January 15, 2019

Is Coffee Actually Good For You?

It’s good for you. It’s bad for you. It’s good for you. Most people living past a certain age can attest to the fact that plenty foods have been called into question over the past few decades, and that lots of things have been blamed for a series of different disorders, diseases, and metabolic problems. Through sensational headlines, misinterpreted studies and hyped-up results, we’ve gone from one food fad to another, and back. The research has always been the same. But the interpretations have changed. Back in the day, everything from heart disease to a rise in cancer was blamed on saturated fats. Unsaturated fats, however, were perfectly fine. Cooking oil wasn’t problematic, and you should really just cut out all forms of butter and switch to the much healthier margarine. Then, there was the worry over sodium. Then it was sugar. Gluten. Omega-6. Coffee. Coffee alone has been blamed as a cause of heart disease, stunted growth, and even ADD. Some studies linked coffee to higher rates of mortality, especially in cases of death caused by heart disease.

However, media being what it is, it’s the studies that draw the most controversial conclusions that often get reported on the most. Truth is, a plethora of research has long since indicated that coffee can and often is healthy – and that many studies that place the blame squarely on the roasted bean’s shoulders failed to account for the fact that many heavy drinkers of coffee were also heavy drinkers of alcohol, and heavy smokers of tobacco. It doesn’t matter how often you exercise or how nutritious your diet is – if you smoke a lot and drink a lot, you’re at a much greater risk of heart disease than anyone else. But if you don’t drink much, and don’t smoke at all, coffee actually tends to be protective against cardiovascular disease. That’s right – coffee consumption is linked with longer life. Up to a certain point. It’s not a miracle drink or a magic potion, and too much of anything is bad for you, including coffee.

It Depends on How You Take It

When we think coffee in advertising, we might picture a colorful or white mug with black liquid. But only a fraction of Americans regularly drink black coffee. Anywhere from half to 70% of Americans drink their coffee with creamer, milk, sugar, or other additives, while only about a quarter or so of Americans take their coffee black. While preferences are preferences – and we surely don’t judge anyone for drinking their coffee the way they do – you’re at greater risk for developing negative side effects if you pair your coffee with lots of sugar and milk all the time.

For the most part, black coffee has very few calories and is mostly a cup of water with caffeine, aromatic oils, and a number of other phytochemicals that act as antioxidants. The rest are particles we can’t digest or consume, mostly little pieces of cellulose from the bean itself.

Add some sugar and milk to it, and you’re contending with a different beast. For some, sugar and milk are necessary to make a cup of coffee drinkable – but you’re turning it into an easily-consumed high-calorie bomb. If consumed early in the morning on an empty stomach, you’re looking at a spike in insulin and blood pressure, alongside a greater risk of indigestion, heartburn, and acid reflux (especially if you’re prone to experiencing these issues).

If you’re a coffee lover but can’t seem to shake the habit of getting yourself a loaded frappe rather than a basic mug of black, try and make a gradual change. Switch to black one day at a time, limiting yourself to just one order of mixed coffee per day, and eventually cut back to just one coffee with additives per week. Not only will you lose weight, but the metabolic effect of cutting down on sugary drinks can be very significant, especially for reducing the likelihood of type-2 diabetes and heart disease.

Too Much Is Always Bad

It doesn’t matter if you’re drinking pure black coffee with nothing added but hot water, too much coffee is certainly a bad thing. While there have only been a handful of recorded deaths by caffeine overdose, coffee itself can still have a significant negative impact on your mind and body long before any EMT would have to pronounce you dead. Most caffeine overdoses occur when people drink several highly caffeinated products in quick succession or take a very large dose of caffeine pills (think 20-100 pills/tabs). Caffeine is also much more dangerous for people with a history of heart attacks, palpitations, or family history of serious cardiovascular disease.

Most cups of coffee don’t contain enough caffeine to outright kill a person – you would have to consume more coffee than your stomach could hold, or consistently keep drinking coffee for days until your heart gave out. Certain brands of coffee are stronger than others, with some made specifically to contain higher dosages of caffeine. This can make such coffee lethal – but you would still have to chug several liters of it.  

It doesn’t take that much coffee to start having an adverse reaction. Caffeine is a stimulant, and excessive daily consumption can take a toll on a person’s heart and liver and can lead to an increase in gastric conditions caused by an adverse reaction to tons of coffee in the stomach, as well as heart disease from damage to the heart. It’s hard to gauge exactly how bad too much coffee is because most studies with heavy coffee drinkers tended to include people who also went heavy on alcohol and tobacco, both of which affect the heart as well. Generally, the consensus is that any amount under 4 cups of black coffee per day is safe. It’s ill-advised to follow this rule blindly – like most drugs, caffeine affects individuals differently, and there is no perfectly uniform reaction to it. Most people have a varying level of caffeine sensitivity and metabolize it differently based on the presence of a certain enzyme in the liver (or lack thereof).

Most of the time, heavy coffee consumption also decreases caffeine sensitivity, allowing you to drink more coffee without adverse effects. This eventually backfires and can link to sleep issues, microsleep, and late-night insomnia. If you’re having trouble sleeping, start by cutting down on coffee for a few weeks.

Coffee is more than just caffeine. It also contains a number of phytochemicals that have antioxidant properties. Coffee’s antioxidant properties help stave off oxidative stress, which occurs when a lack of antioxidants causes excessive free radicals in the body to start negatively interacting with the body’s functions. While most of the antioxidants in our system are produced directly by the body, coffee is a consistent and common source of dietary antioxidants, and often makes up the majority of the average individuals’ daily antioxidant intake, which may explain some of its links to longevity.

It’s Not A Miracle Food

Ultimately, coffee is neither linked to significant improvements in mental or physical health, nor is it linked to significant negative effects. It’s safe to drink coffee in normal amounts. It won’t cancel out your drinking or smoking, as shown in older studies.

Some people may be more sensitive to coffee and caffeine than others and may experience negative effects including heartburn and increased anxiety. Others feel that coffee helps them deal with mental health issues, and some go to far as to attribute an antidepressant effect to coffee due to the increase in dopamine in the brain after the consumption of caffeine. Rather than tell people to start or stop drinking coffee, coffee can be a healthy daily habit for some, and is best replaced by something else for others.