Last updated 16 January 2016
Although it’s long been lambasted in some quarters of the health community, coffee is no longer understood to be unhealthy for us (generally). In fact, according to a growing body of evidence, quite the opposite is true.
Coffee might not offer health benefits to rival that of green tea. If you don’t like the taste of coffee, or your body doesn’t react well to drinking it, there’s no reason to make coffee a part of your daily routine.
However, if you do enjoy a cup of java, science suggests it is a reasonable component of a healthy diet, with more potential benefits than almost any other drink we’re consuming.
Whilst there isn’t a right or wrong way to drink coffee, there are ways to maximize the benefits you receive from it.
Coffee me up! Health benefits
The health effects of drinking coffee have long been a source of controversy. The controversy has centered on its content of caffeine, a stimulant that can cause problems for some people.
However, as mentioned above, a consensus is emerging that coffee has some really great benefits:
- Coffee might help to prevent the sort of cognitive decline usually associated with diseases like Alzheimer’s and Dementia. Researchers discovered that participants who drank three to five cups of coffee per day had about a 65% decreased chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease or dementia later on in life.
- Coffee can help people to lose weight, as caffeine is one of the few natural substances with proven fat burning capabilities. Caffeine can boost the metabolic rate by 3-11%, and increase the burning of fat by as much as 29% in lean people and 10% in those who are obese.
- According to a Japanese study, men consuming one to two cups of coffee daily reduced their risk of dying from a cardiovascular disease by as much as 38%.
- Drinking two cups of coffee a day has been associated with a 40% lower risk of developing liver cancer.
- Coffee consumption is linked with a reduced incidence of some types of cancers, including liver and colorectal cancer.
- Drinking coffee has been found to ease pain in the neck, shoulders, forearms, and wrists experienced by those who work in an office.
- Two cups of coffee can cut post-workout muscle pain by up to 48%.
- Coffee might help to prevent depression. Scientists aren’t exactly sure why this is so, but they believe that it’s because caffeine activates neurotransmitters in the brain which are responsible for controlling mood. What’s clear is that coffee consumption has been associated with a 50 percent reduction in suicide risk among both men and women.
- Given that coffee drinkers are less likely to get many diseases outlined above, it’s not surprising that coffee drinkers tend to live longer overall.
Coffee’s main health giving qualities arise from its antioxidant activity. Antioxidants help us to fight inflammation, an underlying cause of many chronic conditions.
In fact, studies show that most Americans get more antioxidants from coffee than they do from both fruits and vegetables combined (though perhaps this serves best to demonstrate how sad the SAD diet is, rather than coffee’s superstar antioxidant status).
Note that the health benefits apply to instant coffee as well as the good quality stuff.
The best time to get your java on (ps. it’s not early morning)
If we dive into coffee as soon as our eyelids open, it might not give us the boost in energy we are seeking.
This is because, biologically speaking, our bodies are least in need of coffee in the morning.
As humans we are affected by the 24-hour hormonal cycle called the circadian clock, which controls the release of a hormone called cortisol. This is the hormone which makes us feel alert and awake, and is at peak production in our bodies between 8-9am.
According to ASAP Science, drinking coffee during a peak cortisol period has two unwanted effects for us.
- Caffeine interferes with the body’s own production of cortisol, which means that the body ends up producing less of it.
- A person’s tolerance is caffeine is strengthened, which means they’re going to seek it out more and more, but with diminishing ‘return on investment’.
For most people, cortisol levels actually peak at three times during the day: between 8-9 am, 12-1 pm and 5:30-6:30 pm. If someone wants to get the most bang for their buck in terms of caffeine intake, it’s during the slumps of cortisol levels.
The best time to drink coffee, therefore, is between 10-11.30am, and 2-5pm, when your cortisol levels naturally dip. Your body will most need a caffeine hit during these times.
Admittedly, abstaining from coffee until 10am might seem a bit… unnatural.
But think of it like this: the only reason we crave it immediately upon waking is because we’ve effectively trained our bodies to expect a jolt of caffeine first thing in the morning (think Pavlov’s dog). So just quit being a well trained dog and think optimization!
Let’s talk numbers – how much?
How long’s a piece of string?
