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The debate over coffee and health often revolves around “it’s bad for you”, “it’s good for you”, “it’s bad for you”… And what do I say about “good” and “bad” foods? Not today (sorry, I can’t control the frequent Game of Thrones references). Where am I going with all this? Well, to let you know that yes, there are health benefits of coffee, apart from helping you become a functional being in the mornings.
In this post, I’ll be covering 5 of the most important (at least from a nutritional standpoint) health benefits of coffee, as well as some of the possible drawbacks. And, as always, with the science to back me up!
What is coffee?
Coffee is the drink that results from roasting coffee beans. These come from the ripe fruit of the coffee bush. It is the third most popular drink worldwide (# 1 is water and # 2 is tea). Coffee is commonly used to give us a jolt of energy through its caffeine content. And it doesn’t hurt that its flavor and aroma are exquisite!
A variety of sinister characteristics have been attributed to coffee, from the generic and ubiquitous “it’s bad for you” to causing cardiovascular disease and cancer. But, recent evidence suggests that coffee’s benefits are greater than its possible risks. And it’s due to it’s nutritional and antioxidant properties.
Nutritional properties of coffee
Here are the nutrition facts for 8 oz of coffee brewed with tap water. Remember that if you add milk, cream and sweeteners, these values change.
|Nutrients||Amount||% Daily value (DV) based on a 2000 calorie diet|
|Total Fat||0 g||0%|
|Saturated Fat||0 g||0%|
|Polyunsaturated Fat||0 g|
|Monounsaturated Fat||0 g|
|Total Carbohydrates||0 g||0%|
|Dietary Fiber||0 g||0%|
|Vitamin A||0 IU||0%|
|Vitamin C||0 mg||0%|
|Vitamin E (Alpha Tocopherol)||0 mg||0%|
|Vitamin K||0.2 mcg||0%|
In nutritional terms, we can see that coffee does not provide a significant amount of nutrients, except in trace amounts. The most it contains is riboflavin, a B complex vitamin. Riboflavin helps metabolize carbohydrates, fats and proteins to use as energy.
Coffee also contains small amounts of magnesium, potassium, and manganese. It is very low in calories, and naturally free of fat and sugar. So how does coffee have health benefits? Let’s see right away.
Coffee contains a number of nutrients, including riboflavin, niacin, magnesium, potassium, and phenolic compounds (aka, antioxidants).
These compounds also have an anti-inflammatory effect. Although it is not yet known exactly how they exert these antioxidant effects, we have more and more evidence that points to this particular health benefit of coffee.
So, is coffee good for our health?
The short answer is: yes! Here are 5 of the main ways coffee benefits and protects your health.
Coffee as an antioxidant
Many people don’t know this, but coffee is high in antioxidants. In fact, coffee is one of the main sources of antioxidants in our diet. A humble cup of Joe is a very complex substance, with more than 1,000 compounds with high antioxidant capacity!
There’s actually evidence that coffee consumption is associated with protecting DNA from oxidative damage. This type of damage is associated with heart conditions and cancer. The protective effect is most evident when coffee consumption is long term.
Light roasted coffees have a higher concentration of an antioxidant known as chlorogenic polyphenol acid (CGA). This antioxidant is what gives coffee its acidic taste. CGA is the main component responsible for the health benefits of coffee. Because it is an antioxidant, it has the ability to help reduce inflammation, cholesterol levels, and blood pressure.
Dark roasted coffee has less CGA , since it breaks down during the roasting process. Furthermore, the quality of the original (green) coffee bean also contributes to the CGA level. High quality organic green coffee beans will have the highest CGA level.
High quality organic green coffee beans will have the highest level of chlorogenic polyphenol acid, the main antioxidant in coffee. Thus light roasted beans have more antioxidants than dark roasted ones.
Coffee also has hydroxycinnamic acids, which are very effective in neutralizing free radicals and preventing oxidative stress.
There is evidence that coffee consumption is associated with protecting DNA from oxidative damage. This damage is associated with heart conditions and cancer. The protective effect is more evident when coffee consumption is long-term.
These compounds also have an anti-inflammatory effect. Although exactly how these antioxidant effects are exerted is not yet known, we have increasing evidence pointing to these benefits of coffee.
Coffee can be good for your heart
Because of its high content of polyphenol (a type of antioxidant), moderate coffee consumption (3-5 cups a day) is associated with a lower risk of high blood pressure. (Although, if you have high blood pressure and are not a coffee drinker, and/ or have difficulty controlling your blood pressure, it’s better not to drink it, or use decaf instead).
