Everything You Need to Know About Coffee & Your Health

Coffee is one of the most popular beverages in America. It’s estimated that 154 million people, or 75% of U.S. adults, are coffee drinkers (1). Many people depend on coffee for its morning pick-me-up effect. On a personal note, I can say that a good strong cup of joe helped me through more than one sleepless night of medical school and residency training.

But, just like any food or drink, it’s important to understand the full effect that coffee has on our bodies, beyond being a pretty awesome source of liquid energy.

In today’s blog post, I’ll share some research on the potential health benefits and risks of drinking coffee, provide insight on how much is okay, and give you a few tips and caveats about making the perfect cup.

Is Coffee a “Superfood?”

In recent years, many media articles have touted coffee as a ‘superfood,’ thanks to its bioactive compounds and health benefits. The term ‘superfood’ doesn’t have a medical or scientific definition, but rather is a buzzword used to describe a food (or drink) that has a high level of vitamins and minerals and that promotes health. Coffee fits the bill.

Roasted coffee is a complex mixture of over 1000 bioactive compounds. Some of the most notable ones include caffeine, which is a popular natural stimulant; chlorogenic acids, which are phenolic compounds that have antioxidant properties; and diterpenes, which may impact cholesterol levels and protect against certain types of cancer (2).

Despite coffee’s many bioactive properties, keep in mind that many individual factors – including the degree of roasting, the preparation method, and even an individual’s own genotype and microbiome – can impact how coffee may impact any given person.

Let’s take a look at what the research says about coffee and its potential ability to help decrease the risk of four of the leading causes of disease and death in our country.

Coffee & Heart Disease

Based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States (3). While many factors can impact a person’s likelihood of developing heart disease, it appears as if drinking coffee may play a protective role.

Research shows that healthy people who regularly drink 3-5 cups of coffee per day have a 15% reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease, compared to non-coffee drinkers. Additionally, drinking 1-5 cups of coffee a day is associated with a lower risk of death compared to those who don’t drink any coffee (4).

One caveat: if you have uncontrolled high blood pressure (hypertension), you should avoid consuming large amounts of caffeine, as caffeine can cause short but dramatic increases in blood pressure.

Coffee & Cancer

Together, all types of cancer are the second leading cause of death in America (3). While results vary from one type of cancer to another, a meta-analysis of 40 studies showed a significantly lower incidence of cancer for those who drank a high amount of coffee compared to those who drank little to none (4).

More specifically, high coffee consumption is associated with a lower risk of the following types of cancers: prostate, endometrial, melanoma, oral, leukemia, non-melanoma skin, and liver cancers (4).

As of yet, the research hasn’t shown any association between coffee and gastic, colorectal, colon, rectal, ovarian, thyroid, breast, pancreatic, esophageal, and laryngeal cancers, as well as lymphoma or glioma (4).

A warning: research has shown a consistent harmful association between high coffee consumption and lung cancer for smokers (5). This association was not observed for non-smokers. If you are a smoker, you should limit your coffee consumption until you’re able to successfully quit smoking. 

Coffee & Type 2 Diabetes

A fairly large body of evidence suggests that moderate coffee consumption can lower the risk for diabetes, which is currently the seventh leading cause of death in the U.S. (3, 4).

In one recent meta-analysis, researchers compiled the data from 30 previously published studies, consisting of more than 1 million people, and found that those who consumed coffee had a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes (6).

More specifically, the researchers found that the risk of type 2 diabetes decreased by 6% for each cup-per-day increase in coffee consumption. This association was found with both caffeinated coffee consumption and decaffeinated coffee consumption, suggesting that it’s the coffee itself and not the caffeine that offers the protective benefit (6).

Coffee & Kidney Disease

Incident chronic kidney disease (chronic kidney failure) is a condition that describes the gradual loss of kidney function. Kidney disease, overall, is the ninth leading cause of death (3).

In one study, researchers looked at the data of more than 14,000 adults aged 45 to 64 years who were enrolled in the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) Study. After following the adults for 24 years, higher coffee consumption was associated with a lower risk for incident chronic kidney disease compared with those who never consumed coffee. Specifically, for each additional cup of coffee consumed per day, the risk for incident chronic kidney disease was lowered by 3% (7).

Making the Perfect Cup

I’ll leave advice about how to brew a perfect cup to all the baristas of the world, but making a healthful cup of coffee is about more than just the roast or the grind. What we put in our coffee also has significance.

When finishing of your coffee, choose wisely. Cream contributes about 50 calories and 3 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon. If you are watching your calories, a heavy pour of cream can quickly add up. Choose low-fat milk to save on calories, while still getting a small dose of calcium.

Sugar should also be limited. Just one teaspoon of sugar contains 16 calories and 4 grams of sugar. It may not sound like much, but if you add two teaspoons to your brew and drink a few cups per day, the calories can quickly add up.

How Much Coffee Is Best?

Based on the research, the best benefits come from drinking about three to four cups of coffee per day.

Keep in mind that pregnant women and nursing women should limit their caffeine intake to 200 mg per day, which is equivalent to about 12 ounces of coffee. Likewise, teens should drink no more than 100 mg of caffeine per day, while kids should get none.

If you have anxiety, feel jittery or have gastrointestinal upset after drinking coffee, or have trouble sleeping, you may be sensitive to caffeine. In these cases, you may need to limit coffee from your diet altogether. If you are a smoker or have uncontrolled high blood pressure, you also should limit the amount of coffee you drink.

Final Thoughts

If coffee is part of your routine, enjoy it. You can feel good knowing that you’re doing your health a favor. If you’re not a coffee drinker, there’s no need to start. A healthful diet, regular exercises and smart lifestyle choices will do wonders in promoting your health, with or without coffee.

Wishing you health and wellness,
Dr. Zivich