Asking whether coffee is good or bad for you, without any context, is a little like asking whether eating beef harms your health. Biting into a steak probably won’t kill you, but taking a knife to a live cow is likely to offend it and ruin your day.
A healthy diet is all about quantities, variety, and timing – and anything liquid that passes into your throat is certainly part of your diet. If you consume nothing but chocolate and coffee, which is kind of my idea of heaven, any health benefits coffee provides are beside the point.
If you’re reading this article, you probably know a little bit about proper nutrition already. You’re probably aware that supplements – and coffee can be put into that category, even though it’s delicious – aren’t meant to compensate for a basically unhealthy lifestyle. If you’re doing most of the right things already, however, you can seriously consider adding a cup or two of Joe to your daily routine.
Where Coffee Comes From
Although this is probably a myth, the story goes that coffee’s energizing properties were first discovered when an Ethiopian goatherd noticed that his animals went a little nuts after eating a certain berry. After he mentioned this to some local monks, they began brewing a drink from it to stay awake during their prayers.
Coffee cultivation and brewing only really took off when the habit of having a cup spread to the Middle East. Coffeehouses became immensely popular social centers, and techniques such as roasting the beans were developed. Traders and travelers brought word of this apparently magical, medicinal drink to European shores, although coffee was only grown in a region stretching approximately from Somalia to Turkey. By law, all beans had to be rendered infertile before being exported, but someone eventually smuggled a handful of beans to India. Coffee became a global drink, with Dutch colonies in Asia turning into major suppliers.
All around Europe, coffeehouses sprang up like mushrooms, especially after the Pope himself declared drinking coffee not to be a sin. Like in Arab countries, these coffeehouses quickly became known as places where intellectuals could meet to discuss anything from philosophy to politics. Before long, this tradition spread to the New World, where during the revolutionary period coffee-drinking became a kind of patriotic symbol: a protest against the British tax on tea.
Average Coffee Consumption
How much coffee can you possibly drink?
If you’re the average Finn, that is an incredible 91 gallons per year.
To compare coffee consumption, though, it’s better to look at the dry volume figures. People, machines, culture, they’re all factors that influence the amount of coffee we use to brew a cup of coffee (not to mention the different brew specialties like espresso and cappuccino).
Data via MSN.com
Talking about one of coffee’s main dangers may seem like a strange way to start off an article about its health benefits, but consider this: caffeine is the most widely used psychoactive substance in the world. Drugs really come in a spectrum, ranging all the way from what children can order at Starbucks to what shady guys in dark alleys sell. It’s possible to develop an addiction to any of these things.
Like with most addictions, there are two aspects to coffee addiction: physical and psychological. The latter is perhaps the most pernicious. One of the things coffee does to you body is increase the level of dopamine in your brain, making you feel good automatically. When you combine this sensation with coffee’s delicious flavor and the social experience that often comes with having a cup, it’s almost too easy to become addicted to caffeine.
If you experience any of the following symptoms frequently, or when you stop drinking coffee for 24 hours, you should probably cut back:
- Unusual fatigue or difficulty concentrating
- Irritability and poor moods
- Inexplicable anxiety.
That having been said, caffeine addiction is relatively benign, at least compared to cigarettes or heroin. Just remember: anything that influences your state of mind is a possible addiction. If you care about your health, just keep everything, including that wonderful bean juice, in moderation and you’ll probably be fine.
Coffee Improves Athletic Performance
Now we get to the health benefits of coffee, some of which will probably surprise you. Do you have a little bit of baby fat that somehow made its appearance at the age of 30? Is your belly doing its own little moves while you’re dancing in the shower?
That’s enough infomercial for today – though in fact, almost all “fat-burning” pharmaceuticals contain caffeine. This chemical, which is, of course, also found in coffee, increases your metabolism and makes you consume fat more quickly. This happens by breaking down fat molecules directly, as well as causing your body to release adrenaline – coffee can actually improve exercise outcomes by over 10%.
