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Is coffee good for you?

woman sitting on sofa in domestic setting sipping coffee - is coffee bad for you

Your daily brew could deliver vital nutrients and protect against common health conditions – as well as kick-starting your day

Coffee has been popular along these shores since the 1600s, but has soared to new heights in recent decades, with a higher number of regular drinkers than tea between 2022-23, according to Statista. With today’s best coffee machines delivering cafe-quality at home, the average Brit now drinks an invigorating two cups of coffee per day. This begs the question: is all that coffee affecting our health, for better or for worse?

As we’ll see, coffee can make us feel energised, and may even provide some protection against certain diseases and health conditions. However, this drink isn’t for everyone, and there are a few variables that can influence coffee’s effects on your health. For instance, the type of coffee beans and brewing method used can affect nutritional content.

Of course, how you take your coffee is also important: black, as an americano or short black; or with milk, as a latte or cappuccino. Added milk and sugar can make a coffee drink less healthy, so perhaps think twice before ordering a seasonal option with syrup at your coffee chain of choice.

Is coffee a healthy beverage?

The short answer is, for the majority, coffee is healthy; but that’s assuming you don’t drink excessive amounts.

Coffee’s health benefits come from the fact it’s rich in micronutrients, including:

Potassium (92mg per 100ml) – May reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke and high blood pressure. Provides all-round health benefits, including improved kidney function and nervous system function.

Magnesium (8mg) – Promotes bone health and cardiovascular health. May alleviate anxiety, depression and migraine.

Manganese (0.05mg) – May help maintain healthy hormone function, blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Assists antioxidant formation and plays a role in the digestion of carbs, fats and proteins.

Niacin / B3 (0.7 mg) – Involved in skin health, nervous system health and digestion.

It also contains traces of the micronutrient Riboflavin (B2), but not enough to make a dent in your RDA.

As we all know, coffee also contains the stimulant caffeine. Many people find that caffeine can boost their mood and improve their concentration – on the flip side, some people may experience jitters, or even anxiety. The average shot of espresso delivers about 65mg of caffeine, while longer drinks such as lattes and americanos often contain double or even three times that quantity.

However, despite the caffeine, choosing to drink an unsweetened black coffee over most other caffeinated drinks has dietary benefits. The lack of sugar and fat means it has practically no calories, whereas many soft drinks and energy drinks are loaded with sugar and are therefore pretty calorific.

Coffee remains a better option over “diet” soft drinks, too, since the health effects of the sweeteners in such drinks aren’t fully understood. For instance, the World Health Organization classifies the artificial sweetener aspartame as “possibly carcinogenic”. Coffee, meanwhile, is considered unlikely to increase a person’s risk of developing cancer.

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Which types of coffee and brewing methods are the healthiest?

The nutritional figures given in the previous section are ballpark estimates for an “average” cup of black coffee. Actual nutritional content can vary, with one cup of coffee providing slightly different health benefits to another.

Arabica coffee beans tend to have somewhat lower caffeine content (1.2 to 1.5%) than robusta coffee beans (2.2 to 2.7%). So, if you want to top up on minerals and B vitamins without getting overstimulated, a coffee made with arabica beans would be a great choice. Meanwhile, robusta beans seem to do more to help manage fat levels in the body.

In addition, it’s understood that coffee beans grown at high altitude, in the highlands of countries including Ethiopia and Nicaragua, provide superior nutrition to coffee grown at lower elevations. This is because slower growth in more nutrient rich soil results in potentially higher levels of vitamin B3 (niacin) and healthy plant-based compounds called polyphenols.

Meanwhile, fermented coffee is particularly easy to digest, which makes it a popular choice among some drinkers who suffer IBS or digestive complaints. Fermented coffee beans can also deliver interesting and delicious flavour profiles – so they’re a win-win for many drinkers.

How you brew your coffee may also affect the health benefits attained. Unfiltered coffee – such as coffee brewed using an espresso machine, or instant coffee – tends to contain diterpenes, which can increase the level of LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol in the body. If you drink more than five cups of coffee per day, that diterpene content could adversely affect your cholesterol levels. As such, filter coffee may be a healthier choice for heavy coffee drinkers, since the paper filters used in the coffee-making process can remove the troublesome diterpenes.

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The health benefits of coffee

Increased energy levels

It’s well known that coffee can make us feel more energetic and alert, thanks to its caffeine content.

