Let me get this out of the way up front: I hate the taste of coffee in any form. Even the smell bugs me–I’ve often had to cross the street to avoid the aroma wafting out of a coffee shop. It’s always struck me as nothing more than a delivery device for caffeine, and I’ve often thought of people who drink coffee as somewhat weak (“What do you mean you ‘need’ your morning coffee? Shut up and get to work.”) But after spending a lot of time looking at the research on coffee (admittedly hoping to find studies that would allow me to sneer even more at all you coffee drinkers), it turns out that there’s a lot of evidence that people who drink moderate amounts of coffee (two to three cups per day) enjoy some interesting health benefits that non-coffee drinkers may not. Still hopeful, I dug a little deeper, hoping to prove that it’s the caffeine that produces the positive results. But I’ve sheepishly come to the conclusion that in many cases, there’s something in coffee itself–not tea, not Red Bull, not chocolate–that’s responsible. I’m not sure any of this is enough to get me to actually drink any, but I’d definitely take a coffee pill if I could find one. Here’s some of what science tells us about coffee. You be the judge.
A number of studies have found that drinking the equivalent of a cup or two of coffee per day is associated with improved memory, and that for older adults, drinking three to five cups per day significantly reduces the risk of developing Alzheimer’s or other dementia. Some of these studies attribute the benefits to caffeine (giving test subjects caffeine pills rather than have them drink actual coffee). Other studies have ruled out caffeine by showing the same benefits from decaf. Researchers speculate that the antioxidants in coffee (which is one of the most antioxidant-rich foods out there) protect brain cells from getting damaged. Moderate coffee consumption has also been linked with a reduction in the risk of developing other brain-related conditions such as Parkinson’s and with reducing symptoms in those who already have it.
There hasn’t been a huge amount of research on coffee’s effect on various forms of cancer, but what there is, is pretty optimistic. Older adults who drink four or more cups of coffee per day may reduce by half their risk of dying from mouth or throat cancer. Decaf helped, but not as much, and tea had no positive effects at all. Drinking two cups per day reduced the likelihood of dying from liver cancer by as much as 60% compared to those who drank less than one cup per day. Since decaf produced similar results, this may be another case of antioxidants at work, inhibiting the growth of cancer cells by reducing inflammation. Drinking two cups of coffee per day also lowered the risk of developing colorectal cancer by 22% when compared with people who drank less than one cup. Drinking two to five cups reduced the risk by 44%, and guzzling more than two and a half cups reduced the risk by 59%.
Diabetes is one of the biggest killers and it’s getting worse every day. Several studies have found that regular coffee drinking (two to four cups per day) lowers the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes–and the more you drink, the lower the risk (within reason–I’ll get to the risks of going overboard below).
Compared to men who drank no coffee, participants in a study at the University of Texas who drank at least two cups per day were 42% less likely to suffer from erectile dysfunction (ED). There’s something in coffee that helps relax arteries in the penis, which increases blood flow. Interestingly, coffee-drinking men who had diabetes–which is already one of the biggest causes of ED–didn’t have any benefit.
The same blood-vessel-relaxation properties that reduce erectile dysfunction may also reduce stroke risk by decreasing the risk of developing blood clots. Coffee may also reduce the amount of damage done after a stroke. There’s also some indication that, depending on how it’s prepared, coffee could reduce cholesterol levels, another risk factor for stroke and heart attack. One large Japanese study found that two cups of coffee per day reduced the risk of dying from any kind of cardiovascular disease (which includes both stroke and heart attack) by 38%.
A study done at the Harvard School of Public Health found that drinking three cups of coffee per day reduced suicide risk by 45%. But it’s not clear whether that was the coffee itself or the fact that a lot of people get their coffee at coffee shops, which tend to be full of people; social interaction helps reduce suicide risk as well.
Although I don’t have a weight problem, I found one study especially interesting. Overweight research participants who were given green coffee bean extract lost significantly more weight over a 22-week study than those who didn’t get the extract. That’s good news for those of us who need a way to get the benefit of coffee without actually having to drink it.
Too Much of a Good Thing? Yep
Given its many health benefits, it’s tempting to start throwing back as much coffee as possible. But more isn’t necessarily better. A five-cup/day habit actually increases the risk of heart disease. Large amounts of coffee can actually close off blood vessels, which could lead to a stroke. In addition, coffee can cause insomnia, upset stomach, interfere with some medications, increase anxiety, and if you’re drinking caffeinated coffee, it’s highly addictive and withdrawal can be painful. Coffee drinks also often contain a lot of calories. A 20-ounce Mocha Frappuccino at Starbucks is about 500 calories, and a 24-ounce Venti Mocha Cookie Crumble Frappuccino has 590. That’s 20-25% of the calories you should be getting over the course of the whole day. Plus, because those drinks often taste so good (to some people), you may be tempted to eat more, which could make you gain weight, which increase your risk of diabetes and everything else that goes with it. Before you start buying up farmland in Colombia or investing in coffee futures (yes, there is such a thing), check with your doc to make sure it’s okay for you. Because it contains caffeine, coffee could be dangerous if you have very high blood pressure, heart disease, or a history of seizures. If you do, ask your doctor whether decaf or coffee extract are safe. Coffee also contains a chemical compound called cafestol that stimulates production of LDL (that’s the bad cholesterol). Apparently, paper filters eliminate cafestol, but espresso and other unfiltered coffees don’t. Bottom line? While there are plenty of benefits to drinking coffee, as with most things in the world (with the possible exception of money), moderation is key. And don’t use coffee as an excuse for living an otherwise-unhealthy life. You’ll see far more benefit from eating right, exercising, and giving up smoking–even if, like me, you’ll never let a drop of coffee cross your lips.