Also, it’s been found that coffee can help reduce the risk of atrial fibrillation. Atrial fibrillation is an irregular heartbeat that can lead to blood clots, stroke, heart failure and other heart-related complications. It’s common for health professionals to advice their patients with heart conditions to avoid all types of caffeine, even if there’s currently no evidence to support these claims. This research paper from the Journal of the American College of Cardiology: Clinical Electrophysiology found that, regarding caffeine, “a regular intake of up to 300 mg/day appears to be safe and may even be protective against heart rhythm disorders”. Unless there’s a specific association between coffee consumption and arrhythmia in an individual, there’s no reason to avoid coffee completely. (That is, unless your doctor has advised you not to drink it).
There’s also an association between moderate long-term coffee consumption and less risk of cardiovascular conditions in general. In fact, The American Heart Association observed that drinking coffee was associated with decreased risk of developing heart failure by 7%, and and stroke by 8% with every additional cup of coffee consumed per week, compared with non-coffee drinkers.
This particular recent study found that caffeine helps protect and repair the heart muscle through the activation of a protein called p27. Apparently, caffeine helps move this protein into the mitochondria of heart cells. The protein p27 also had other heart benefits: It protected heart muscle cells from dying after heart attack, and it triggered one type of cells, fibroblasts, to differentiate into cells containing contractile fiber, which are necessary for healthy heart functioning. The study also mentions that “enhancing mitochondrial p27 could serve as a potential therapeutic strategy not only in cardiovascular diseases but also in improving healthspan.” I’ll drink (coffee) to that!
Coffee and cancer prevention
Coffee may help prevent the risk of certain types of cancer. Caffeine and other coffee compounds have a positive effect in reducing the risk of developing liver and gastrointestinal cancer. Coffee consumption has also been associated with a lower risk of colorectal and pancreatic cancer.
This overview from the European Journal of Cancer Prevention found that “overall evidence suggests no association of coffee intake with cancers of the stomach, pancreas, lung, breast, ovary, and prostate overall”.
According to the American Cancer Society, in 2016, a panel of experts convened by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the arm of the World Health Organization that is responsible for evaluating whether certain substances cause cancer, “could not conclude that drinking coffee is carcinogenic based on current available evidence.”
Coffee can also decrease the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Phenolic compounds in coffee help to moderate insulin resistance. Caffeine and chlorogenic acids in strained coffee have a beneficial impact by reducing the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
It’s OK to drink coffee with diabetes
Drinking unsweetened coffee in moderation is actually okay for those with type 2 diabetes, as long as it’s no more than 4 cups daily. In fact, coffee may even help prevent the development of type 2 diabetes.
There appears to be increasing evidence of reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes for 3-4 cup daily coffee drinkers. The effects are likely due to the presence of chlorogenic acids and caffeine, the two components of coffee in higher concentration after the roasting process.
However, remember that if milk, creamer or sweeteners are added, these effects may be reduced or even negated. Also, always consult with your healthcare provider before making any changes to your diet.
Neurological effects of coffee
The benefits of coffee also extend to the brain. It helps us feel more alert and more focused. It also helps improve mood and may even decrease symptoms of depression.
Coffee consumption has also been associated with a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. For example, this study investigated three types of coffee: light roast coffee, dark roast coffee, and dark roast decaffeinated coffee. The authors suggest that the key to the protective benefits of coffee for the brain does not lie in its caffeine content, but in the existence of compounds released during the process of roasting coffee beans.
The researchers studied a set of compounds called phenylindanes, which are formed during the process of roasting coffee beans and which give coffee its bitter taste.
Phenylindanes seem to be the compounds that appear to inhibit the aggregation of tau and amyloid–beta. These are toxic proteins, and their excessive accumulation in the brain can be a key factor in neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
Also, it appears that a longer roasting time causes coffee beans to produce more phenylindanes. This suggests that dark roasted coffee, whether regular or decaf, has the strongest protective effect on the brain.
Although the authors express that “there are indeed components within coffee that are beneficial in preventing cognitive decline,” they caution that much more research needs to be done on how these compounds would work in a therapeutic setting.
How many cups of coffee can I drink?
Although we have seen some very impressive health benefits of coffee, we must take into account some precautions. One thing to keep in mind is, that most of the studies that have shown the positive effects of coffee are based on a moderate consumption of no more than 3-4 cups a day.