Your caffeine tolerance will vary according to your body type and ability to process it, along with other factors. Therefore the coffee quota conundrum should be approached through sensible self experimentation and self monitoring. One woman’s doppio is another woman’s poison – literally.
About 400mg of caffeine per day is thought to be safe for most adults. So there’s your rule of thumb.
Too much caffeine, such as five or six cups of coffee, might lead to restlessness, tremors, irritability, upset stomach, and insomnia.
Children shouldn’t drink coffee at all. They’re just too sensitive to the caffeine.
Interestingly, there might be a gender bias. Men may be more susceptible to the effects of caffeine than women (further weight to the argument that we are the weaker sex).Men are more susceptible to the effects of caffeine than women (further evidence men are the weaker sex) Click To Tweet
And if you value the buzz that coffee can give more so than its taste, then the best way to drink it throughout the day isn’t through whole cups. According to researchers at Harvard Medical School, small, frequent doses of caffeine (about a quarter of a cup) every hour is the best way to stay alert and awake throughout the day.
How much caffeine is in your coffee?
In an age of Venti’s and other obscurely named cup sizes, it’s hard to accurately measure our caffeine consumption. So let’s break it down (bearing in mind your rule of thumb amount of not exceeding 400mg per day).
In terms of your regular 8 oz. cup, there is 65-100 mg of caffeine in instant coffee, 80-135 mg in brewed coffee, and 115-175 mg in drip coffee. Your average shot of espresso has about 100 mg.
However, things get murkier when we drink coffee away from home.
As a guide, a Starbucks Grande (16 oz.) contains 330 mg of caffeine, while a 20 oz. Venti contains 415 mg, which is above the daily recommended maximum for a healthy adult. Yet a 16 oz. McDonalds coffee has a seemingly stingy 133 mg of caffeine. The world is a confusing place sometimes.
An additional problem with estimating your caffeine intake is that most of us don’t just consume caffeine in coffee, but in tea, soda and chocolate as well. A can of cola, for example, has around 44 mg of caffeine.
If only there were an app for this…
Tracking your intake
Perhaps the simplest way to track how much caffeine you’re consuming, and how it’s affecting you, is to use a caffeine-tracking smartphone app. Jawbone’s Up Coffee and Caffeine Tracker are two popular ones.
These apps enable you to log your intake of caffeinated beverages, including from coffee and other sources (such as soda). Just enter the name of the drink, and the app will know how much caffeine is in, say, a tall latte from Starbucks or a Vanilla Chai from Dunkin Donuts. This way, you’ll know how much caffeine is in your system at any one time.
Enter your gender and weight too, and they’ll estimate your caffeine blood level (in other words, how high you are on coffee), and when the effect of a cup of coffee will likely wear off.
Caffeine tracking is not only handy for discovering when coffee is most needed throughout the day, but also for those people concerned that caffeine might be affecting their sleep.
So you see although it is probably not your coffee habit of itself making you unhealthy, your method of making it palatable might be.
Some favorite additions to coffee are milks, creams and sugar or other artificial sweeteners.
These add a lot of unnecessary fat and calories, and can detract from much of the goodness that coffee can provide.
A McDonald’s large mocha, for example, contains 500 calories, 17 grams of fat and 72 grams of carbohydrates, and a Starbucks Venti White Chocolate Mocha 580 calories, 22 grams of fat, and 79 grams of carbs.
If black coffee, such as an espresso or americano, isn’t your thing, consider using plant based ‘milk’ (almond, hemp, or coconut) rather than low quality cow milk. And if you want to sweeten your coffee, consider adding natural spices instead or sugar, such as cinnamon, unsweetened cocoa, nutmeg or cardamom. Cinnamon in particular is an excellent flavour enhancer and the perfect accompaniment to coffee due to its ability to help manage insulin levels.
You could also jump on the bulletproof bandwagon and start adding Brain Octane Oil to your coffee (or just regular coconut oil) – it will add a quick source of brain fuel and help you maintain peak mental performance. Another awesome coffee upgrade is collagen, which mixes in well and has been scientifically studied to help reduce joint pain, keep inflammation levels healthy and aid in muscle repair. It’s also just great for skin, hair and energy levels.
Our hands down favorite hack for healthier coffee is adding mushroom powder – medicinal mushrooms are kick ass for longevity and overall health.
