Is Coffee Paleo?

Enjoying a cup of coffee is often more than a morning ritual, it has become a part of our social life. 

Coffee is also one of the modern indulgences that is often bathed in controversy when it comes to Paleo principles.

Coffee beans have been prepared, brewed, chewed, roasted and ground and made into beverages for centuries. It is likely that these beans were around in the time of hunter-gatherers (although it is unlikely that that ancient man was pausing every morning for a kick-start of caffeine). Ancient civilisations may have used coffee for exactly the same reasons it is used today – the stimulating, energy-boosting properties it confers on the drinker. However, whilst coffee itself may come from an ancient seed, the modern way of drinking the liquid it produces is a direct result of the modern environment.

So coffee is traditional – but is it Paleo?

What is Coffee?

Despite being thought of as a legume, the coffee bean is the seed inside the fruit of the coffee tree, otherwise known as the coffee berry or “coffee cherry.” It’s a tropical tree or shrub that originates in Africa and is part of the Rubiaceae family. Currently, coffee is grown in warmer climates of the world, such as South America, Hawaii, Mexico, Central America and parts of Asia.

To make the actual beverage known as coffee, the seeds of the coffee plant are ground, roasted and then percolated. Once brewed, it can be consumed in a variety of ways. Coffee is valued for its flavor and aroma, and is renowned for its energy-stimulating effects.

Health Benefits Of Coffee

Coffee does appear to offer numerous health benefits and drinking coffee has been linked to health improvements: everything from reducing the risk of certain cancers and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s to alleviating certain types of depression or depressive episodes. Coffee has even been recommended for use in children with attention-deficit disorders. 

Further benefits of coffee:

Rich In Nutrients 

Coffee is much more than simply a drink to get your day started or a warm beverage enjoyed with a friend. In fact, coffee is, in some circles, referred to as a superfood

A cup of coffee contains many important micronutrients:

  • Riboflavin (Vitamin B2): 11% of the RDA.
  • Pantothenic Acid (Vitamin B5): 6% of the RDA.
  • Manganese and Potassium: 3% of the RDA.
  • Magnesium and Niacin (B3): 2% of the RDA.

Contains Numerous Antioxidants

While most of the known antioxidants come from minerals and coloured fruits and vegetables, some other compounds do contain antioxidant properties—and these are some of the ones found in coffee beverages

For those consuming a Standard Western diet, studies show that most people get more antioxidants from coffee than both fruits and vegetables.

Some of the antioxidants contained in coffee include:

  • Cafestol - a bile acid modulator in the intestine and a powerful neural anti-inflammatory.
  • Trigonelline - anti-bacterial and may help prevent dental caries. 
  • Chlorogenic Acid – important for antioxidant, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory activity in the body. 
  • Melanoidins - carry anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, as indicated by one study published in the US National Library of Medicine.
  • Caffeine – in itself is an antioxidant

The processing method significantly affects antioxidant activity. For example, roasted coffee contains more antioxidants than non-roasted coffee does.

Increased Energy

You may find yourself reaching for a cup of coffee to provide that added boost of energy. Studies show that coffee can actually increase energy level and make you feel less tired. This is due to the stimulant caffeine which has the ability to block an inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain that leads to a stimulant effect.

Research has also demonstrated that coffee consumption may improve various brain functions such as memory, mood, energy level, reaction time and general cognitive function.

Improved Physical Performance

Caffeine not only stimulates the nervous system, it sends signals to the fat cells to break down fat and increase Adrenaline levels in the blood. Caffeine stimulates the breakdown of body fat which is then released into the bloodstream as free fatty acids to be utilized as a fuel. This in turn provides added energy to fuel and enhance physical performance.

Supports Fat Loss

Caffeine has been shown to promote fat breakdown and aid fat burning.

Research has even discovered that regular caffeine consumption may boost metabolism by 3-11%%.

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Drawbacks Of Coffee

You might have heard coffee being harshly denigrated for its addictive properties, adrenal-draining potential and ability to dysregulate hormones. Some of the drawbacks of coffee consumption include:

Disrupted Sleep

If you drink coffee very often you may have found yourself in a situation when you have a hard time falling asleep.

