Coffee: your friend or foe?

Coffee. It’s like the world’s favourite elixir. Mine included. For an athlete, there are many studies supporting its use as an ergogenic aid for athletes – helping reduce rates of perceived pain and effort, improving muscle fibre recruitment and enhancing glycogen repletion post-workout. These benefits are individual, however, and while research suggests that genetic differences in our ability to detoxify caffeine could account for this, it is not a universal finding. This is something true for athletes and non-athletes alike.

Other features of coffee are also salient for all individuals. Caffeine is ketogenic; not only can it help mobilise fatty acids to be used for energy, it increases the presence of ketones in the bloodstream – hence it is a good pre-workout fuel to help elicit fatty acid oxidation pathways and provide fuel for the workout in the absence of glucose. This doesn’t necessarily translate in additional body fat loss (more important lifestyle strategies are required for that, such as a caloric deficit, resistance training, reduction in stress etc), but can encourage these energy pathways to be upregulated, helping in the process of becoming adapted to a lower carb dietary approach.

Coffee improves insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance (potentially related to the polyphenols present, though the mechanism is currently unclear), therefore enhancing the effects of both a lower carb approach, or a plan that includes fasting (either intermittent fasting, super-fasting, or a 5:2 approach such as the one in my fat-loss plans). Further, anyone doing my accelerated fat loss plans who have that 16h intermittent fast on the ‘fasting mimicking’ days could experience a more potent effect from the fast by including black coffee alongside water as their beverages of choice.

Autophagy, where our body starts to clear out damaged cells from the liver, heart and muscle tissue, is one of the benefits of fasting as you know. In mice models it might take just 16 hours for this to occur, in humans it is likely to take a lot longer given the differences in our metabolic rate (a mouse has a faster metabolism). Consuming caffeine on an empty stomach (or as part of a fast) promotes autophagy, which theoretically would shorten the time that is required to fast to stimulate this process. It also triggers AMPK, an enzyme that inhibits fat storage, promotes fat burning and activates antioxidant networks. These properties are thought to underpin much of the purported health benefits of drinking coffee.

It IS a balance though – if you’re following a fasting protocol, working out, and reading this at 3.30am in the morning, it’s a good sign that your brain is wired – raising cortisol to the extent that it’s (quite obviously) disrupting sleep. When we fast, like exercise, it places a stress on the body – this is where many benefits come from, as your body responds and adapts, becoming more resilient. However, too much of anything is too much! If coffee on top of your fasting regime or exercise program (or, life in general) is causing this stress response, then it is worth dialling it back a bit (or go 1/2 and 1/2 with decaf) to see if this changes your stress response.

Caffeine (or coffee), though, may not be good for anyone with gut issues. As it can stimulate the stomach cells to release more gastric juices, aiding in digestion, we often hear that too much coffee promotes a highly acidic environment and as such, could increase the risk of damage to the cells and subsequent gut issues. The literature, though, reports that caffeine does not negatively impact gastric or duodenal ulcers, and in fact when administered in vitro, could help repair cells damaged by inflammatory bowel conditions such as ulcerative colitis, and is also protective for the mucosal layer of the gut. Research suggests this is because caffeine increases blood flow to the gastrointestinal tract. Conversely, caffeine can lower the tone of the oesophageal sphincter – the valve that controls the release of stomach acid into the oesophagus, thus may promote heartburn and reflux.

With all research studies, it’s important to remember you are your own best investigator when it comes to how coffee affects you. I’ve said this before, but a good point to reiterate. The best advice, then, is to pay attention to how you feel when you drink coffee. Does drinking coffee make you more wired, especially when you fast, indicating it stimulates your stress (or cortisol) response? Does it give you reflux or heartburn? Does it upset your digestive tract more than settle it? Everyone has a different tolerance level to coffee, and further, our ability to detoxify it may also be different. If you feel great when you have coffee, and you don’t have any gut-related issues, then it is likely absolutely fine for you. If you notice an irritated gut, or you feel a bit wired, then it isn’t worth persevering with coffee for the purported health benefits – in your case, it might be making things worse.

