Does caffeine rule your life? You’re not alone. Many adults depend on this stimulant — usually in the form of coffee — to help them power through their morning without looking and feeling like a zombie. The problem is, too much of a good thing doesn’t always produce favorable results. Sometimes your heart, your brain, and your sleep schedule need a little break.
Have you actually ever tried swearing off caffeine completely? It’s not pleasant. But even though cutting back will probably still result in a withdrawal headache worthy of breaking records, you can still get caffeine in other ways — not through pills or powder, but in a number of foods and other drinks.
The health benefits (and risks) of caffeine
The effects of caffeine, biologically, aren’t universal. Everyone reacts to it differently. However, past studies have suggested many people can benefit from a little bit of caffeine. It isn’t a miracle drug — it probably won’t make you live longer, at least not in the sci-fi manner of the concept. But even though it might cause some unwanted side effects for some people, there’s a reason it’s legal.
The benefits: You already likely know that caffeine makes you more alert and (usually) helps you focus more attentively on tasks. Eating or drinking caffeine regularly also might have long term benefits, though. According to The Telegraph, a healthy dose of daily caffeine might make you smarter. It also decreases your risk for conditions like type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, and certain types of cancers.
The risks: For most people, a little bit of caffeine every day — even up to 400 milligrams in many cases — only leads to major jitters, but not much more. However, Medical News Today warns that consuming 500 milligrams or more consistently can lead to a long list of health problems. If you’re struggling with unexplained restlessness, insomnia, nervousness, irritability, or stomach issues, you might consider cutting back on your coffee consumption — or all caffeine, for that matter.
Is coffee bad for your health?
Out of all the possible sources of caffeine out there, coffee is probably one of the most popular. (Just think of how many Starbucks stores you likely pass — OK, make a quick stop at — on your way to and from work.) Even though there are some claims that drinking too much coffee can give you heart disease or cancer, Mayo Clinic says this probably doesn’t apply to everyone. Besides, as you read above, this is one of those cases in which the benefits of a substance outweigh the risks.
If you don’t like the way coffee affects you, you don’t have to drink it. But your world (probably) isn’t going to end any sooner just because you have a slight addiction to your coffee maker.
Despite its benefits, you don’t have to rely on coffee alone to give yourself an often much needed caffeine boost. The nice thing about getting your caffeine from alternative sources is that coffee provides about 100 milligrams of caffeine per 8-ounce cup — and most sources will give you way less than that. If you’re extra sensitive to the drug’s effects — or you’re just trying to cut back, which isn’t the worst decision you’ll make today — you can give yourself micro-doses without sending your body into a frenzy of uncontrollable jitters.
Here are some surprising — and mostly healthy — caffeine sources to satisfy you without destroying your productivity (and sleep).
Amount of caffeine: 12 milligrams per ounce
Though it’s usually thought of as a dessert food, in small amounts, chocolate has a large number of health benefits. Dark chocolate is actually high in fiber and iron. It’s also loaded with antioxidants — so a small square per day might make you look and feel younger (just don’t eat too much, because sugar tends to have the opposite effect). There are also studies that suggest eating dark chocolate can lower your blood pressure, raise your HDL (“good”) cholesterol, and increase blood flow to your brain.
Did you know?
Coffee might not endanger your health, but caffeine powder almost certainly will. Unlike coffee, anything made with caffeine powder is extremely concentrated — caffeine in powder form is much more potent than you might expect. People have actually died from overdoses because they didn’t realize they were consuming lethal amounts of caffeine. A single teaspoon could have as much caffeine as up to 75 cups of coffee. You’re definitely better off sticking with coffee or chocolate to get your “fix.”
Amount of caffeine: 2 milligrams per bar
Many brands of protein bars manage to pack a lot of nutrition into a small handheld serving — not just protein, but also fiber, B vitamins, and yes, even caffeine. Unfortunately, many flavored varieties are just too overloaded with sugar and empty calories to be considered healthy — the “risks” cancel out the nutritional value. However, homemade protein bars are the perfect opportunity to combine healthy carbs, protein, and caffeine.
Amount of caffeine: 2 milligrams per 1/2 cup
Ice cream isn’t all bad — not even chocolate, which usually has at least some caffeine per serving. According to SF Gate, you can get a small amount of calcium and maybe even a little protein per half cup. This doesn’t mean you’re allowed to have ice cream with every meal, of course. We’re not even suggesting you eat it every day (okay, maybe just one small scoop). However, you can also hunt for brands that are lower in added sugars and calories to make your indulgence worth your while.
Did you know?
Caffeine takes only 10 minutes to have noticeable physical and psychological effects. These effects reach their high point within about 45 minutes — so if you have an important task to do and only 30 minutes to complete it, grab yourself a (small!) bowl of ice cream ASAP. Unfortunately (or fortunately), the effects of caffeine don’t wear off for anywhere between 4 and 6 hours after first consuming it.
