Too Much of a Good Thing: When caffeine becomes more than just added energy

Words by Lexy Cummins
Photo by Rylie Cerasani
Illustrations by Brianna Deckert

Imagine, Candace, a 17-year-old girl, and a couple of her friends are out one day shopping at the mall and they see the familiar trademark of Starbucks at a kiosk. Coincidentally they were just talking about how thirsty they were so they order a few Double Chocolaty Chip drinks. With her drink in hand Candace makes sure to snap a selfie to post to social media. Or imagine Luke, 28, who while driving to work early in the morning, stops at Dunkin’ Donuts and orders a coffee to go, seemingly the only thing that gets him through his 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. office job. Then he stops again on the way home to ensure that he stays awake for the drive.

Coffee shops seem to be on every street corner and the drinks sold are a staple in the current American diet. At Kent State, you can even purchase Starbucks drinks while you are studying inside the campus library. However, these types of drinks are not healthy based on the level of caffeine, sugar and calories. By drinking them, Americans are pumping countless unnecessary calories into their systems on a daily basis.

“The consumption of caffeine by students is extremely high,” says Tanya Falcone, registered dietitian and Health Sciences lecturer and coordinator for the Center of Nutrition Outreach at Kent State. “We’re looking at the average intake of close to four cups a day minimum for most students.”

Falcone says the recommended amount of coffee is one 8-ounce cup per day and the maximum daily recommendation of caffeine is no more than 300 milligrams. However, the average caffeine intake in America is 1 gram, or 1,000 milligrams—more than three times the recommended daily amount.

“Anything between three grams to 10 grams is considered to be a fatal dose,” Falcone says.
Matt Nykamp, who holds a master of architecture from Kent State and is a current student of the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative, says he used to drink two to four pots of coffee and one to two Starbucks drinks every day.

Nykamp says that as an architecture major he needed the caffeine to stay up and complete homework assignments and projects.


Falcone says most students drink caffeine so they can stay awake to study and work on projects, but she recommends that times like those are when they should not drink any caffeine at all.

“Caffeine reduces the ability to be able to concentrate, increases anxiety, increases nervousness and increases agitation,” Falcone says. “It also, especially when taking large quantities, causes jitteriness, confusion—it can dehydrate as well. The illusion that coffee creates more alertness is that when you drink coffee, it is providing calories. And the calories do provide energy, but sometimes we think it’s just the caffeine when, in fact, it might be something else giving us the energy.”

Falcone says people can misperceive the jitteriness, anxiousness and agitation as the caffeine waking them up. She also mentions that drinking high doses of caffeine as a long-term practice can increase blood pressure as well as cause headaches and infertility.

After a trip to Florence to study abroad, Nykamp decided to stop drinking Starbucks. While he says a large part of it had to do with cost, it also had to do with the drinks being unhealthy.

“They specialize in dessert coffees,” Nykamp says. “They throw insane amounts of sugar and milk and foam into the drinks.”

Several coffee shops surround Kent State’s campus, making it easy for students to access their caffeinated drinks.

“Even though it’s a lot of calories, I think they know,” Grandberry says. “Just like McDonald’s is bad for you but people still eat it. I think they just like it and they are addicted now and they just keep going.”

“Around any university you are going to find coffee shops, dozens of them, and they are going to just keep popping up,” Falcone says. “I’m sure business is extremely high compared to other places. Being strategically placed around a campus will increase their revenue.”

Alexa Grandberry, sophomore accounting major and employee at the Starbucks in the library, says students always have so much homework due at the same time and they need something to help them stay up all night to get through it.

“Everyone thinks they need the energy, and people love coffee,” Grandberry says.

Grandberry says it is normal for her to go through at least six gallons of milk in the seven-and-a-half hours she works in one shift. One gallon of milk has an average of 2,000 calories. Grandberry says she personally has gone through an entire gallon of milk for just five drinks.

“Even though it’s a lot of calories, I think they know,” Grandberry says. “Just like McDonald’s is bad for you but people still eat it. I think they just like it and they are addicted now and they just keep going.”