Moderate coffee consumption is considered to be 3-4 cups daily.
Therefore, it’s important to not exceed this amount, or we may run the risk of experiencing some negative side effects, as we’re about to see.
Disadvantages of coffee
The sorta trite phrases “everything in moderation” and “you can have too much of a good thing” should really be applied here. When drunk in excess, coffee can have not-so-great effects such as:
- Anxiety, especially in people who are already susceptible to it
- Insomnia, in those who are prone to it, and if it’s taken very close to bedtime
- Dependency and withdrawal symptoms, such as headache, when you suddenly stop taking it
- Heartburn in people suffering from gastritis and peptic ulcers
- Palpitations when taken in excess. If combined with other stimulants such as energy drinks, it can be deadly
Coffee health risks
As we have seen, coffee consumption is associated with more health benefits than possible risks. However, there are populations that may be more susceptible to the negative effects of coffee, and they should check with their health provider first to find out if coffee consumption is safe. Coffee may be contraindicated if you are:
- Taking medications such as antidepressants, anxiolytics, antibiotics, and asthma medication. Always check with your healthcare provider to learn about the interactions between the medications you take and food you normally eat.
- You suffer from gastrointestinal conditions such as gastritis, acid reflux, peptic ulcers, ulcerative colitis, etc. Caffeine is an irritant and can worsen your symptoms.
- You have a mental and/or emotional health condition since caffeine can increase anxiety, nervousness and irritability.
- Your doctor has told you that you cannot drink coffee.
What are caffeine withdrawal symptoms?
One of the most common disadvantages of regularly drinking coffee are the caffeine withdrawal symptoms that can occur when we stop. The most common of these is headache. This happens because coffee is a vasoconstrictor, meaning it narrows the blood vessels, such as those in your brain.
Once there’s no caffeine in the system, the blood vessels start to expand, resulting in increased blood flow. This additional blood flow to the brain may cause symptoms such as headaches, until the body grows accustomed to it.
Lack of concentration can also be a side effect of ceasing to drink coffee, since caffeine is a stimulant that can help improve concentration. Caffeine’s stimulant effect can also help improve mood, which is why cutting out coffee may result in temporary feelings of irritability, as well as depression.
It may also result in fatigue, especially for someone who needs their daily java to feel “awake”.
Finally, since caffeine’s stimulant effect also works on the digestive system, some people may experience constipation due to the decreased intestinal motility.
How long do caffeine withdrawal symptoms last?
This depends on how much coffee you usually drink and for how long you’ve been a coffee drinker. If you don’t drink much coffee, withdrawal symptoms may ease in about 2-3 days. If you’re a heavier coffee drinker, it might take about a week or a week and a half.
How do I deal with caffeine withdrawal?
If you need to cut down your caffeine intake, try to do so gradually, instead of going cold turkey. For example, if you normally drink 4 cups a day, try cutting down to 3, and gradually to 2, and so on. This may help minimize withdrawal symptoms.
Also, remember to stay well hydrated, since dehydration can worsen headaches and withdrawal symptoms.
How to remove cafestol from coffee
Another potential drawback to drinking coffee is that the oily part of coffee has a substance called cafestol. This substance can raise the levels of “bad” cholesterol in the blood. When brewing coffee with paper filters, the cafestol remains in the filter. Therefore, it is recommended that people with high cholesterol levels strain their coffee with paper filters or drink the instant type.
French press coffee is the type with the most cafestol content, while espresso falls at an intermediate level. My husband, a coffee enthusiast, has in his arsenal the Chemex coffee maker, which is a good alternative since it uses very thick filters that trap the oils, and therefore, the cafestol.
Buy it here: Chemex coffee maker
What happens if you drink coffee everyday?
As we just saw, coffee consumption is safe within moderate levels of intake. Its antioxidant capabilities are only just beginning to be studied in depth, so over time we will learn more about all of these powerful substances. Unless your doctor has told you otherwise, or if you experience negative effects after drinking coffee, one cup a day should not pose any risk to your health.
So you can rest safe enjoying your morning cup, knowing that there are many benefits that this beverage can offer you.
And now tell me in the comments section, what is your favorite way to drink coffee? Are you like me, who can’t function without at least one cup in the morning? What are the coffee myths you’ve heard the most?
Hi! I’m Melissa, Registered Dietitian and mother of two dragons. When I’m not talking nutrition you can find me rolling around the floor with my kids, sewing, crafting, cooking or missing the 90s (seriously, music just isn’t the same). Read More…