caffeine does not upset your body and you have very healthy physical parameters, keep up your routine! For those of us who are seeking to take a break from this hyperactive stimulant, what can we substitute with? After all, coffee and tea do provide heaps of antioxidants. Fortunately, there are more than plenty of alternatives to this beloved stimulant we can relish in!

  • Golden Milk: many people love to use golden milk as a soothing bedtime drink, but it also works as a warming and energizing beverage before a busy schedule ahead!
  • Chicory root coffee: caffeine free alternative made from the chicory root that is ground and brewed in the exact same fashion as coffee, but tastes nuttier and earthy without the jitters! Added bonus: it contains some fiber for better digestion!
  • Hot lemon water: something as simple as steaming hot water with a lemon wedge is perfect for warming yourself up and preparing for the day. This is also amazing when you’re winding down before rest.
  • Carob powder: if you’re a chocolate junkie like myself, carob powder is a wonderful cacao or cocoa powder alternative that is caffeine free, packed with antioxidants, fiber, and calcium. In my personal opinion, the flavor is more earthy, so I suggest utilizing a non-nutritive sweetener like monkfruit or Stevia as well as incorporating carob into a non-dairy milk or in a recipe to begin.
  • Herbal tea: if you still love your morning cup of tea, swap the green and black teas for lemon balm, ginger, or peppermint! All three of these alternatives are still very warming and stimulating with naturally occurring antioxidants.

Finally, I get it–caffeine is not something to completely avoid for the rest of your life. Green tea and dark chocolate are my absolute FAVORITES! Still, not using it as a catalyst to jump out of bed in the morning or stay awake past 10 P.M. is not necessarily healthy on the daily. I used to take such HUGE doses of matcha or dark chocolate in my protein bars and found that, without good sleep or downward sloping levels of cortisol, everything in my mentality went awry. Now that I’ve been gradually swapping out my caffeine for wholesome and nutrient-dense foods, I feel IMMENSELY better. Also, catching up on sleep plays a huge role for me. No more alarms for now!

What is your favorite source of caffeine? How do you feel consuming it?

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