For years, the news about coffee vacillated between positive and negative. At the same time, study after study extolled the health virtues of tea. But a flurry of new research suggests that coffee offers nearly as many health perks while protecting against a number of diseases.
All this is not to suggest you should start gulping endless cups of java if you’re not already a coffee lover. After all, excessive coffee intake may have a downside for some people.
Antioxidants and More
A few years back, headlines trumpeted the news that coffee was the number one source of antioxidants in the American diet. One of the prime antioxidants in coffee is methylpyridinium, which may help protect against colon cancer. In one study, for every two cups of coffee the participants drank, there was a 43 percent reduced risk of liver cancer. This same substance slows the intestines’ absorption of glucose and might help explain coffee’s protective effect against type 2 diabetes
Here’s something else you probably didn’t know: Coffee is the main dietary source of the trace element boron. Biologist Curtiss Hunt at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center found that an eight ounce cup of instant coffee contains about 57 mcg. of boron. Coffee is also a surprising source of more familiar minerals and nutrients, including chromium, magnesium and niacin.
Coffee and Heart Health
Additional antioxidant compounds in coffee – caffeic, p-coumaric, and ferulic acids – may curb cardiovascular disease by protecting low-density lipoproteins (LDLs, the “bad” cholesterol) from oxidation, fending off inflammation and improving blood vessel function.
In 2006, Norwegian researchers found that older women drinking one to three cups of coffee daily were 24 percent less likely to die of cardiovascular disease than non-drinkers. Because the caffeine in coffee has a short-term elevating effect on blood pressure, people who drink one cup after another may keep their blood pressure high for periods long enough to risk heart trouble.
Coffee’s long-term effect on blood pressure has long been debated, and should be weighed against any possible benefits. A 2007 Finnish study of 24,710 healthy men and women, ages 25 to 64, found that over an average 13.2-year follow-up period, those drinking two to three cups of coffee daily were 29 percent more likely to start drug treatment for high blood pressure. Moderation is key when it comes to coffee, if you suffer from hypertension.
Anybody who’s experienced coffee’s morning wake-up call to the brain knows that it can temporarily help sharpen thinking. But coffee may also boost brain function in more lasting ways. A European study of 676 healthy men found that those consuming three cups of coffee daily suffered significantly less cognitive decline over 10 years than non-drinkers. And in 2007, a French study concluded that older women who drank at least three cups of coffee daily were 18 percent less likely to develop problems with verbal recall and 33 percent less prone to memory problems. And new evidence shows that middle-aged coffee drinkers slash their risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease later in life compared with those drinking no coffee or only a little. Other research shows that coffee may defend against Parkinson’s disease. A notable Finnish study found that drinking 10 cups of coffee a day slashed the risk of developing Parkinson’s by as much as 84 percent. Researchers suggested that the caffeine in coffee might stimulate dopamine, the brain chemical lacking in the disease.
From Gallstones to Gout
Coffee also seems to protect against both gallstones and kidney stones. In two large studies, people who drank two to three cups a day of caffeinated coffee were less likely to develop gallstones than nondrinkers. Decaf coffee didn’t protect against gallstones, but it did keep kidney stones at bay, perhaps simply by boosting total liquids.
In the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study, Harvard researchers found that coffee consumption was linked to a lower blood level of uric acid – the substance linked to this type of arthritic disease. People who drank six or more cups a day were 40 percent less likely to develop gout. Despite coffee’s growing list of benefits, the caffeinated version still may not be ideal for some people. If you’re concerned that coffee is keeping you up at night, try decaf or drink it earlier in the day. However, if you suffer from gastroesophageal reflux (GERD), be aware that decaf coffee has been shown to aggravate reflux as much as the caffeinated kind.
Less clear is whether caffeine can aggravate arrhythmias or raise the risk of breast cancer in women with benign breast disease. The latest findings from Harvard’s Women’s Health Study suggest an increased risk for women who drink four or more cups of coffee daily. However, in the Iowa Women’s Health Study, no link was found.
Research Brief …
It’s common knowledge that most people tend to gain weight and lose bone as they age – neither of which is particularly healthy. But here’s the problem: If you try to lose unwanted weight, it only promotes more bone loss – increasing the risk of fractures and the dangerous complications that accompany them. A study designed to answer that exact question provides some answers.
The research, from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and Pennsylvania State University, studied 130 men and women, aged 30 to 65. The people in the one-year study ate one of two low-calorie diets: A reduced-calorie diet that provided either the currently recommended intake of 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight, plus two servings of low-fat dairy a day, or 0.64 grams of protein per pound of body weight with three daily servings of low-fat dairy.
The researchers found that the weight-loss diet with nearly twice the recommended amount of protein and three servings a day of low-fat dairy not only improved calcium intake, but was much more effective at preserving bone mass during weight loss - especially when compared to the lower protein (and higher carbohydrate) weight-loss diet. These findings add to the growing amount of evidence that high-protein diets do not leach calcium from bones, as long as calcium intake is adequate.