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Ahhh… coffee 🙂

My diet approach: less rigidity and more ‘real life’

A couple of comments on my Facebook page, a comment from a client that she wasn’t  ‘my perfect client’, and a post from one of my good nutritionist friends inspired me to have a bit of a think about how I approach nutrition, or the expectations that others have of my nutrition approach.

Whenever I put something out on social media, people will read from it what they will – I want them to comment and engage (why else would I put a post up?)  One of these was a comment I got after posting a recipe up on my page. Someone commented that she was very concerned that I say I follow a minimally processed diet approach, yet used a protein powder in my pancake recipe, clearly a highly processed ingredient*. She’s not wrong – protein powder is highly processed for sure, even the brands that I use and recommend others do: those that don’t have a lot of added ingredients bar the protein powder, some flavouring and stevia-based (or thaumine) sweetener . It got me thinking though. This person was annoyed that I was straying from their perception of what I advocate. If I could include protein powder in my recipes, clearly I’m not an advocate of the real food approach. How could people trust anything I say if I suggest that protein powder is okay? I wasn’t living up to her expectations of me, and she was disappointed.

It’s a tough balance: when I changed my philosophy around food I think I was a lot like other people – went too far in the extreme of finding the perfect real-food approach in an effort to ditch processed food. Legumes and all grains were off the menu (regardless of dietary tolerances, as this was the ‘perfect paleo’ way). All bread was to be avoided at all costs. Only drink red wine (less sugar) … It was 95% of what you’d call a ‘primal’ approach.

Like most people, though, I have settled in an approach to eating that is more practical to real life and, frankly, less exhausting. I have my diet non-negotiables –for me, I don’t touch diet soft drinks and chewing gum. In fact, I had a dream a few months ago that someone offered me a piece of gum and I took it. I woke up in a panicked state. This is because around 6 years ago I couldn’t go a day without having Wrigley’s Extra gum, and now I am scared that if I have it again that it would be a quick slide back into a daily habit that I couldn’t stop (even though when I gave it up it was literally like a switch had gone off in my brain and I couldn’t imagine having it again). I don’t have food allergies, so unlike other people, there isn’t anything that I must avoid or I’d be seriously compromising my health. That said, if I was eating the way I did during my Master’s degree at Otago, I couldn’t last during the day – I’d regularly have to nap in the afternoon under my desk after a diet coke and a massive ciabatta bun from Il Panificio bakery for lunch, which was backing up a large milky trim cappuccino and a dark rye sesame bun for breakfast. A carb overload and no fat or protein will do that to me (and a lot of people) – and don’t get me wrong – I LOVED it (and still would!) Just not how it makes me feel and, unfortunately, now I know too much about the long-term implications of eating such a nutrient-void diet). Huh. And I was doing a Master’s in nutrition at the time…

For everything else, though it is more about dietary principles rather than strict rigidity. Less religion and more realness. I try to avoid vegetable seed oils and artificial sweeteners that impact on blood sugar levels. However, if there is a dip that someone has brought along to a dinner party that has canola or sunflower oil as the second ingredient, I would likely have some if I thought it sounded nice, even if I wouldn’t buy it myself.  I avoid eating soy – especially products that use it as a cheap protein filler as you’ll find it in many packaged goods, though by now living in a vegetarian/vegan household, I eat organic tofu around once a week – and really enjoy it. I consume gluten when I have (for example) a date scone, or I really feel like toast. This might be once a fortnight. I drink wine. I have 3-4 alcohol free nights per week, but enjoy red wine (and coming into summer, white wine too – even though it has a higher residual sugar count). Not a lot – 1-2 glasses, and what they serve at the local bar is probably a more generous pour than we have at home. I like chocolate. I eat Quest protein bars (the varieties that don’t have sucralose as a sweetener in them – some do, some don’t) and use these as a bit of a stop gap as when training intensity ramps up (as it has over the last couple of months). I’m just hungrier in general and am not always organised. Despite their ‘organic’ label, these are about as far away from real food as you can get.

