Some days (most days?) coffee is the glue that holds it all together. It turns you from zombie to human in the morning, picks you up mid-afternoon and keeps you moving all those hours in between. But — deep breath — is it good for you?
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You can exhale. Coffee, it turns out, packs some surprising health benefits. “There aren’t a lot of downsides to drinking moderate amounts of coffee — and in fact, it can have positive effects on your health,” says registered dietitian Andrea Dunn, RD.
You probably didn’t need another reason to pour yourself a fresh cup. But just in case, keep reading.
Caffeine and health
Coffee gets its kick from caffeine, a natural stimulant that makes you feel more energetic. But the caffeine in coffee doesn’t just wake you up. It acts on the brain to improve memory, mood, reaction times and mental function. Caffeine can even improve endurance and performance during exercise, per one study.
Caffeine isn’t the only thing coffee has going for it. “Coffee contains about a thousand different botanical compounds,” Dunn says. Scientists haven’t studied all of them well, but the news so far gets two thumbs up.
Coffee comes from beans, after all. And as Dunn points out, “dietitians love beans.” Coffee is a source of nutrients, including B vitamins, potassium and riboflavin. The beans are also rich in antioxidants, compounds that protect cells against damage. “Surprisingly, coffee is the single best source of antioxidants in the American diet,” Dunn says.
Benefits of coffee: Lowering disease risk
Altogether, the various ingredients in coffee add up to a drink that is greater than the sum of its parts. Drinking java on the regular has been shown to decrease the risk of several illnesses:
- Type 2 diabetes: Multiple studies found that regular coffee consumption lowers the odds of developing Type 2 diabetes. That’s true for decaf as well as the high-octane variety.
- Neurological diseases: Regular daily caffeine intake — like the kind you get from your daily cuppa — is linked to a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease as well as Parkinson’s disease.
- Liver disease: Coffee seems to protect against liver cirrhosis in people at risk of the disease, such as those with alcohol use disorder or fatty liver disease.
- Cancer: Researchers have found that coffee drinkers have a lower risk of liver cancer and colorectal cancer — two of the leading causes of cancer deaths in the world.
- Depression: That pick-me-up you get from a foamy cappuccino may not be a figment of your imagination. Several studies have found that the more coffee a person drinks, the lower their risk of depression.
Are there health risks associated with coffee?
Coffee may be a magical bean, but it isn’t perfect. Excessive caffeine can cause dehydration. Some people find it makes them jittery or anxious. And too much caffeine can also interfere with a good night’s sleep, especially if you drink it late in the day.
To get the pros without the cons, follow these guidelines:
Don’t go overboard
Experts recommend sticking to less than 400 milligrams of caffeine per day. An 8-ounce cup of coffee typically has 80 mg to 100 mg of caffeine, which works out to about four cups a day.
Cut back if you’re expecting
According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, it’s safe for pregnant women to take in up to 200 mg of caffeine per day, or about two cups. The jury is still out on whether higher caffeine intake poses a risk.
Skip coffee late in the day
Caffeine in coffee can stay in your system for several hours after your last sip. So a late-afternoon latte or post-dinner café au lait may leave you tossing and turning at night. To play it safe, stick to decaf in the evening.
Beware of add-ins
Flavored syrups, sugar, whipped cream — coffee often goes hand-in-hand with additions that aren’t so nutritious. “Coffee may be healthy, but what you add to it often isn’t,” says Dunn. Keep an eye on the sugar and saturated fat, especially if you’re drinking multiple mugs a day.
The takeaway: As long as you’re aware of the minor pitfalls, there’s no reason you can’t keep enjoying your favorite bean. Coffee, anyone?