Ask a Utah dietitian: Is caffeine healthy?

Ask a Utah dietitian: Is caffeine healthy?

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SALT LAKE CITY — We’ve all been there: exhaustion hit hours ago, yet your energy is required for something; a deadline, a few more patients, that last mile, or maybe a room full of kids.

Your eyelids are leaden weights, and sleep is a mere possibility and hours away. The quickest and most effective solution? Caffeine in your beverage of choice, be it coffee, diet coke, or an energy drink. Either way, the deadline gets met, the mile gets run, and you move forward having reaped the benefits of the extra shot of energy.

But wait a minute! You know the quick-fix benefits, but what about short and long-term effects? Are you just robbing Peter to pay Paul, and is Paul a much greater task-master?

The answer isn’t perfectly clear. On the bright side, for the average healthy adult, caffeine intake of no more than 400 mg per day is not associated with negative effects. All the benefits we love are proven: increased alertness and ability to stay awake, improved mood and focus, and positive effects on memory. These benefits are individual and will depend on sex, age, weight. There are even health benefits worth getting excited about: lower risk of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, possible weight loss and lower risk of Type 2 diabetes and some cancers.

Benefits are also seen with physical activity. Having caffeine with a workout increases your performance, heart rate, and energy. It also helps you work harder without feeling as tired.

At this point, we are all ready to grab our mug or Big Gulp and keep it by our side. Yet, like all things that sound too good to be true, there is a catch. Excess caffeine intake may lead to headaches, nausea, anxiety and restlessness. The effects don’t stop there — below are some specifics.


While there are health benefits to caffeine, there are downsides too. Caffeine can increase cholesterol levels and blood pressure. It has been linked with bone loss and fractures. Caffeine has addictive properties — you can build up a dependence on it and not getting caffeine can result in withdrawal symptoms.

What now? If you have high cholesterol, drink brewed or filtered coffee as the main-cholesterol raising compounds get caught in the filter. If you have high blood pressure or irregular heart rhythms, it is probably best to limit caffeine


Metabolism of caffeine slows during pregnancy. Consuming more than 300 mg per day of caffeine can lead to poor fetal growth and miscarriage. This doesn’t mean caffeine is off-limits; just be aware your body may need less and that less is better.

It is also good to know that caffeine passes through breast milk. Think twice before making up for sleep loss with caffeine; you may be stimulating baby at the same time!


Caffeine is a miracle worker when it comes to avoiding sleepiness, but it may keep you up later than you’d like, worsening what may become a vicious cycle of sleep deprivation. Caffeine prolongs time to falling asleep and reduces total sleep time, efficiency, and quality. How much caffeine and what time you drink it make a difference — consider tapering off your caffeinated beverages by the afternoon to help you get your z’s at night.

Children & adolescents

Kids metabolize caffeine more rapidly than adults. Due to little research, it is unknown how caffeine intake affects the developing brain. As such, the daily recommended maximum for children up to age 12 is 45-85 mg daily and adolescents is 100-175 mg daily, based on weight. That is about one or two caffeinated sodas for children and 1 1/2 cups of coffee for adolescents. Even with lesser amounts, caffeine has been shown to increase risk-taking behaviors, and the associated decrease in sleep affects learning and health.

Energy drinks

Energy drinks are especially popular among teens and young adults. Because they have such high caffeine content, there is a risk of side effects including insomnia, nervousness, headache, fast heart rate, and even seizures. The trend of combining energy drinks with alcohol is another danger to consider as this combination increases sleepiness and may lead to alcohol-related accidents.

The verdict

For the average adult, the good still outweighs the bad if you are drinking caffeine in moderation. Keep your intake below 400 mg a day by drinking no more than three to four cups of coffee or five caffeinated sodas. Check labels on what you are drinking to get more familiar with caffeine content on trickier high-caffeine items like espressos and energy drinks.

Also, factor in the caffeine amount and timing. Decreasing quantity as the day goes on and stopping caffeine intake early will help you get a better night’s rest, which should lead to a more refreshed day — with or without caffeine.

Holly Hill is a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified culinary medicine specialist working in corporate wellness and nutrition education in Utah County. You can follow her on instagram @hollyhilldietitian.

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