Beverage Breakdown: How Healthy Is Coffee?

Jack ThatchLast Updated Feb 1, 2021 5:36:37 PM ET
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Coffee traces its origins back to Ethiopia, where it’s said a goat farmer discovered the energetic effect of berries harvested from a certain tree. The farmer shared his experience with others who soon began picking the berries as well — and the practice of drinking coffee for energy spread to many corners of the world.

Coffee has become an important staple for people around the globe, and it serves not only as a way to feel energized but also as a way to connect socially with others. While some may feel concerned that the drink’s stimulatory effects can lead to negative health consequences, research has shown there are actually considerable health benefits to drinking coffee.

Regular coffee consumption has been linked to a decreased risk of developing heart disease and a reduction in some of the risk factors for heart disease, such as obesity, Type 2 diabetes and depression. However, coffee is not a cure-all. Habitual consumption might also lead to higher cholesterol, potential weight gain, sleep disturbances and stained teeth.

It’s clear that coffee has a lot to offer — and a few downsides that are important to consider. Continue reading to learn more about the potential health advantages and disadvantages of this beloved beverage.

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What Are the Health Benefits of Drinking Coffee?

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It Decreases Your Risk of Diabetes

Individuals who drink coffee on a daily basis appear to have a lower chance of developing Type 2 diabetes than their non-coffee-drinking counterparts. Multiple studies have supported this claim, including one study that concluded those who drink four or more cups of coffee per day have a 50% decreased risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. The researchers also stated that, with each additional cup of coffee per day, a person’s risk of developing Type 2 diabetes drops almost 7%. Even those who drink decaffeinated coffee can experience this benefit. A study published by the American Diabetes Association also suggested adults had a decreased risk of developing Type 2 diabetes after regular, moderate consumption of both caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee.

It Lowers Your Risk of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's Diseases

Numerous studies have investigated the link between coffee consumption and Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. Men who don’t drink coffee are shown to have up to a five-fold risk of developing Parkinson’s when compared to men who drink 25 ounces (or more) of the drink per day. One publication suggested that consumption of 200 milligrams of caffeine per day can decrease a person’s risk of developing Parkinson’s by 17%. Another study focused on people with Parkinson’s disease and showed that coffee drinkers tended to develop the disease later than those who don’t drink coffee. Specifically, coffee drinkers developed symptoms of Parkinson’s an average of eight years later than non-coffee drinkers.

Research has demonstrated a similar relationship between coffee consumption and the development of Alzheimer’s disease. One study supported the notion that those who drink coffee — between three and five cups per day — in middle age may have up to a 64% decreased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

It Protects Against Heart Disease and Stroke

Many individuals have been led to believe that drinking coffee can have a negative effect on their hearts. To date, there have been no documented studies that prove this to be the case. In fact, some current research suggests that consuming moderate amounts of coffee each day may actually improve heart health and protect against heart disease and stroke.

According to a 13-year study conducted in the Netherlands — one of the largest studies examining the effects of coffee on the heart to date — evidence showed that individuals who consumed coffee every day could lower their risk of developing heart disease by as much as 45%. This study showed that individuals who drank between two and four cups of coffee per day had the greatest level of protection compared to those who drank more or less, with a risk reduction of 20%. Consuming more than four cups per day but fewer than six showed a slight decrease in risk — but not enough to outweigh the risks associated with heavier coffee drinking.

It Lowers Your Cancer Risk

Coffee has been shown to significantly lower the risk of developing certain types of cancer. Men who drink coffee every day can decrease their risk of developing prostate cancer. According to a study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, men who drank between one and three cups of coffee per day could lower their risk of developing prostate cancer by 30%. The study also demonstrated that men who drank double those amounts of coffee could reduce their risk of developing the most dangerous form of prostate cancer by as much as 60%. Additionally, coffee has been shown to decrease the risk of developing other cancers, such as liver, uterine, oral cavity, kidney and skin cancers.

