If you find yourself feeling a tad guilty about your coffee habit, and consider it one of your nutritional vices, it might be time to reconsider the regret. Coffee is actually one of the top sources of antioxidants, with a multitude of health-promoting properties.
Here are eight science-based health benefits of java. We’ve also included a reference guide to body-friendly coffee add-ins, and how much is too much when it comes to America’s favorite pick-me-up.
Athletic performance. The caffeine in coffee can help improve our power and endurance. It also can buffer our perception of effort, pain and fatigue, all of which can translate to better performance.
Mood. A study of more than 50,000 women found that those who drank four or more cups of (caffeinated) coffee had a 20 percent lower incidence of depression. Decaf coffee didn’t appear to have the same effect.
Cognitive function. Drinking caffeinated coffee can help to prevent a decline in alertness and mental performance throughout the day (not that we really needed a study to tell us this). Long-term coffee drinkers have also been found to have a lower rate of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
Boost metabolism. Two to three cups of caffeinated coffee can increase resting metabolic rate as much as 25 percent above baseline, most notably in the first 30 to 90 minutes after consumption.
Lower risk of diabetes. Drinking coffee seems to significantly reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. The effect appears to be dose-dependent, meaning that a higher intake of coffee is associated with a progressively lower risk. It’s just the fully loaded stuff that seems to help, though — decaf coffee doesn’t seem to have the same benefit.
Reduced risk of Parkinson’s disease and gallbladder disease. Drinking caffeinated beverages (including coffee, as well as tea), can decrease the risk of developing both Parkinson’s disease and gallbladder disease. And, similar to the effect of coffee on diabetes, more may be better: Drinking the equivalent of about four cups of coffee or more seems to have the most benefit.
Gout. A 12-year study of more than 45,000 men found that the risk of developing gout is about 40 percent lower in men who drank four to five daily cups daily of caffeinated coffee. Decaf coffee also helped, but the effects were not nearly as significant.
Live longer? A large study by the National Institutes of Health that tracked nearly half a million older adults for 12 years found that coffee drinkers were less likely to die from like heart disease, respiratory disease, stroke, and diabetes. The benefits were the same for caffeinated and decaf coffee drinkers, and those who drank three or more cups of coffee appeared to have the most health benefits.
Coffee add-ins matter. Skip the powdered creamers. The ones with ingredients such as corn syrup solids and hydrogenated oils, the powdered creamers such as CoffeeMate (even the “lite” or fat-free versions), are essentially just oil and sugar, and anything but natural.
Instead, use a splash of (real) half-and-half to lighten your coffee, for a mere 20 calories and one gram of saturated fat per spoonful. Or use a splash of milk — Fairlife milk has 50 percent more protein and 50 percent fewer carbs than regular milk. Or, try my favorite: a protein drink such as ICONIC in place of milk for a protein-rich iced or hot “latte” for breakfast or an afternoon pick-me-up.
And obviously, limit added sugar. My preference is no sweetener at all — it also helps to acclimate our taste buds to not expect everything to be so super-sweet. If you’re going to add a sweetener, my recommendation is one of the many plant-based no-calorie sweeteners, such as Swerve or Truvia. And a bit of real sugar is fine, whether it’s plain old sugar, raw sugar, agave, or honey. Just try to limit it to a teaspoon (or less).
How much is too much? We’ve heard for years that that coffee is a diuretic that can leave us dehydrated. The reality: Drinking a normal amount of coffee — or other caffeinated beverages such as tea or diet soft drinks — does not affect hydration status.
While caffeine in its isolated form does have a diuretic effect, the fluid in these beverages serves to offset the dehydrating effects.
Still, too much coffee, caffeinated coffee, in particular, can have some not-so-great side effects, such as anxiety, headache, and sleep disturbances. Most major medical organizations recommend that we keep our caffeine intake under 300 mg daily, which is the equivalent of about three cups of regular-brewed coffee.
But even 300 mg daily may be too much for some people. Certain conditions are worsened by coffee and/or caffeine, so if you have one or some of the following conditions, you might want to cut back on the java: Fibrocystic breasts (caffeine can worsen the painful symptoms), hypertension (caffeine can increase blood pressure), insomnia (caffeine stays in your system for hours, so limit your intake after mid-day), and GERD (coffee can be an irritant, worsening symptoms of chronic acid reflux).
The bottom line: Coffee can be an enjoyable, guilt-free part of a healthful diet. Just don’t overdo it on the caffeine, and you can reap some health benefits from your daily habit.
Molly Kimball is a registered dietitian in New Orleans. She can be reached at email@example.com. Comment and read more at NOLA.com/eat-drink. Follow her on Facebook: facebook.com/mollykimballrd and Twitter: twitter.com/mollykimballrd.