Caffeine is prohibited for professional athletes (under some circumstances, it’s kind of complicated). If you have a cup before hitting the gym for some resistance or aerobic training, though, you’ll probably lose more fat while building more muscle. Just keep in mind that coffee is a mild diuretic: it makes you pee more than normal. Keep hydrated and do your normal exercises, and coffee will help a little with getting that dream body. On the other hand, no chemical will never be a substitute for good old-fashioned sweat.
Coffee can Help Supplement Your Diet
Although a cup contains only 2.4 calories (assuming you don’t load it up with cream and sugar), it provides significant quantities of nutrients like pantothenic acid, manganese, potassium, niacin, and riboflavin. What does all that mean?
Most doctors will advise you to get the bulk of your nutrition from fruit and vegetables, but one group of researchers found out that coffee is actually the largest source of antioxidants in America. Tea was number two, so it looks like all those cups really add up. With certain nutrients like trace minerals, milligrams matter, and a few cups of coffee can help you get them.
Coffee Has Tons of Antioxidants
The most remarkable thing about coffee is how many antioxidants it contains. The main role of these in your body is getting rid of harmful molecules called free radicals, which otherwise end up damaging your cells. Getting in enough antioxidants can save you a ton of trouble:
- Helps Prevent Diabetes: Coffee is a major source of compounds called chlorogenic acids (as much as 300 milligrams per cup). These are thought to play a major role in regulating your blood sugar and metabolism, which is one possible reason coffee drinkers are significantly less likely to develop type 2 diabetes. In fact, some studies indicate a reduction in this risk of as high as 50%.
- Defends Against Neurological Diseases: The prospect of suffering from dementia, Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s late in life is certainly a scary one. Luckily, coffee and its antioxidants defend brain cells against all of these. Regular, long-term consumption may even make these conditions 65% less likely.
- Protects Your Liver: Although caffeine is metabolized partly in the liver, this doesn’t seem to do any harm: coffee drinkers are much less likely to suffer from liver cirrhosis, a disease associated with alcohol abuse, and have fewer gall stones.
- Reduces Your Cancer Risk: Another aspect of getting enough antioxidants is that you are much less likely to contract several types of cancer.
- Improves Your General Health: People who consume plenty of antioxidants, certainly including those found in coffee, just tend to be healthier overall. This applies to eyesight, skin, obesity and heart disease – even if you don’t realize that it’s happening, coffee’s antioxidant effects are keeping all of your cells in good shape.
Coffee Makes You Smarter…For Real, but not Permanently
We all have that 2pm slump. You’ve just eaten way too much pasta, which makes all your blood go to your stomach instead of your brain. Maybe you were up late last night, and the efforts of the morning are taking their toll.
In ordinary doses, caffeine stimulates the production of brain chemicals like dopamine and norepinephrine. This enhances mood, improves concentration, shortens reaction times, and even improves memory. A person is less likely to suffer from depression with long-term consumption.
This makes a cup or two a good way to start off the workday or compensate for fatigue, even if you drink it often and your body has developed some resistance to caffeine. The half-life of caffeine – how long it takes for your kidneys and liver to bring down the amount in your blood by 50% – varies significantly between different individuals. You may notice the effects wearing off within as little as 1½ hours or as long as ten, while it can take anything from 15 minutes to two hours to start feeling more energized.
Coffee’s reputation as an unhealthy drink is really not fair. Hopefully by now you know that this is the case (though you might not want to feed tons of the stuff to your kids). More than 8 cups a day, for instance, can raise your cholesterol, while pregnant women (or those who are hoping to become pregnant) are advised to cut down. If coffee doesn’t agree with you, your body will tell you very soon, perhaps by indigestion or tremors.
In general, though, drinking coffee in moderation will do you far more good than harm. Even better: decaf has many of the benefits described above, so if regular coffee makes you anxious or you’re worried about your blood pressure, there’s no reason for you to miss out.