Dec 132011

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Health Benefits of Coffee

I have to be honest—I never expected to be writing about the health and nutrition benefits of coffee. It’s always surprising when something that was once considered questionable for your health turns out to have health benefits, usually with the proviso to use it “in moderation.” That happened with chocolate and alcohol, and now it is coffee’s turn.

A deluge of new studies confirms that java, the # 1 beverage consumed worldwide, delivers a major health jolt — thanks to its rich source of nutrients that can lower cholesterol, improve insulin sensitivity, and destroy damaged cells. This is a long way from the old rumors that too much coffee would stunt your growth, or cause heart attacks.

Coffee has also been linked to lower risk of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. A 2009 study showed that, out of 1,400 people followed for about 20 years, those who reported drinking 3-5 cups of coffee daily were 65% less likely to develop dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, compared with non-drinkers or occasional coffee drinkers.

There’s been very consistent data that higher consumption of coffee, 3 cups a day, is associated with decreased risk of Parkinson’s disease, though exactly how that works isn’t clear. More recent studies have generally found no connection between coffee and an increased risk of cancer or heart disease.

“There is certainly much more good news than bad news, in terms of coffee and health,” says Frank Hu, MD, MPH, PhD, nutrition and epidemiology professor at the Harvard School of Public Health.

So why the apparent reversal in the thinking about coffee? Earlier studies didn’t always take into account that known high-risk behaviors, such as smoking and physical inactivity, tended to be more common among heavy coffee drinkers at that time. More recent studies actually ask people about their coffee habits and their other habits; such as better and healthier diets, more exercise, and protective genes.

While coffee drinkers may have other lifestyle habits that could explain the potential health benefits, researchers are also looking for compounds in coffee that explain the results. One possibility? Antioxidants, those healthy compounds most often associated with fruits and vegetables. While the amount of antioxidants per serving is indeed much higher in things like berries and beans, these foods are consumed less frequently than coffee. coffee

A few other facts and considerations:

  • Coffee accompaniments such as cream and sugar add fat and calories to your diet. The best way to drink it is black, or with a small amount of skim milk.
  • Caffeine has been considered a diuretic by experts and consumers for years. Some people believe that drinking caffeinated beverages will cause them to lose fluids so they can’t be counted as part of their daily intake. My take—drink more water.
  • Coffee has long been known to be a risk to pregnant women and young children. The consumption of coffee amongst both mothers and infants leads to a drop in the blood iron levels, while it also interferes with the assimilation of supplementary iron.
  • Coffee consumption can also damage the inner lining of the intestines causing gastritis and stomach ulcers in certain people.
  • Finally, heavy caffeine use — on the order of 5 – 7 cups of coffee a day — can cause problems such as restlessness, anxiety, irritability and sleeplessness, particularly in susceptible individuals.

So we’re back to the old maxim “everything in moderation,” or as I like to say, “Whatever works for you.” If you’re like the average American, who downed 416 8-ounce cups of coffee in 2009 (by the World Resources estimates), you may have already lowered your risk of early death from all causes by 37%. Since I seem to fit into that category, and coffee is my early morning savior, that works for me!

Take this fun quiz sponsored by Dr. Oz to check your coffee knowledge.

Check out this slide show with 7 different ways to use coffee. I have my eye on the mocha-spiced coffee drink.


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