Peas & Figs

Celebrating what you can eat

Caffeine Free Diet

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What is caffeine?

Caffeine is the world’s most widely consumed, unregulated psychoactive stimulant. In its natural form, it is a xanthine alkaloid that is found in the leaves, stems and berries of a few plants. Even in the natural world this crystalline chemical has a duality of purpose, being both useful and harmful simultaneously: the plants that produce caffeine utilise it as a paralytic to ward off certain insects and herbivores, as well as to enhance the reward memory of pollinators.  Caffeine is found in varying quantities in commonly consumed tea leaves, coffee seeds (beans), kola nuts, cacao beans (from which coco solids and coco butter are extracted), guyana berries and three different species of holly.

What are the effects of caffeine on my body?

Caffeine is toxic to humans if more than 10 grams is consumed but is generally unregulated and classified as safe since typical consumption doesn’t normally exceed 500 milligrams. It stimulates the nervous system and is valued for the heightened sense of alertness and the improved reflex time it induces by triggering the release of the stress hormone cortisone in our bodies – which is why people commonly drink coffee in the morning to ‘wake-up’ or on a long drive to stay vigilant.  However, if you are constantly drinking cups of coffee or tea on a daily basis, or snacking on bars of chocolate at work, the relatively high quantities of caffeine you are consuming means that your body is constantly in a state of stress and you will experience fluctuating energy levels and want to consume more and more caffeine in an attempt to recapture the ‘highs’ and avoid the ‘lows’, which can easily lead to dependency.

People who habitually consume caffeine in quantities of more than 250mg (approx. 2 – 3 cups of fresh coffee) a day, (this estimate can vary greatly from person to person), may experience ‘caffenism’, or caffeine dependency. This addiction commonly leads to insomnia, ‘the shakes’ (interruption to fine motor functions), elevated blood pressure and heart palpitations, headaches and migraines, as well as increased anxiety and irritability. It can trigger gastrointestinal complaints like irritable bowl syndrome and increase acid reflux. Caffeine is also known to have a mild diuretic effect and can contribute to feelings of dehydration, especially if you are not used to it or consume it on long flights, for example.  Occasionally people have even more severe reaction to consuming caffeine, experiencing muscle pain, obsessive compulsive behaviour and even phobias and paranoia.

Some people claim that caffeine can help keep you thin by suppressing appetite and/or speeding up the metabolism. Various diet pills often use it in their ingredients, in fact. However, the effect of caffeine on metabolism is really rather modest, and the appetite suppressant effect of caffeine doesn’t really have an impact on weight unless other, more effective changes to diet and lifestyle are made. It does have some medical value in treating breathing disorders because of its usefulness as a vasodilator, but the methods of administering the drug are very different from those of normal social consumption.

There is no real hard evidence that caffeine is dangerous to consume during pregnancy, however for obvious reasons the effects of caffenism may be, so it is generally recommended that pregnant and nursing women restrict their daily consumption of caffeine to less than 200mg for the sake of prudency. Eliminating or reducing intake is also recommended for elderly people or those already in a high state of stress. It can also exacerbate conditions such as heart disease, high cholesterol, irritable bowel syndrome, pre-menstrual cramping and infertility, diabetes and insulin resistance syndrome, glaucoma, prostate disease, tinnitus, osteoporosis, mood disorders and depression, and is best avoided completely by individuals suffering from these conditions.

Am I caffeine sensitive?

The effects that caffeine has on the body can vary greatly between individuals, and it is a commonly accepted fact that some individuals are much more susceptible to experiencing its negative effects. If you experience any of the effects of caffeine very rapidly after consuming relatively small quantities then you are probably ‘caffeine-sensitive’. Caffeine sensitive individuals should definitely avoid it all together. Some studies show that at least 20% of people tested qualified as ‘caffeine-sensitive’, but others argue that we are all sensitive to this chemical to one degree or another. Research does suggest that men are more sensitive on the   whole to the effects of caffeine than women are.

What does the caffeine-free diet entail?

The caffeine free diet is quite simple really: avoid consuming anything with caffeine in! Luckily, this is not that difficult. As a rule of thumb, this means cutting out just five main things: coffee, tea, chocolate, fizzy, sugary drinks like Coca-cola and most products that are that are marketed as ‘energising’.

We all know that caffeine is found in coffee, almost 80-150 milligrams in a 6-ounce cup of brewed coffee according to WebMD. There is almost as much in tea, (that includes both black and green tea). In fact, liquids are the form that we most commonly consume caffeine in. Colas and lots of other fizzy, sugary drinks contain caffeine, especially energy drinks like Red Bull, which can have it in very high quantities – sometimes as much as 14 cans of Coke worth in one portion! And don’t be fooled by ‘diet’ brands – these often contain even more caffeine than their ‘full-fat’ counterparts.

Caffeine is also is found in chocolate, though not in as great a quantity as in coffee. The ‘purer’ the chocolate the more caffeine it will contain: milk chocolate generally has half as much as dark chocolate. Other usual suspects also include coffee or chocolate flavoured milk, milkshakes, ice-creams, mousses and other deserts like cakes or tiramisu. Even some sweets and chewing gum have surprising amounts in them!

If you are keen traveller, or even quite adventurous in trying different food and drink from around the world, it may also be useful to be aware of some of the lesser known sources of caffeine so that you don’t accidentally consume them in a fit of daring! Guarana berries, found in South America, contain twice the amount of caffeine as coffee beans and are commonly used to make soft drinks and energy drinks in that part of the world, many of which are available on the global market. They can also often be found in health food shops in dried form in the UK. Other potentially unexpected sources include three different species of holly: yerba maté (used to make an infusion generally called maté in Spanish speaking countries or chimarrão in Brazil), ilex guayusa (commonly boiled into a tea in Equador and nicknamed the Night Watchman by the local Kwacha people because of its stimulant effects) ilex vomitoria (otherwise known as the yaupon holly, which is brewed into a tea by Native Americans and is commonly thought to be the asi or ‘black drink’ used in male purification rituals).

Caffeine is largely unregulated worldwide and is often listed in very small print at the bottom of the ingredients list on labels, frequently without any indication of quantity. So in this instance the ‘always read the label’ rule can prove a bit tricky. It’s best just to be aware yourself of the foods and drinks that contain caffeine.

The final pitfall to look out for is pharmaceuticals. Diet pills can have up to 200mg in them, and a standard dose of over-the-counter pain relievers and cold and flu medications generally contain between 50 and 120mg in a standard dose.

How will the caffeine-free diet make me feel?

The benefits of stopping caffeine by far out-weigh the immediate discomfort that you may experience from the withdrawal (and remember, this is only a maybe – you may have no withdrawal symptoms at all, it depends on your dependency levels and your body). If you have developed a caffeine dependency, the initial withdrawal can be a little uncomfortable – but don’t worry, it doesn’t last that long! Common withdrawal symptoms are actually quite similar to those of caffenism. Symptoms are generally the worst 48 hours after stopping caffeine but rarely last more than a week. Around 50% of people experience headaches during this period if their habitual daily caffeine intake is above 200mg a day; other side-effects can include lack of concentration, irritability, drowsiness and/or insomnia, headaches, stomach cramps, joint and neck or back pain.

Once immediate withdrawal symptoms have ceased, you will most likely find that general feelings of irritability, nervousness and long, restless nights will become a thing of the past. You are also no longer putting yourself at risk of experiencing the negative impact of caffeine. Removing your body from being in an induced state of stress also has the distinct benefit of improving your lifespan and slowing down the aging processes triggered by caffeine consumption.


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