Spotlight on Coffee

Coffee beans closeup
Coffee beans closeup

We used to hear that coffee was a guilty pleasure at best and a health evil at worst.  However researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health have found that coffee can be good for you.  Their research findings show that people who drink moderate amounts of coffee daily are less likely to die from a range of diseases, from diabetes to heart disease.   They found that both caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee helped.  Their main message is that regular consumption, about three to five cups a day, is associated with lower total mortality (premature death) and mortality from several causes, like diabetes, cardiovascular disease and suicide.

The Scientific Studies

The Harvard School of Public Health looked at surveys of more than 200,000 doctors and nurses who regularly updated researchers on their eating and other lifestyle habits and details about their health for about 30 years.  They found that coffee drinkers were less likely to die over the decades than non-drinkers.   The effects were even stronger for non-smokers who drank coffee.  It turned out that non-smokers who regularly drank three to five cups of coffee a day had a 15 percent lower risk of mortality.  The researchers caution that people should be aware of the amount of added sugar to coffee drinks which can be a problem.  They also point out that a cup is a small 8-ounce cup of black, or almost black coffee.  Not a 32-ounce mocha frappuccino.

The researchers also looked beyond total mortality and looked at specific causes of death.  They found that people who drink moderate amounts of coffee daily have lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease, diabetes, neurological disease (such as Parkinson’s) and suicide.  It is important to note that the study does not prove cause and effect between drinking coffee and living longer.  Rather, it points to an association.

Coffee is the number one source of antioxidants in the American diet, and the researchers think that the antioxidants work together to provide some of the health benefits.  They also conclude that since the benefits are seen in both regular and decaf coffee, that points to caffeine not being responsible for the benefits.  The researchers are not advocating coffee as a strategy for prevention of chronic diseases because other factors in the diet have a bigger effect.  The main message is that people who enjoy drinking coffee should not worry that it may be harmful to their health.  Coffee may actually be beneficial to their health when consumed in moderate amounts.

The findings were published in November, 2015 in the journal Circulation.

The Health Benefits

Moderate consumption of coffee:

  1. Helps you live longer.
  2. Lowers risk of depression.
  3. Lowers risk of type 2 diabetes.
  4. Lowers risk of cardiovascular disease.
  5. Lowers risk of neurological diseases like Parkinson’s disease.
  6. Lowers risk of suicide.

Does Coffee Raise Blood Pressure?

According to the researchers at Harvard’s School of Public Health, people who are not used to caffeine will experience a substantial increase in blood pressure when they start consuming caffeinated beverages like coffee.  However within a week of caffeine consumption, that effect is less pronounced.  After several weeks of continued caffeine consumption, however, a small increase in blood pressure remains.  They suggest that people who have hypertension switch from caffeinated coffee to decaffeinated coffee, to see if it has a beneficial effect.

Does Coffee Raise Cholesterol?

Turns out that people who have high cholesterol should watch how they prepare their coffee.  Coffee contains a substance called cafestol which is a potent stimulator of LDL (bad) cholesterol levels.  Cafestol is found in the oily part of coffee, which is present whether or not the coffee is decaffeinated.  When you brew coffee with a paper filter, the cafestol gets left behind in the filter.  Other methods of coffee preparation, such as the boiled coffee common in Scandinavian countries, French press coffee, or Turkish coffee, are much higher in cafestol.  So for people who have high cholesterol levels or who want to prevent having high cholesterol levels, it is better to choose paper filtered coffee or instant coffee, since they have much lower levels of cafestol than boiled or French pressed coffee.  Espresso is somewhere in the middle;  It has less cafestol than boiled or French pressed coffee, but more than paper filtered coffee.

Putting It Into Practice

  • Moderate consumption: Three to five cups a day seems to be the coffee intake where benefits were seen.  The benefits diminish for intakes lower than two cups a day and above six cups a day.  A cup is 8-ounces.
  • Watch the caffeine: Keep caffeine intake to less than 400 mg per day especially if you are sensitive to it.  Research has shown that consuming more than 400 mg of caffeine can interfere with sleep and create feelings of unease.  You can try decaf or half regular/half decaf coffee if you are sensitive to caffeine.  Pregnant women should also watch their caffeine intake and consult their doctor.
  • Don’t smoke: The studies found that coffee consumption did not offset the damages caused by smoking.
  • Go with paper filtered coffee: If you have high cholesterol or are watching your cholesterol levels, you may want to lower your consumption of boiled coffee beverages.
  • Go with black, or almost black: Watch what you add to coffee.  Heavy cream, caramel, sugar, and syrups all add calories to your coffee, and could increase cholesterol levels if you consume these items regularly.