We buy white bread – the stock standard cheap loaves – as this is one of the only things that never comes home in the school lunch box during the week. If you’re wondering, I don’t think there is too much difference between white and multi-grain bread, really – it is all rubbish. I don’t eat it myself (any toast I have would be out at a cafe, a more delicious type of sourdough or ciabatta, probably), and can justify it till the cows come home but truth be told, getting any food in some kids can be difficult, so if they will eat a white bread egg or cheese sandwich that is going to at least fill them up, then so be it. A friend of mine commented on how she laughs when I post about lunchbox options for kids – and how (for her at least) it’s just a little unpractical and/or even if the kids show interest one day, the next they won’t have a bar of it. Now I get it. I really think I didn’t have a true appreciation for this and if I can somehow crack the nut that is ‘school lunches’ then I’d probably be a gazillionaire. One day. Maybe. (And if you have any bright ideas that I might not have thought of, pass them on!)

So, yeah. I still call my dietary principles ‘minimal processed food’ relative to the food environment and where I was at 7 years ago. Sorry to disappoint or concern anyone. Or perhaps this just makes you feel a little relieved that, despite best intentions, it doesn’t read like a perfect food environment or a perfect food diary, even for someone with my nutrition qualifications and practical experience. But that’s real life, and we do what we can. Some days are awesome, some weeks are awesome, and some, well, some just aren’t. That’s life, right? And when the dust settles, I’m pretty happy with it actually.  If you do what you can and have the best intentions going into it – then you’re always going to do better than if you didn’t try at all.

So please don’t think you have to be perfect – I’m not and nor should you stress about striving to be so. If you want some guidance at reaching your ‘happy spot’ click here to book a consultation or check out my online nutrition coaching services.

Time restricted eating: when you eat matters

Intermittent fasting is an increasingly popular phenomenon among people wishing to improve their body composition and their overall health – almost as much as consuming the latest superfood.

Intermittent fasting (or time restricted eating, as it is known in the scientific literature) is when we restrict our eating during the day to a window of from around 8 hours to 12 hours, and has been popularised by the fitness industry in recent years. There are different ways to approach it, though from a health perspective, eating earlier in the day to allow for the feeding to align with our body’s circadian rhythm may optimise the health benefits for overall longevity. Fasting has been a practice undertaken for centuries in some cultures, and research reports favourable effects on many markers of metabolic health, including blood lipid profile, blood glucose metabolism and hypertension when these populations have been studied. More recently, researchers have investigated different time restricted feeding protocols in relation to risk of cardiovascular disease, neurological disorders, diabetes and some cancers using rodent and human trials. The longer time spent fasting may have pronounced health benefits, though recently a more conservative method (of even an 11 hour fast) has emerged as being beneficial for certain populations. Indeed, time restricted eating is being thought of as an easy to implement, effective lifestyle intervention that could help improve appetite control, markers of overweight, inflammation, blood glucose metabolism and hypertension, all reducing risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers. This recent small study found that late night (or prolonged eating periods) increased fasting glucose, blood triglycerides, insulin and weight gain.

When healthy adults eat meals that are identical in terms of macronutrients (ie carbohydrates, proteins and fats) and caloric load at breakfast, lunch and dinner, the postprandial (ie. after eating) glucose response to the meal is lowest after breakfast and highest after dinner, even though the meal is identical. This is one example which suggests that our metabolism, and response to food, changes across the course of the day (see here). We are diurnal creatures – we do most of our activities during the day (including eating, working, exercising) and we rest at night. This is controlled by our internal clock in the brain, the superchiasmatic nucleus (or SCN) which in turn influences smaller internal clocks (or oscillators) in the peripheral tissues of our body. These clocks control thousands of genes within our body, including those that regulate our metabolic processes, which accounts for around 10% of our entire genome. While light is the major cue for the SCN in our brain, timing of food intake influences the circadian rhythm in the other tissues, including the liver, which has implications for metabolism. This tells us that our basic metabolic physiology is supposed to behave differently according to the time of day – this is everything from making neurotransmitters, to making insulin, to glucose transport inside of cells, to fatty acid oxidation and repairing cellular damage. It makes sense then that when we eat has just as important implications for our health as what we eat. Research investigating the health effects of fasting has found that anything that breaks the fast will break the fasting period, including no calorie options such as black coffee and even herbal teas. This is because there are compounds within these fluids that require breaking down by the liver. That is not to say that people don’t experience benefits from fasting if they consume a hot beverage earlier in the day (as is often recommended to help get through the morning hours and comply with a 16:8 protocol) or limited calories (for example, 50 calories), however longevity benefits may well lie within the strictest definition of fasting.

