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Dr. Zorba Paster: Linking coffee, exercise, food and mood

Aug. 18, 2021 Updated Wed., Aug. 18, 2021 at 12:04 p.m.

By Dr. Zorba Paster For The Spokesman-Review

Coffee. I just love it. In the morning when I get up. At 3 p.m. when I’m looking for a break. I have to be careful not to drink too much because, well, you know, you can get the jitters. Or if it’s too late in the day, it might disturb my sleep at night.

But lately, I’ve had a cup of espresso just before I exercise. Wondering if that was good or bad, I scoured the literature, finding that a cup of java before you go out and do your thing can actually make you burn more fat.

The study came out of the University of Granada, in Spain. It looked at whether taking the equivalent of a strong cup of coffee before running has an effect on fat burning and also whether a.m. or p.m. exercise makes a difference and if exercising on an empty stomach is better for you.

The idea that exercising in the morning is better had never been studied. It’s just an idea that has been handed down for years without any scientific basis.

In this study, researchers took 15 men and women in their 30s testing them four times over a one-month period. No one drank any coffee during that time or had anything with caffeine in it such as energy drinks or soda.

They exercised in the morning, around 8, and in the evening at 5. Participants took pills every day, some with caffeine and some without. All participants’ meals were standardized. Their fat oxidation was tested using actual scientific methods – checking their belly skin fold.

What researchers found was not what you’d expect. They found exercise in the afternoon seemed to burn more fat than in the morning. They found a cup of strong coffee before exercise, especially if that exercise was on an empty stomach, seemed to make the fat run off even more.

My spin: This is only one study. Clearly, we need more research to know the optimal way to burn off fat. Also, this study involved 30-year-olds. I’m more than twice that age. My metabolism is clearly not the same as theirs.

I like afternoon exercise because that’s when my body and my mind say to do it. Lots of folks like their morning workout because they “get it out of the way.”

This study shows that some of those so-called rules you may have heard about the best time for exercise are often just made up.

Now, while we’re on the subject of food, let’s switch over to some recent research published in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry concerning food and mood. With COVID-19, the “ 19” for lots of folks meant 19 extra pounds.

Now that more than half the country has received vaccines, it’s time to see how we can get out of that stressful, depressive and anxiety-filled time when many of us treated ourselves with ice cream, pastries and frozen pizza.

There is an emerging field called nutritional psychiatry focusing on the idea happiness and well-being may be linked to foods we eat. Part of the idea is nutritiously dense foods – fruits, veggies, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, beans and fermented foods such as yogurt – might be better for mood.

Researchers analyzed large observational studies involving nearly 13,000 people, finding people who ate “better” food seemed to suffer less, were less likely to need anti-depressants, less likely to feel anxious and more likely to adapt to difficult situations such as COVID-19.

One study they looked at, performed in 2017 before COVID-19, had people start off by consuming lots of sugary foods, salty snacks and processed meats along with eating very little fiber and cutting out fruits and vegetables.

A few weeks later, they switched the white bread to whole grain, swapped the sugary cereals for oatmeal and substituted veggie stir fry dishes for pizza. Lo and behold, their mood improved.

During this study, some folks were on antidepressants, some were receiving counseling, and some were without any reported psychological problems. They were measured for depression and anxiety at the beginning of the study and at the end.

When the folks ate better food, they scored better. If they were depressed or anxious, they were less so with good food. If they didn’t suffer any psychological issues, they improved, too – they said they just felt better, lighter and happier.

My spin: You are what you eat. It’s time to dump those COVID-19 comfort foods and eat better. You’ll feel better, too. Stay well.

Dr. Zorba Paster is a family physician and host of the public radio program “Zorba Paster on Your Health.” He can be reached at

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