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Caffeine is a natural stimulant found in various plants, including tea and the kola nut used in historic recipes for Coca-Cola, as well as in coffee beans. It triggers the release of hormones including adrenaline and cortisol, and stimulates activity in the brain and nervous system. These effects can make us feel more alert, energetic and “awake”.

While it’s best not to depend upon caffeine to give you energy, many people routinely drink coffee to give themselves some extra pep.

The same energising benefits can apply to athletic performance. Endurance performance studies have shown that consuming low-to-moderate doses of caffeine about one hour before exercise can improve performance by 2-7%. So, if you’re a middle-distance or long-distance runner, a pre-run coffee might shave valuable seconds off your time – perhaps somewhere in the region of 30 seconds in a 5km race. That’s a comparable improvement to what you might hope to gain by wearing the best running shoes.

Reduced risk of disease

Drinking coffee has been linked to a reduced risk of a wide array of diseases, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and some types of heart and liver disease.

According to one study, drinking coffee at a rate of 3-5 cups per day during middle age is linked to a 65% decrease in the risk of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s disease in later life – an effect which is seemingly related to caffeine’s neuroprotective effects on brain function.

Similarly, the caffeine boost to a habitual coffee drinker’s diet seems to reduce the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.

Help with weight management

Coffee can affect how the body stores fat, and might even decrease body fat in some drinkers.

Caffeine tends to boost thermogenesis, the process of producing body heat. As a result, we burn more calories, and our fat levels are slightly reduced. Furthermore, caffeine appears to send signals to fat cells (adipose tissue) that stimulate the cells to break down.

Reduced risk of Type 2 diabetes

Type 1 diabetes is genetic, but the more commonly occurring Type 2 diabetes can develop as the result of multiple genetic and lifestyle factors – including diet.

Several academic studies have reached the same conclusion: drinking coffee may reduce some people’s risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, likely due to the drink’s micronutrient content, which includes B3 (niacin) and manganese. Research has linked high dietary manganese to a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes in certain subject groups, especially post-menopausal women, while B vitamins are associated with healthy liver function.

Of course, drinking coffee won’t necessarily offset other factors that elevate the risk of Type 2 diabetes, such as a high-sugar diet. Put it this way: a caramel latte might do more harm than good.

Scent, taste and sociability

Sometimes, simply enjoying something benefits our health. That’s certainly true when the thing we enjoy has few adverse effects, which tends to be the case with coffee. As the academic Paul Rozin argues (PDF download), a population that views food as a pleasure (the French, for example) will often perform better on key health metrics than a population that worries about food’s ill-effects (for instance, the Americans).

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Very few people enjoy coffee the first time they taste it; but many of us grow to love it, just as we acquire other tastes, such as beer and blue cheese. The aroma, flavours and warming quality of a cup of coffee can quite simply make us feel good, and this may result in lowered stress and a greater sense of wellbeing.

Meanwhile, as a social focal point, coffee is a much healthier alternative to alcoholic drinks.

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What are some coffee side effects to look out for?

Coffee’s side effects are often relatively mild, compared to those of other stimulants. However, some drinkers may experience worse knock-on effects than others. In particular, the high caffeine content of coffee can cause adverse effects in those with IBS, and other conditions relating to digestion.

Other coffee side effects experienced by a significant proportion of people include an increased heart rate, nervousness and insomnia.

Drinking large quantities of coffee will bring on stronger side effects. The famously productive author Honoré de Balzac drank dozens of cups per day while writing his novels, and ultimately experimented with swallowing handfuls of ground beans. He reported “terrible sweating” and “a weakened nervous system” – there’s no doubt over the fact that he got plenty of work done, though.

Unfortunately, there are some people who should avoid coffee (or drink only small amounts) due to health conditions. This includes those with:

  • Glaucoma – Drinking coffee can increase intraocular pressure.
  • Heart disease – The increase in heart rate and blood pressure caused by coffee may be unsafe for some people.
  • Epilepsy – Heavy coffee drinking in those with epilepsy can increase the frequency of seizures.
  • Illnesses requiring certain medications – Coffee can interfere with the action of some medicines, read the information provided in your medication packet for its side effects, or speak to your doctor.

If you’re unsure whether your health condition could make it unhealthy for you to drink coffee, consult with your GP before pouring yourself a cup.

And if you’re generally concerned about the side effects of coffee, why not try a decaf? Decaffeinated coffee has all the same nutrients as regular coffee – minus the specific health benefits of caffeine, of course.

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