Coffee is some powerful stuff and is one of the world's most popular drinks. With hundreds of millions of people drinking coffee on a daily basis, the question we ask ourselves is: ‘Is coffee good or bad for us?’ The answer is, it can be both!
The benefits or harms of coffee depends on a few factors such as; how much coffee you drink, when you drink it, how you take your coffee (with sugar? with syrup? with cream?), if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding or if you’re highly susceptible/sensitive to the effects of caffeine.
In this article, we will discuss the components of coffee, the benefits and the potential harms (+ a little info on decaf coffee). We will do this in order for you to get an overall balanced view of coffee and to empower you to make the best decisions.
So what’s in coffee exactly?
The first ingredient which we all know about is, caffeine.
Caffeine is a natural stimulant found in the seeds, nuts or leaves of certain plants such as cocoa. It is then processed to produce caffeine in tea, soft drinks, energy drinks, chocolate and coffee. It works by stimulating the brain and the central nervous system, helping you to stay alert.
Once consumed, caffeine is quickly absorbed from the gut into the bloodstream. It then travels to the liver and is broken down into compounds that can affect the function of various organs. However, caffeine's main effect is on the brain.
Interesting fact: A recent study showed that just the SMELL of coffee is enough to increase the body’s arousal levels by waking us up and making us feel focused (1).
But there’s not just caffeine in coffee – in fact, roasted coffee is a complex mixture of over 1000 bioactive compounds (2), some with potentially therapeutic anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects (3). Antioxidants help defend our cells from damage caused by potentially harmful molecules known as free radicals. When free radicals accumulate, they may cause a state known as oxidative stress. This may damage your DNA and other important structures in your cells.
Here are 5 reasons why coffee can sometimes be considered healthy:
1. Improves mood, alertness, energy and concentration
Caffeine can have an impact on mood and alertness by inhibiting the binding of adenosine (4). Adenosine is a neurotransmitter that builds up resulting in tiredness and eventually sleep. Caffeine is such an effective awakener because it blocks the effects of adenosine.
Caffeine intake also causes changes to a variety of other neurotransmitters, including noradrenaline, dopamine, serotonin, acetylcholine, glutamate and gamma‐aminobutyric acid (5). As a result, many studies demonstrate that caffeine can improve mood, memory and general cognitive function.
2. Protects brain health
Coffee consumption was linked to a lower risk of Parkinson’s disease, depression, and Alzheimer’s disease (6).
3. May help lower the risk of type 2 diabetes
Coffee consumption is consistently associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes (6).
4. Improves physical performance during exercise
Coffee has the ability to enhance physical performance, helping bring your workout to the next level! It is known to be a performance enhancer and contributor to higher concentration and stamina (7, 8).
5. May lower risk of specific cancers:
Coffee contains a lot of antioxidants and phenolic compounds that can play an important role in cancer prevention. Hence, coffee consumption was associated with a lower risk of specific cancers, including prostate cancer (9, 10), endometrial cancer (9, 11), melanoma (12, 13), non-melanoma skin cancer (14), and liver cancer (15).
This doesn’t suggest that coffee lovers up their consumption, or that non-coffee-drinkers should start up. There are plenty of other ways to support and optimise your health.
However, coffee is not without risks.
Caffeine is a powerful stimulant that can cause nervousness, irritability, trembling, palpitations, flushing, heartbeat irregularities and cause digestive issues (16).
If you are even remotely sensitive to caffeine and tend to become over stimulated, then consider stopping coffee to avoid any unnecessary health risks.
Caffeine tolerance is different for everyone. You want to do what makes you feel good.
There are conflicting views on whether caffeine is truly ‘addictive’, but stopping a heavy coffee habit can bring on headaches and irritability.
Caffeine, especially when consumed in the evening can also impair sleep, and poor sleep is associated with increased risk of heart disease, depression, and other issues (17).
Caffeine often comes as part of sugar‐sweetened beverages (HELLO FRAPPUCCINOS!) that may contribute to increased weight gain and dental cavities.
If you are pregnant or breast feeding, you can consume some coffee but your safe coffee limit is 200mg/day. Studies have suggested an association between coffee drinkers and risk of low birth weight. Many pregnant women prefer to have none at all to minimise potential coffee health risks.
So what about decaffeinated coffee?
Decaffeinated coffee is regular coffee that has gone through a process to remove almost all the caffeine from the beans.
Decaf coffee have had at least 97% of their caffeine removed. Therefore, it is not completely caffeine free. Also, not all of the health benefits of regular coffee apply to decaffeinated coffee.
The decaffeination process can make coffee milder, therefore reducing symptoms such as irritability, heartburn and general stomach discomfort.
There are two main methods to remove caffeine:
1 – The most common and least costly method is using chemicals and water/vapour prior to and after extraction for washing and opening of the pores.
2 - Caffeine can also be removed using water and carbon dioxide or a charcoal filter — a method known as the Swiss Water Process, making it 100% chemical free.
If you prefer something milder - both in taste and experience - then opt for decaf. We should preferably look for the certified organic seal or ask your coffee shop if they stock organic or know how their beans are processed for decaffeination.
Take home message: In moderation (1-3 cups/day), coffee can be safely enjoyed by most people as part of a healthy diet. Coffee is just ONE part of your lifestyle. Some of the factors that make a bigger impact on your health are eating a balanced diet, exercising and staying hydrated. Drinking coffee should just be an addition to those key health factors.
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