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Know Beans About Your Morning Mug: The Dos and Don'ts of Coffee Drinks

By Beth Sumrell Ehrensberger, RD, MPH

You probably don’t spend a lot of time contemplating the steaming cup of caffeinated bliss that clears the fog from your head and starts your morning. And since research shows that a moderate amount of caffeine can enhance athletic performance for some people, especially in endurance events, a coffee shop stop (or at least, a Mr. Coffee stop) is probably on the agenda for the sports-inclined.

But if you’re health-minded, there’s more to consider than which mug you’ll use. Should you choose coffee or tea? Half caf or decaf? Black or fully loaded? And what’s the real scoop on those sweet pink, blue and yellow packets? Read on for a closer look inside the cup.

Raise a Cup to Your Health
If you’ve been keeping up with the health headlines, you’ve probably heard about a link between coffee and diabetes—and it’s good news. Harvard School of Public Health research analyzing nine other studies found a strong association between coffee and a notably lower risk for developing type-2 diabetes. Interestingly, though, this study found that it probably wasn’t the caffeine in the coffee that offered the protective effects, since both caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee were associated with decreased risk.

But switching to decaf may be your best bet if you already have diabetes, since caffeine can spell trouble for your blood sugar. Research from Duke University found that diabetic study participants had an eight percent rise in blood sugar after taking the caffeine equivalent of four cups of coffee.

Catching a Buzz
Since the science indicates that it makes little difference whether you choose caffeinated or decaffeinated coffee in terms of diabetes prevention, will you fill up with half caf or decaf? Keep in mind that all cups are not alike—you may be getting more buzz than you think. As a general rule, coffee usually has about two to three times more caffeine than tea, and big-name coffee-shop coffee can have much more caffeine than the brew you do at home—a large cup is roughly equivalent to three cups of regular joe. Stick to small cups at the coffee shop or make it half caf—we bet you won’t notice the difference. Better yet, try decaf or tea if you’re trying to trim your caffeine consumption.

Another reason to reel in your caffeine addiction: if you’re watching your weight, too much caffeine chugging can interfere with sleep. And since skimping on shuteye is associated with weight gain, caffeine, if you’re not careful, can undermine your weight loss efforts.

Coffee Calories
If you’re going to brew up a cup for the sake of health, athletic performance, or just for the sake of keeping awake, it’s a good idea to make sure you’re not creating a health setback instead.

There’s not much in the way of calories in that inky-black liquid—just two calories per cup—same as tea But like the salad bar, it’s what you add that can cause dietary disaster. Does that mean to stay on the right side of health you should take your coffee black and your tea pure? Not necessarily. To start, if you’re looking to lose weight (or even just maintain it), it’s worth noting that big-time calories can hide in coffee—fancy coffee, that is. Most people wouldn’t start their day with the caloric equivalent of two fried chicken legs and a buttery biscuit—but that’s just what you’ll do if you order a large mocha at a coffee shop. A safer bet is a plain coffee, which is not only easier on your waistline, but your wallet, too. Just be sure you’re doctoring your coffee yourself, so that you have full control of what goes into your drink.

And when it comes to making that bitter brew more palatable, keep it simple to keep a lid on calories. Common sense tells you that skim milk is probably the best choice—it’s fat free, of course. However, its shadowy presence often makes muddy waters out of coffee and tea. On the other hand, if you use cream or half and half, multiple cups of coffee can add up to bigger-than-you-think calories and fat. The compromise? A splash of two percent milk makes for a creamy, healthier cup. Fat free half and half can also be a good choice, too. But steer clear of flavored creamers—not only do they contain extra calories from added sweeteners, but some also contain hydrogenated oils (which when multiplied by several servings, add up to trans fat).

If you’re looking to upgrade your coffee, a latte made with skim milk can be a great choice (as long as you skip the whip and flavored syrups). A small latte can get you one serving closer to the recommended three cups of milk per day and keep you feeling satisfied with about 10 grams of protein.And if you’re worried that dairy can increase your risk for kidney stones, don’t waste your energy. A Harvard Study found that a high calcium intake from dairy foods could actually lower the risk for developing the painful condition.

How Sweet It Is
Pink, blue, yellow…which sugar substitute should you use to sweeten up your coffee—or should you avoid them completely and go for regular sugar instead? The health watchdog organization the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has only deemed sucralose (Splenda) as safe. Since there are still unanswered questions about the safety of other popular sweeteners like saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low), aspartame (Equal or NutraSweet), and Acesulfame K (Sunett or Sweet One) CSPI suggests avoiding them.

A new player in the sugar substitute game is a “natural” product, stevia (Truvia and PureVia), which the FDA branded as safe in late 2008. But as with other things, just because something is “natural” doesn’t mean it’s a safe bet; until more research is conducted, CSPI suggests that you use stevia products with caution.

Sugar (whether it’s white or brown) has around 15 calories per teaspoon. If you’re used to using more than one teaspoon per cup or have multiple cups of sugar-sweetened coffee per day, you may want to re-think your drink. Just two daily cups sweetened with two teaspoons of sugar each can add up to an extra six pounds over the course of a year!

With a little adjustment, and a few sensible choices, your morning fix can be a good way to jump start your day without derailing your diet.