Coffee A Safe, Healthy Beverage
One of the nation’s leading authorities on nutrition said most people would not have expected him to write this, but this is what he wrote in one of his books, “Coffee is a remarkably safe beverage. Its dubious health history, which stretches back hundreds of years, is more image than substance.”
The author of that statement explains that researchers produced many studies of coffee drinkers who came to a bad end. But in retrospect, these studies proved to be defective. The bad end was caused by the subjects’ smoking, not by their coffee drinking. Now experts agree that coffee is a safe and even healthy beverage. This may be good news that ranks with the recent revelation that dark chocolate (the darker, the better) is loaded with healthful antioxidants and – in small amounts – to avoid a calorie problem – is even upgraded to a heath food.
The above quote is from Dr. Walter C. Willett of the Harvard Medical School who co-developed an excellent book on nutrition with the Harvard School of Public Health entitled Eat, Drink and Be Healthy: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating (2001). Of course, this doesn’t mean you can consume any amount of coffee (and the caffeine it contains) without some adverse effects.
Dr. Willett writes, “Drinking too much coffee can give you the shakes, make you irritable, and keep you from sleeping. It’s also addictive. Regular caffeine consumers tend to get nasty headaches if they miss their morning cup(s). Drinking espresso, French press, or other coffee that doesn’t drip through a paper filter can increase your cholesterol a few points. And people who drink a lot of coffee may be more at risk for developing osteoporosis or breaking a bone. In moderation, though, coffee is low on the totem pole of health risks and even has a number of benefits.” They include lower chance of developing kidney stones and gallstones. In addition, in a major study, it was found that coffee drinkers had a 50 percent lower risk of suicide than non-coffee drinkers.
He notes one unresolved health issue for coffee drinkers: “One lingering concern about coffee is its potential for increasing bone loss and risk of fracture. Increased risks with four or more cups per day have been seen in several studies, but the final answer is not in. Given the body of research on coffee, it’s safe to say that there aren’t any major health hazards lurking in the murky depths of you cup. In short, when drunk in moderation, coffee is no threat to your health.”
Other authoritative experts on diet and health have taken this same view. For example, the American Dietetic Association (ADA) Complete Food and Nutrition Guide (2nd Ed.- 2002) gives coffee a clean bill of health: “No scientific evidence has been found to link caffeine intake to any health risks, including cancer (pancreatic, breast, or other types), fibrocystic breast disease (benign fibrous lumps), cardiovascular disease, blood cholesterol levels, ulcers, inflammatory bowel disease, infertility, birth defects, or osteoporosis.”
The ADA does have a few special cautions:
“If you are pregnant or nursing … it’s wise to go easy on caffeine.”
If you have a medical problem, you might want advice from your doctor on caffeine consumption. For example, in the case of stomach problems, “both caffeinated beverages and their decaffeinated counterparts” can be chancy for some, as both stimulate the flow of stomach acids, which can irritate the stomach lining.
If you are older, you should be aware that caffeine sensitivity sometimes increases with age. You should also be cautioned against letting coffee (or tea or soft drinks) take the place of more nutritious foods or beverages. What might be excessive caffeine varies from individual to individual and may depend on many factors.
The latest material I’ve seen on coffee contains an even more ringing endorsement of the drink. Bottom Line Health (June 2007) carries a column by an expert on food-based chemical compounds, Dr. Joe Vinson of the University of Scranton, with the headline, “The Amazing Healing Power of Coffee: Fight heart disease, diabetes, memory loss and more…with coffee.” Some of these benefits have been demonstrated by epidemiological studies, but further clinical studies will be necessary to confirm the first results. Here are some of those study findings:
-A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (May 2006) found that women who drink one to three cups of coffee daily are 24 percent less likely to develop cardiovascular disease.
-Another study in the same publication noted above (February 2007) found that older adults (age 65 and older) who had four or more servings of caffeine daily had less than half the risk of these who consumed smaller amounts.
-A study in the Archives of Internal Medicine (June 26, 2006) found that postmenopausal women, who drank four to five cups of coffee (especially decaffeinated), were 16 percent less likely to develop type 2 diabetes.
-A study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition (August 2006) found that non-coffee drinkers had four times the mental decline of coffee drinkers.
-A study in the Archives of Internal Medicine (June 12, 2006) found that coffee might reduce the risk for cirrhosis of the liver, especially in alcoholics.
These latest findings are in addition to some of the benefits of coffee and caffeine documented by earlier studies or experience:
-Caffeine can help you stay alert and prevent fatigue.
-Caffeine may enhance mental performance by “increasing alertness and the ability to concentrate.” Readers Digest, Foods that Harm; Foods that Heal (2004).
-Many athletes claim that one or two caffeine drinks an hour before a competitive event improves performance, especially in endurance sports.
-The Reader’s Digest book claims caffeine “may abort an asthma attack by relaxing constricted blood vessels.”
-Caffeine can also boost the pain-relieving effects of some analgesics, and that’s why it is in many over-the-counter pain relievers. Caffeine may have some anti-cancer effects.
The book Nutrition for Dummies (2004) by Carol Ann Rinzler summarizes the case for coffee this way, “In moderation, coffee definitely qualifies for anybody’s list of superfoods.”
The caffeine in coffee, tea, chocolate and certain soft drinks (mainly colas) may have similar effects, but each of the four types of caffeine-containing foods has different effects on the body.