It’s High in Antioxidants

Although caffeine is the primary active ingredient found in coffee, it’s also an ingredient that’s full of healthy antioxidants. These powerful compounds are also found in large amounts in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, red wine and chocolate. But according to chemistry professor Joe A. Vinson, Ph.D., at the University of Scranton, coffee is the main source of antioxidants in the U.S. diet. High levels of antioxidants in the diet are associated with a great number of health benefits, ranging from immunity-boosting effects to protection from cancer and other serious diseases.

The Health Risks Associated With Drinking Coffee

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It Can Raise Cholesterol Levels

One negative aspect of coffee is it has been linked to a possible increase in cholesterol levels. The good news is that the increased risk is only present in unfiltered coffee, such as espresso. To avoid this added risk, coffee drinkers looking to better manage their cholesterol levels should use paper coffee filters to capture the substances in coffee (coffee oils, or diterpenes known as kahweol and cafestol) that are responsible for increasing this risk. There is some evidence that drinking decaffeinated coffee may be associated with an increased risk of high cholesterol, but scientists still need to conduct more research on the subject.

It Can Lead to Weight Gain

Individuals attempting to lose weight or maintain their current weight may be discouraged to learn that drinking coffee can result in weight gain. It’s not the coffee itself that’s associated with the weight gain; it’s the extra ingredients that individuals add to their coffee that can have these effects. Sugar is the obvious culprit, while milk and heavy cream may also contribute excess calories that lead to weight gain.

It May Have Addictive Properties

Regular coffee drinkers can attest to feeling the need to drink a cup of coffee in order to feel "functional." Coffee can feel so addictive that even individuals who consume just one cup per day can go through severe withdrawal symptoms if they eliminate their daily drink. When an individual forgoes the stimulant effects of the caffeine in coffee, several symptoms can occur, including:

Fatigue

Irritability

Headaches (tension and migraine)

Jitters

Insomnia

Mood swings

People who prefer decaffeinated coffee may feel the same need to drink the beverage due to the small amounts of caffeine that remain present in decaf varieties. Caffeine increases dopamine signaling in the brain, which leads to increased feelings of alertness and wakefulness, as well as an improvement in mood. While drinking coffee doesn’t cause a shift in dopamine that’s large enough to lead to an actual addiction, its absence can certainly cause a noticeable shift in demeanor and energy levels.

It Increases Heart Rate and Elevates Blood Pressure

The stimulants in caffeine cause an energy boost and increased alertness for people who drink coffee. Those stimulants also cause an elevated heart rate and a temporary rise in blood pressure. That’s because caffeine stimulates the central nervous system, which causes a release of the hormone adrenaline into the body. Over time, coffee drinkers can become accustomed to the effects that caffeine has on their bodies, and they have to drink more coffee to achieve the same effect. Consuming more coffee can result in an even higher heart rate and blood pressure.

It Causes Sleep Disturbances

Although the effects of caffeine can be felt almost immediately, those effects are not as quick to disappear. The effects of caffeine linger in the body for an average of 12 hours. This means that, in sensitive individuals, drinking a cup of coffee at noon can interfere with their 9 p.m. bedtime. Even those coffee drinkers who may not be especially sensitive to the effects of caffeine may find that they don’t experience restful sleep. Sleep disturbances are common in many people who drink just one cup of coffee per day.

It Can Stain Teeth

Over time, coffee drinkers may find that their teeth gradually become stained. The more coffee an individual drinks, the more likely it is that they’ll develop yellow teeth. Other factors that can influence how quickly a coffee drinker’s teeth become stained are:

Overall health of their teeth

Condition of the enamel on their teeth

The amount of acid present in their saliva

Although those conditions vary according to an individual’s health, it’s a near certainty that someone will develop stained teeth if they don’t take the proper preventative measures. You can decrease your risk of staining your teeth with coffee by avoiding creamers with sugar, finishing your coffee within 30 minutes and rinsing your mouth with a glass of water after you finish.

The Verdict: Do the Benefits Outweigh the Risks?

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Although the health risks of drinking coffee can be significant, the risks only appear to increase as consumption increases. As with most things in life, moderation is key if you want to capitalize on the health benefits of coffee. In general, keeping your consumption to a few cups per day will likely allow you to enjoy this drink’s benefits while largely preventing its risks from impacting your health.

Medical content reviewed by Dr Samantha Miller, MBChB

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