With the advent of artificial light, and the changing structure of work schedules (combined with the increasing busy-ness of everyday life), this has elongated the period of time that people eat, which has negative health consequences. While you may have heard in media reports of scientific studies that eating late at night makes no difference to overall weight loss, the focus on weight ignores the more important, underlying metabolic and chronic disease risk that eating late into the evening can have on health outcomes. It may be easier to regulate appetite too, as  research suggests that appetite hormones respond more favourably to eating earlier (8am to 7pm) than later (noon – 11pm), and the level of satiety achieved with this could prevent overeating. This is relevant with time restricted feeding as research has shown that more frequent eating patterns can be detrimental to metabolic health if consumed close together. One study found that participants who ate excess calories consuming their food over three meals and three snacks had increased visceral (stomach) fat deposition, liver triglycerides and lower liver insulin sensitivity compared to those consuming the same number of calories over three meals. The snacks were consumed later in the day, and after each meal, so elongated the overall eating period.

Animals limited to 9-12 hours feeding period, but not limited in the number of calories they eat have experienced benefits including decreased fat mass, increased lean muscle mass, improved glucose tolerance and blood lipid profile, reduced inflammation, higher volume of mitochondria (the energy powerhouse of our body), protection from fatty liver and obesity, and a more favourable gene expression. In humans, research studies suggest that eating within a time restricted window of 11 hours (say, 7am to 6pm) is associated with a reduction in breast cancer risk and occurrence by as much as 36%. Earlier eating time has resulted in more effective weight loss in overfat people, and every 3 hour increase in fasting duration was linked with 20% reduced odds of having an elevated glycated haemoglobin (HbA1c), a marker of long term blood sugar control. For every 10% increase in calories consumed after 5pm there was a 3% increase in c-reactive protein, a biomarker used to measure inflammation (the underlying process that, when elevated long term, can influence risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers). Finally, when meal times were constructed earlier in the day this resulted in a 10% decrease in c-reactive protein. Eating within a 12-hour window improved sleep and weight loss within an otherwise healthy population. You can see then, the myriad of potential benefits to eating within a time restricted eating – could it be worth trying to fit into your lifestyle? And if so, how to do it?

There are many different time restricted eating protocols to choose from – and the type of fast you choose to do really comes down to what works for you. The 16:8 protocol that seems to be most popular is a little aggressive for anyone new to fasting, and this may ultimately leave you feeling hungry, cranky, and vulnerable to overeating later in the day – undoing any potential health benefit that has been shown in the research. Indeed, many people I see that try this as their first experience report that they can successfully get to 11am or lunchtime without eating, but once they are home from work, no amount of food will keep them full, eating right up until bedtime.  My advice is to start a little more conservatively. Given that (in an ideal world), we sleep for 8 hours a night, not eating in the 3 hours leading up to bed time should be a good place to start for most people, thus it gives that 11 hours where some of the health benefits begin to be realised. From there, once adapted, you could try to push it out by an hour. While the most potent benefits occur with the strictest definition of fasting, the blood glucose and lipid improvements, along with fat loss can still occur in those whose definition of fasting refers to calories, not coffee and tea as mentioned above. That the benefits occur in the absence of caloric restriction is important to reiterate, however by restricting the eating period, many people also reduce overall caloric intake, which can further improve overall metabolic health and body composition. Fasting doesn’t appear to be something you must do every day to see the health benefits either, and even 3-4 days a week could be beneficial for metabolic health.

That said, this reduction in calories and extended time NOT eating may not be good for all, especially if your notice increased anxiety, sleeplessness or disruptions in hormone balance, so it is always best to proceed with caution. It would also be prudent for any individual with a health condition to discuss with their health professional before embarking on time restricted eating, especially the more aggressive protocols.

(PS I’ve got dates booked for Nelson, Wellington, Dunedin and Christchurch for my talk! Click here to find out more details, would love to see you 🙂 ).

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As with many things, it could be all about timing…