Grandberry says she tends to be busiest when classes let out Monday through Thursday. She says there will be 10 to 12 people in line, and everyone will continue to wait.

“A lot of people are here every day,” Grandberry says. “People just love their coffee.”

Melanie Tousley, a junior communication studies major, says she thinks there is a little more to coffee for students than just caffeine, energy and staying up.

“I think that coffee is a trend,” Tousley says. “I feel like it’s anywhere, but younger people are more apt to follow trends. I think it is a nationwide trend.”

Tousley says she does not like the effect caffeine has on her.

“It makes me really shaky,” she says, adding that the anxiety she gets from caffeine makes her feel like she is going to have a panic attack.

“It’s too stimulating,” Tousley says. “If you are sleepy you should be sleeping. So if you are really tired and you keep drinking caffeine for artificial energy you are going to burn out sometime. It’s not healthy for you to drink that much caffeine.”

Falcone also believes that coffee may be a nationwide trend. She says that the media has an obvious effect of people’s perceptions on coffee, coffee franchises and caffeinated drinks.


“I think there [are] a lot of commercial aspects to it,” Falcone says. “They say that caffeine increases your energy and that caffeine increases your concentration, which is actually false.”
Falcone says tolerance to caffeine also plays a huge part in its misperception.

“The first time you drink a cup of coffee your body does use the caffeine to create an alertness,” Falcone says. “But what happens with prolonged use is your body finds a way to bypass that.”

Falcone mentions that the human body’s natural ability to develop a tolerance to the caffeine does not take a very long time. This means people have to drink more and more caffeinated beverages in order to feel the same original energy effect. This, of course, adds more and more unnecessary calories.

Even when people are trying to be healthier, sometimes their efforts are unsuccessful.

“Coffee has a pleasurable taste to a lot of people,” Falcone says. “A lot of times [coffee is] an alternative to soft drinks. People think going toward coffee for caffeine instead of sodas is a healthier option, which can provide less sugar, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it is healthier.”
Falcone says people tend to look to cut out high fat and high sugar, but can still have a drink that is easily 250 to 400 calories, which is the size of an actual meal.

It is important for people to understand how many calories they are consuming, she says.

“It’s a matter of eating appropriately throughout the day, small portions, so you get a steady stream of energy,” Falcone says. “When we eat a full meal, it takes us three to four hours to actually digest it, absorb it. We tend to feel full for approximately that four hours.”

Falcone says a lot of calories can be placed inside of liquids, which are absorbed in 20 to 40 minutes. Compared to those who eat their calories, people who drink their calories will become hungrier much sooner and will essentially double their caloric intake compared to if they stuck to solid foods.

“Let’s say you take in a cup of fruit versus a cup of caffeine,” Falcone says. “With the cup of caffeine 10 minutes later you are going to get a ‘high,’ but 10 minutes after that you are going to get a low. With the fruit, 20 minutes later you are going to get a small increase, but that’s going to last you for the next hour. For the same quantity, it is going to have a slower start but it stays much longer.”

When you are looking for a little more energy in your day, Falcone does not suggest reaching for a drink. Instead, she suggests selecting a good source of carbohydrates and a good source of protein, such as a handful of nuts and a fruit.

“The carbohydrate helps to reduce the absorption rate which means that it takes longer for the body to get the energy,” Falcone says. “It releases a little bit of energy at a time which is perfect so you have a constant stream of energy.” She says the protein helps to make you feel fuller, but the carbohydrate is what gives you energy.

“If you do crave that cup of coffee or something like that, it’s not that we are saying they’re awful for you,” Falcone says. “It’s a matter of picking the right ingredients. So don’t go for a Frappuccino or a latte with four [espresso] shots in it.”

Falcone says coffee and a little bit of caffeine has proved to be beneficial through research. When craving the taste of a coffee, Falcone says to order a tall, regular coffee with a nonfat milk and a raw sugar.

“There is a very fine line of what is good and what is bad,” she says. “It’s a matter of only having one, every once in a while.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *