January 10, 2011

Meaningless Moderation

I've written quite a bit about the health benefits of regular coffee consumption. And in that advocacy, I'm hardly a fringe blogger. Even the powers that be in nutrition science say that "moderate" coffee consumption is at worst benign, and probably good for you.

But there is that word, moderate. What is moderate intake, exactly? It's a vague term, amorphous at best, and possible void of meaning outside of personal context. That is, moderate for me is not moderate for you, or him, or her, etc.

Thus I think encouraging "moderate" coffee consumption is rather useless, insofar is it's not an actionable recommendation. So what then ought we look for? There are numbers too, milligrams trotted out as optimal. Most in the field of nutrition encourage somewhere in the neighborhood of 300, up to possibly 500 milligrams of caffeine a day.

To translate: That's about the caffeine content of two small (12 ounces) cups of coffee, or one large. And that, frankly, will strike many people as spartan, rather than moderate.

For me, however, that dose seems about right. Sure, I'm quite capable of ingesting amounts vastly exceeding that; but there is a law of diminishing returns. That is, there is a point where the benefits of drinking coffee decline, dissipate, and then, in some cases, become negatives.

Thus I think the issue should be parsed a bit differently. There is no need to encourage "moderate" coffee drinking, for the reasons already discussed. What I'm much more interested in is optimal coffee drinking. And that, I think, means limiting the volume a bit.

Doing so allows for the health benefits of coffee to be realized, while keeping the potential negatives of higher caffeine doses out of the picture. But that's not really what I'm concerned with. I like coffee. And I like liking coffee. In the same way that a wine lover might enjoy a glass after dinner, a coffee lover can better savor a cup of coffee in the morning when it's just that, a cup, and not merely a vehicle for caffeine, to be dosed throughout the day.

In short: More is not better. Better is better.


  1. Great post Alex. You've really hit the nail on the head with this one. All your points are valid. Unfortunately, it looks like I'm not a moderate drinker after all! :(

  2. Well that's okay. I think there is plenty of room for individual variance as well. In the same way that an active person has a greater calorie budget than one who is sedentary, certain factors influence what an optimal dose of caffeine is. That is to say, if you're not experiencing any negative effects, there's no problem.