From our collaborators at Johns Hopkins Medicine | Coffee talk: perks and potential risks

Video + article: What is known about its health effects

Is coffee healthy? As someone who does research on and writes regularly about food, I get this question frequently, and the answer is “it depends.” Coffee is not a single, simple beverage that just comes in one form and is consumed in one way. The healthiness of coffee depends on what comes with it, how it is prepared, how often you drink it and why you drink it. Moreover, while the health effects of coffee have been studied, they have not been studied fully.  Here’s what we know (scroll below video).

Here are five ways coffee can be unhealthy

When you add unhealthy things to it.

Many coffee drinks have lots of things added such as cream, sugar and artificial ingredients. Many of these things would not be healthy even if they were added to broccoli as Medcan has covered before on how caffeine slows aging and nutrigenomics.

When you drink too much of it.

Coffee has calories, caffeine and very small amounts of the chemical acrylamide. None of these may be that problematic when consumed in moderate quantities, however, the more you drink, the more these may become issues. Too many calories can lead to being overweight and weight-related conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Moreover, caffeine is a stimulant. Overstimulation can tax your body, especially your heart. In fact, studies have suggested that drinking two or more cups of coffee a day may be associated with increased risk of heart disease.

Acrylamide was in the news this year because of a proposed California law that would require coffee servers to display a warning declaring coffee a potential health risk, since acrylamide falls under the list of chemicals known to the state to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity. When I covered this for Forbes, I described how roasting coffee beans generates acrylamide that has been shown in studies to cause cancer when given in large doses to rats and other rodents.

However, there is no need to panic unless you are a rat and consuming large amounts of acrylamide. The amount of acrylamide in a cup of coffee is comparable to the amount in a serving of potato chips or French fries – both which are tolerated/not harmful according to the research done to date.

When it has too much caffeine.

Not all coffee is the same, even when you don’t add sugar, cream or other flavorings. For example,  coffee can differ significantly in caffeine content with the so-called “world’s most caffeinated coffee” having over 1.7 times the recommended daily caffeine limit (i.e., 400 mg a day).

When you become dependent on it.

Science has shown that caffeine can be chemically addictive. In fact, caffeine withdrawal is a mental health diagnosis included in the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). A sign of addiction is when you start having withdrawal symptoms when you cannot get something such as feeling irritated, getting jittery, not being able to stay awake and concentrate, experiencing spasms or twitches, having body temperature fluctuations, experiencing sleep disturbances or suffering from headaches.

When you don’t drink much of anything else.

Caffeine is a diuretic, meaning that it makes you pee. Therefore, if you drink nothing but coffee, you may not be getting enough fluids.

What about coffee’s good?

Coffee’s antioxidants could prevent damage to your body’s cells.

Coffee is not just liquid caffeine. While coffee isn’t kale (in case you haven’t noticed), it does have some vitamins and minerals, such as vitamins B2 and B5, manganese, potassium, magnesium and niacin (B3). Moreover, coffee has various antioxidants, such as chlorogenic acid, that could prevent damage to your body’s cells and tissue and potentially help with insulin and sugar regulation.

Coffee and its possible link to improved cognitive function.

This may be the reason that some studies have shown associations between coffee consumption and decreased risk of depression, heart attacks, stroke, some cancers (e.g., endometrial and certain types of prostate and breast), Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, type 2 diabetes, liver disease and death in general. Research has also found a correlation between drinking coffee and improved cognitive function.

More studies needed to investigate cafestol and kahweol.

Two components of coffee, cafestol and kahweol, are controversial. Some studies have raised concerns that they may raise “bad” cholesterol levels (LDL) but others have suggested that they may have anti-cancer and liver protective effects. Paper filters can filter out these substances, but the question is would you be filtering out the good or the bad?

Nonetheless, the health effects of coffee remain confusing since scientific studies have not been ideal as many of them have been done on animals, often rats. Most of the human studies have been large population studies that just compare large numbers of coffee drinkers with non-coffee drinkers and are therefore only able to show rough associations and not cause-and-effect.

To drink coffee or not to drink coffee? Some takeaways ‘to go’

The jury is still out on whether coffee is truly healthy or not. More studies are needed that actually capture the complexities of coffee, people and the systems around them. Therefore:

  • If you do not drink coffee, there is no real reason to start.

  • If you are a coffee drinker, consume it in moderation (at most one to two cups a day), avoid adding stuff to your coffee and pay attention to the ingredients and caffeine content of your coffee.

  • The filter question is still up for debate, but there doesn’t seem to be any harm in using one.

  • And don’t worry about acrylamide if you are drinking coffee in moderation and are not a rat.

Bruce Y. Lee, M.D., M.B.A. is the executive director of the Global Obesity Prevention Center (GOPC) at Johns Hopkins University and associate professor of international health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. You can follow Dr. Lee on Twitter @bruce_y_lee

The content was reproduced with permission of the office of Marketing and Communications for Johns Hopkins Medicine International. Additional reuse and reprinting is not allowed. The information aims to educate readers and is not a substitute for consultation with a physician. 

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