Amount of caffeine: 5 milligrams per cup
Milk and chocolate combined give you plenty of calcium for a relatively small amount of calories (depending on the type of milk you use — assuming you use hot milk and not water), even when heated. Hot chocolate does contain sugar, and like other sugar-loaded beverages, can cause more harm than good if you drink too much of it. However, if you need a small caffeine boost, plus something dessert-like, a mug every once in awhile can’t hurt.
Amount of caffeine: 140 milligrams per serving
Not just any sunflower seeds can give you more caffeine than a standard cup of coffee. There are special brands that specifically manufacture “energized” sunflower seeds that provide large amounts of caffeine per serving. Be warned — processed snacks like these can contain way too much salt and sugar, especially when flavored. Like poppy and chia seeds, though, sunflower seeds in general are excellent sources of vitamin E and cholesterol-stabilizing nutrients. So a handful of caffeinated seeds, every now and then, isn’t so bad.
Did you know?
Many of us reach for coffee early in the morning or early in the afternoon to “give us energy” — even though caffeine doesn’t actually provide any physical energy at all. (If black coffee had calories, we’d all be a lot worse off.) Caffeine is a stimulant that affects certain receptors in your brain that make you feel more alert. However, no actual energy is consumed. You’re still getting fuel — but unlike food, the sustenance you get from caffeine is purely psychological.
Amount of caffeine: 30 milligrams per 5 ounce container
Not every brand or flavor of yogurt contains caffeine, but even those that don’t are extremely healthy. Both regular and caffeinated yogurts provide plenty of calcium, vitamins and other important minerals. Greek yogurt especially provides the protein necessary to keep your diet on track. Just make sure that the “coffee yogurt” you’re buying actually has caffeine in it. There are some coffee-flavored yogurts that don’t have caffeine in them at all — just artificial coffee flavoring.
Matcha green tea
Amount of caffeine: 70 milligrams per 8-ounce cup
Many who don’t normally like tea love matcha — it’s “creamier” than more traditional teas, and as part of a latte, it has a unique (though a little bit sweeter) taste. This unique green tea has less caffeine than coffee, but provides just as many health benefits. It promotes heart health, might help you lose weight, and can even boost your energy without elevating your anxiety. It’s fairly easy to make at home, too, which means you can skip the matcha latte loaded with extra fat and calories (no thanks!).
How much caffeine should you have every day?
You already know that consuming too much caffeine (500 daily milligrams or more) isn’t good for you. But are there specific recommendations for how much you should typically have in a day?
There aren’t daily serving recommendations for caffeine like there are for fruits and vegetables. However, there are standard daily amounts which experts believe are safe for most adults. (In case you were wondering, kids really shouldn’t have a lot of caffeine — go easy on the energy drinks.)
Most healthy adults can safely consume up to 400 milligrams per day, says Mayo Clinic. That’s about the equivalent of four cups of coffee — or a LOT of dark chocolate (note: please do not attempt to consume the caffeine equivalent of four cups of coffee in the form of chocolate, you’re going to hurt yourself). However, if after about 100 milligrams (one cup of coffee) you’re literally bouncing, you probably don’t need any more than that.
How to cut back on (but not cut out) caffeine
Consuming caffeine in its various forms usually won’t hurt you. So in many cases, there’s really no reason why you need to give it up completely. However, if you drink a lot of sugary coffee drinks (translated: you love coffee, just not in its natural more bitter form), you’re having trouble sleeping, or you just don’t want to depend on a drug to get you through the day, you might consider scaling back your intake.
This is much easier said than done, of course. Trying to wean yourself off caffeine too quickly can be a major pain (literally). Hence our list of lower-caffeine foods and drinks — to help you cut back without giving up the one thing that gets you out of bed in the morning (you know it’s true).
Here are a few suggestions for kicking your caffeine dependence, without shunning it for good.
How to (almost) quit caffeine without going on a deprivation-fueled rampage
- Reduce your consumption slowly. While you can just wake up one morning and decide to have less (or zero) caffeine, withdrawal symptoms are pretty much inevitable. So unless you’re prepared for the worst, start by gradually cutting back, You might find it’s a lot easier than you imagined.
- As you drink less coffee (assuming that’s your main source), replace it with the lower-caffeine items on this list. For example, instead of having a cup of coffee in the afternoon like usual, have a mug of matcha green tea instead.
- Choose low-calorie snacks (and drink plenty of water!) if you suddenly start feeling hungrier than normal. Caffeine can act as a temporary appetite suppressant for some people, so if you don’t usually indulge in an afternoon snack but suddenly feel like you aren’t going to make it to dinner without one, have something high in protein and fiber to avoid replacing caffeine with way more junk food than any person needs in one sitting.
Coffee isn’t the only substance that can improve your focus and keep you alert through the most trying hours of your day. And it isn’t just highly processed foods that provide an extra caffeine boost. Many of these caffeine-containing foods are actually good for you in small amounts. So if you’re looking to cut back, a handful of (enriched) sunflower seeds, a cup of green tea, and even an ounce of dark chocolate can keep your headache away without messing up your focus, long term health, or sleep.