Organic coffee vs conventional coffee
Unless you specifically seek organic coffee out, the coffee you drink is almost certainly conventionally farmed. Organic only accounts for 6.6 percent of the world’s harvested coffee, for example, and only 1.1 percent of Starbucks’ coffee that is available for purchase.
The problem with conventionally farmed coffee is that these farms are laden with various toxins, including chemical fertilizers to feed the crops, and pesticides to eliminate hungry pests. In fact, coffee beans are the third most chemically treated crops in the world, behind only tobacco and cotton.
Most organic coffee growers, however, grow their plants in the shade of the rain forest. The ecosystem provides adequate plant nutrition and natural predators for pests, which eliminates the need for various toxins during the farming process.
After coffee beans are roasted (which is an essential step in the coffee production process), it’s unlikely that much chemical residue remains in the coffee beans at the consumption point, and no research suggests that conventionally farmed coffee poses a health hazard. However, it’s still sensible to reduce or eliminate your exposure to toxins.
There are at least three additional very good reasons why you should go out of your way to drink organic coffee:
- The environment will thank you. As well as chemical toxins, which causes pollution, erosion and soil degradation, conventionally farmed coffee requires swaths of clear-cut forests to grow coffee in the full sun. This is a disaster for the local ecosystem, with many species of plant and animal life indigenous to any area often wiped out.
- The toxins used in conventional coffee farms, most of which reside in developing countries, can be poisonous especially when run off seeps into the local water supply. One study of coffee farmers indicated that 78 percent experienced symptoms related to pesticide handling, including “dizziness, headaches, difficult breathing and tightness in the chest.” If there is enough demand for organic coffee, farmers would happily make the switch.
- Organic farming methods promote healthier soil, cleaner water, and ultimately better quality coffee beans. Being free of chemicals, most coffee drinkers agree that the taste is richer, fuller, and more aromatic – in other words, better.
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R.E.S.P.E.C.T – find out what it means for coffee
When formulating an approach to healthy coffee drinking, it’s worth keeping in mind that caffeine, the fun ingredient in coffee, is a drug that alters the way your brain works.
Caffeine is the most widely used psychoactive stimulant in the world; it reaches its peak level in the blood stream within 30 to 60 minutes of consumption and can remain elevated for three to five hours. As a result, caffeine is valued because of its ability to provide a boost of energy and increased mental alertness. Not surprisingly, coffee and productivity at work have become synonomous with each other.
However, the drug has its downsides.
Although a complete scientific understanding of the human brain is a work in progress, scientists know is that caffeine blocks the adenosine receptors in the brain, which lets the neurotransmitters like epinephrine and dopamine run amok.
By stimulating your adrenal glands to produce adrenalin, caffeine puts your body a ‘fight-or-flight’ state. Although this would be beneficial if you were in the Hunger Games, it’s pretty pointless for the rest of us who aren’t constantly facing threats. Keeping your body in a perpetual state of alert can be pretty reckless, as it depletes and weakens your natural defenses.
Going cold turkey from caffeine can be problematic for some people. As your body develops a tolerance to caffeine, you need more and more to feel the same effects, and eventually your body reaches a stage where it demands it. If you don’t feed your body what you want, you’ll start to experience withdrawal symptoms.
Even a one cup a day coffee drinker will experience withdrawal symptoms if their body no long gets the caffeine it’s used to. And caffeine withdrawal can come on very quickly, anywhere from 12 to 24 hours after the last time you consumed it. The most common symptom of cutting off caffeine are headaches, but depression, fatigue, lethargy, irritability, nausea and vomiting are common too. These symptoms generally tend to subside after 10 days or so.
As with many relationships then, the key to healthy coffee drinking is mutual respect: defer to its powers, and in turn it will treat you well.
By respecting coffee, we mean not turning into a 6 cup a day coffee monster.
Based on the tips above, the seven key ways to be a healthy coffee drinker are:
- Drink it between 10-11.30 am and 2-5 pm.
- Don’t drink more than 4 cups per day.
- Use an app to monitor caffeine intake.
- Avoid adding sweeteners and poor quality cow milk.
- Drink organic coffee only.
- RESPECT it.
- Enjoy your java! It’s good for you.
How else can we maximize the benefits from coffee drinking? Let us know in the comments below!