Is coffee good for you?

Coffee may offer health benefits
Coffee may offer health benefits

If you’re one of those folks who can’t face the day without a cup of joe, here’s a bit of good news: There’s very little evidence that coffee is bad for you. In fact, it actually may be good for you, in moderation.

In 2012, the American Heart Association published findings from a meta-analysis that drinking coffee in moderate amounts may help lower your risk for heart failure. The largest decrease in risk was found in individuals who drank four cups of coffee daily.

People who are healthy don’t need to worry about a few cups of coffee a day – and by cup, I mean an 8-ounce serving, not the huge beverages you can buy at one of the 60-plus independent coffee shops and countless chains in the Metroplex.

Let’s discuss the risks and benefits associated with drinking coffee and take a look at the coffee preparations that deliver the most caffeine.

How is coffee potentially good for you?

Coffee is a complex beverage that consists of about 200 different molecules. Some of those molecules are flavonoids – a type of antioxidant that may have heart-healthy or immune-protective properties. Research is underway to determine whether antioxidants really affect our health in a positive way and how the flavonoids in coffee compare to those in fruits and vegetables.

A 2012 study suggested a decrease in mortality in people who consume more coffee. Keep in mind this was an association study only – other lifestyle factors that affected mortality were not considered. In other words, the people who lived longer may have been healthier overall or may have taken better care of themselves.

Caffeine also may help increase insulin sensitivity. A 2007 study suggested that 200 mg of daily caffeine intake (one 8-ounce cup of coffee contains 80 mg to 100 mg of caffeine) can reduce the amount of insulin required to turn calories into energy – potentially reducing the risk for Type 2 diabetes. Also, the more insulin circulating in our bodies, the hungrier we tend to feel. However, there is not enough research to suggest that coffee helps people lose weight.

Studies over the past two decades also link coffee consumption with decreased risk of prostate cancer and endometrial cancer. Again, these epidemiological studies suggest a link between coffee and risk reduction but don’t exclude other factors, such as lifestyle and genetics, which together may play a part in overall risk.

Coffee also has been examined for its benefits for athletes. The American College of Sports Medicine has found that caffeine consumed prior to exercise increases athletic performance for prolonged endurance exercise or short bursts of intense exercise in elite or serious recreational athletes. But how caffeine works to improve performance is not fully understood.

How is coffee potentially bad for you?

If you’re sensitive to caffeine, coffee may affect you differently than it affects others. For some health conditions, including heart issues, your doctor may suggest you avoid or limit your caffeine intake. That includes coffee, chocolate, green tea, and other sources of caffeine. That said, a study published in January 2016 found that for those with healthy hearts, drinking or eating caffeine in moderate amounts will not cause arrhythmia or heart palpitations.

But there may be other serious effects from drinking coffee. A 2001 study uncovered a 20 percent increase in urinary tract cancer risk for people who drink coffee but not for people who drink tea. The same findings were noted in a 2015 meta-analysis. For people with a family history of urinary tract cancer, it may be wise to avoid coffee until further research proves or disproves these associations.

Coffee is a mild diuretic – drinking too much coffee might contribute to dehydration. A few cups a day won’t make you dehydrated. However, if you consume coffee drinks for energy during your workout, you may lose more sweat than normal. Some people sip coffee throughout the day when they really ought to be drinking water. If you drink mostly coffee and little water all day, every day, that is likely not an optimal way to hydrate your body.

Studies touting the health benefits of coffee almost always refer to “black” coffee – no cream, sugar, flavored syrups, or whipped topping. But that’s not how many of us drink it. It’s easy to get carried away and add a few hundred extra calories to your coffee without realizing it. Single-serve plain liquid creamers contain 15 calories each, and single-serve sugar also contain 15 calories per packet. That adds up fast, considering many coffee drinkers use more than this per cup. Some gourmet coffee drinks pack 300 to 400 calories for a small serving!

Plain black coffee, on the other hand, contains just 2 calories per 8-ounce serving, and a 1-ounce serving of plain espresso contains just 1 calorie. Consuming excess calories, especially empty calories with no nutritional value, contributes to weight gain and Type 2 diabetes. Opt for coffee with as few add-ins as possible.

If you can’t tolerate black coffee, flavored coffee beans are a good option to add taste without adding calories. Skip sugar and try sugar-free syrups or add cinnamon to your coffee for a kick of flavor. You also may consider using skim milk or unsweetened almond milk instead of creamer or whipped topping to save on calories and add nutritional value.

How much caffeine is in my coffee?

An 8-ounce cup of coffee has about 80 mg to 100 mg of caffeine, depending on the type of beans or grounds you brew. The amount of caffeine you’ll get from coffee grounds also varies with how you prepare the beverage:

  • Espresso machines: An espresso maker pushes water through the grounds as fast as possible. This extracts many of the flavorful compounds and leaves much of the caffeine behind. Surprisingly to some, espresso has less caffeine than regular coffee when serving sizes (1 ounce versus 8 ounces) are compared.
  • Percolators: This is the type of machine my parents used to have, which runs water through the grounds over and over. A percolator picks up a lot of caffeine because of the multiple passes.
  • French press: This method is similar to the percolator and also delivers a lot of caffeine. It’s called a “press” because, after infusing the grounds with hot water, you press the grounds with the machine’s plunger to separate them from the water.
  • Drip machines: These machines are in between. The caffeine attracted as the water zips through goes right into the pitcher, but many of the flavonoids stick to the paper filter. However, if you use a steel filter, the flavonoids follow the water through to the pitcher.
  • Single-serve coffee makers: These work similar to espresso machines, which zip the water through the grounds quickly.

For the average, healthy person, the American Heart Association recommends limiting caffeine intake to 400 mg or less daily – to stay within that range, that’s about four 8-ounce cups of coffee. Enjoying coffee in moderation is safe for most people who follow a heart-healthy lifestyle, and it may, in fact, be a health-promoting strategy.

Do you have questions about what is and isn’t healthy for your heart? Request an appointment with your physician to discuss your personal dietary needs.