The half-life of caffeine is 6 hours meaning it takes 6 hours for the body to eliminate half of the coffee effect. The rule of thumb is to avoid drinking coffee after around 2 pm.

Studies show that drinking coffee later in the day is strongly associated with insomnia, which in its turn may cause other health issues.

Read on here for more on the importance of sleep

Triggers Anxiety

Caffeine, from any source can trigger anxiety.

Caffeine provides both an immediate and a long-term boost. It is this long-term boost that is a cause for concern due to the half-life of caffeine. This is further exacerbated when drinking coffee throughout the day.

Research has shown that caffeine may decrease GABA levels, the neurotransmitter that helps to regulate anxiety and those struggling with any related conditions are advised to avoid coffee and caffeine consumption.

Induces Cravings

Surprisingly, coffee has been found to change your taste receptors resulting in sweet things tasting less sweet and result in both consuming more and craving more sweet foods..

This finding may offset the benefit of fat burning process that the coffee may offer. The finding also explains why coffee pairs so well with many sweet foods, chocolate and pastries (whether Paleo or not).

Worsens Digestive Issues

Coffee stimulates a hormone called cholecystokinin. This triggers the release of bile (from the gallbladder) and pancreatic enzymes. This can create an increase in acidity in the stomach In excessive doses, this increased acidity over a long period of time results in an overly acidic solution leaving the stomach. This is irritating to the lining of the small intestine and can cause damage to the very thin epithelial tissue of our digestive system. This creates inflammation – and the cascade of complications that ensue from there.

Addictive Properties

Regular coffee and caffeine consumption can result in dependency. A detailed review suggests that although caffeine triggers certain brain chemicals in similar ways to narcotics, it does not cause classic addiction. Over time one still can become dependent on the effects of coffee on the system.

Coffee may, however, lead to psychological or physical dependency, especially at high dosages. Additionally, the frequency of caffeine intake seems to play a role in dependency with daily showing greater increases in headaches, fatigue and other withdrawal symptoms when abstaining. 

Is Coffee Paleo?

The Paleo diet focuses on eating nutrient dense, naturally occurring, anti-inflammatory foods that promote overall wellness and sustained levels of energy. From this perspective, coffee is technically not Paleo, but falls into one of the many grey areas of the modern Paleo diet.

Coffee is one of those simple pleasures that is clinically demonstrated to have beneficial effects on overall health outcomes. It is a potent chemical concoction, however, which can breed dependency and heighten stress states. How you choose to interact with it, therefore, will depend upon your current level of health and your current level of stress.

As with many of these potentially addictive substances, it is best to evaluate whether your interaction with coffee is based on desire for the taste and for the slight feeling of energy (a perfectly healthy use of coffee) or whether it is based on a need where you would feel exhausted and deprived without it. In this situation it may be worth weaning your consumption down to a level at which the compounds in coffee aren’t proving to be a dependency for you. 

A word of caution – titrate off Coffee SLOWLY if you are dependent upon it – reduce by ½-1 cup per day. The side effects of withdrawal can be just as potent as withdrawing from drugs so take it easy – and use the symptoms of withdrawal as a sign of just how dependent you have become.

Additional Thoughts

Paleo or not, there’s more to consider when it comes to coffee. It is also a matter of health and whether it’s doing you more harm than good. Reason being, coffee has an addictive nature, gut-irritating properties and elicits negative effects on sleep patterns. With that said, make sure your health and sleep are on track first before taking part in the coffee ritual. Furthermore, if your gut is healthy, stress is under control and you do not suffer from hormone dysregulation and are not pregnant or breastfeeding, then consuming moderate amounts of coffee is fine.  Otherwise, it’s probably not the best idea.

Furthermore, if you enjoy coffee, but it doesn’t agree with you, don’t feel like you have to give it up completely. Try decaffeinated or cold-brewed coffee. Decaf does not contain the caffeine that regular coffee does, however it is still present in trace amounts. Cold-brewed coffee can be made regular or decaf, and is much less acidic than traditionally brewed coffee (aka, easier on the gut). It also contains less caffeine per cup when brewed in this manner.

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