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Straight, No Chaser: The Risks and Benefits of Coffee

By Jeffrey Sterling, MD July 19, 2019


Today, I come to praise coffee, not to bury it—and I don’t even drink it. Here’s the point: Coffee is a reasonably healthy beverage choice. The problem with coffee appears to be what you do to it! More about that in a moment. I’d like to review recent findings from a massive study on coffee and health from the Harvard School of Public Health. (Go Crimson!)
Those of you who’ve made a big deal of reducing your coffee intake as a means of improving your health would be much better off focusing on better eating and exercise habits, and on smoking and alcohol cessation. Regarding coffee specifically, it’s important to state that any discussion of the risks and benefits of coffee are in reference to black coffee. If you’re guzzling high calorie coffee products with lots of sugar, whipped cream, caramel and other additives that increase calories and fat, you’ve migrated to an entirely different conversation, and that one isn’t so pleasant.
Coffee has beneficial health effects, including the following:

  • It may protect against Type 2 diabetes.
  • It may protect against Parkinson’s disease.
  • It may protect against liver cirrhosis and liver cancer.
  • People who regularly drink coffee actually have a somewhat lower risk of death from heart disease than those who rarely drink coffee.

The “problem with coffee” is more about what you do while you’re drinking coffee.

  • Drinking coffee often occurs while smoking cigarettes, and if you’re a smoker you’re not getting any health benefits from pretty much anything associated with that activity.
  • People who drink coffee are less likely to exercise and use dietary supplements, and they tend to have a less healthy diet.
  • The weight of evidence on whether coffee increases the risk of heart disease or certain cancers is clearly leaning toward suggesting the negative ramifications are associated with the other habits of coffee drinkers and not the coffee consumption itself.
  • As mentioned earlier and to further the last point, adding syrups, sugars and milks can increase the caloric intake high enough that regular consumption may lead to weight gain and increase your risk for Type 2 diabetes.

What about tea? Chinese data is different than US data. US research has not shown the type of benefits of tea that Chinese research has. It is thought that this is likely due to US tea drinkers consuming weaker varieties of tea, and they tend to drink less of it. (The Chinese studies feature approximately a liter a day of Oolong tea.)
Here are some bottom line considerations:

  • Drinking as much as up to six cups a day of black coffee is not associated with increased risk of death from any cause, including death from cancer or cardiovascular disease.
  • If you are a pregnant female, have difficulty controlling diabetes or high blood pressure, or if coffee gives you tremors or palpitations, you may wish to avoid it.
  • You should brew coffee with a paper filter, to remove a substance that causes increases in LDL cholesterol.
  • Coffee likely has health benefits, but more research needs to be done to definitively state the extent of those benefits.
  • The health benefits of coffee are likely neutralized or overrun by unhealthy substances added to coffee and associated unhealthy habits of coffee drinkers.

Maybe coffee is another of those instances in which Straight, No Chaser is best!
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0 thoughts on “Straight, No Chaser: The Risks and Benefits of Coffee

    1. Hi, Claudianalab! I’ve tried off and on for years to become a coffee drinker but just can’t enjoy the taste without turning it into something else. Oh well! Thanks for your comment and for following Straight, No Chaser.

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