I’ve always been a bit perplexed by how tortured my patients appear to be when “confessing” to me they drink coffee in the morning. If there was ever a habit perceived as a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood, it’s acquiring that ritual of starting the day with a cup of joe.
Consider the statistics:
- According to the Harvard School of Public Health, 59% percent of adults in the US drink coffee (averaging three 9 ounce cups per day), outpacing the 51% of Americans who drink tea (the majority of which is black – and caffeinated).
- Many can’t imagine a day without it, and don’t think twice about dropping the $40 million we collectively spend on coffee each year.
In fact, it amazes me how many will complain about the price of fruits and vegetables yet not think twice about spending an average of $2.45 for a Venti Starbucks (and that’s just the basic brew), sometimes several times a day!
I’ve never been a coffee drinker, but have been sipping tea since the early days with my Irish grandmother when it likely contained more sugar and milk than the steeped stuff. Interestingly, a trend towards tea drinking is emerging among younger people, cutting into coffee’s corner on the market. Regardless of preference, however, both coffee and tea contain a number of health-promoting substances, and their use has actually been linked to fewer health problems. Coffee consumption has been tied to lower rates of diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, liver cancer and heart failure, and may reduce the risk of early death.
According to a just-released study on coffee in the Journal of Nutrition,*coffee drinkers tend to have higher circulating rates of antioxidants, including polyphenols, also found in red wine, tea and dark chocolate. Urban legend has it that coffee is harmful to heart health, but in this study blood lipid levels weren’t negatively affected, nor did blood pressures rise with moderate use (coffee drinkers in this study averaged around 2-2.5 cups per day and had normal blood pressure).
As always, there’s a caveat, most of which involves what you add to your brew, and why you’re drinking it.
- Drinking a lot of coffee to keep yourself awake and functioning is not a replacement for the sleep we so desperately need, but often get too little of. Sleep deprivation is tied to a long list of chronic diseases, like diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke and cognitive problems.
- Coffee is not breakfast. It can’t compare to the complex carbohydrates, protein, fiber and phytonutrients you can get from oatmeal, yogurt, fruit and nuts with a whole-foods breakfast.
- Loading your coffee down with sugar, syrups and cream can greatly up your intake of added sugars, saturated fat and calories, easily outweighing any benefits of antioxidants and other health-promoting compounds.
Consider that a 16 oz cup of black coffee has about 5 calories, compared to some specialty lattes and macchiatos that can be so loaded with sugar and fat you could be throwing back the equivalent of a king sized Snickers for breakfast!
It should also be noted that health benefits are generally tied to filtered coffee, not unfiltered brews (boiled or espresso), which may raise blood cholesterol levels. Those who are sensitive to caffeine, or have been otherwise advised to chill their coffee habit by their doctor, should take heed and limit their consumption.
*Coffee Consumption Increases the Antioxidant Capacity of Plasma and Has No Effect on the Lipid Profile or Vascular Function in Healthy Adults in a Randomized Controlled Trial, Agudelo-Ochoa et al, J Nutr. 2016 Feb 3