Before starting the day, many of us can’t even begin to function without having a sip of coffee first. But our reliance doesn’t stop there because, in order to keep up the momentum, we’ll need a few more cups of coffee throughout the day.
Coffee is arguably one of the world’s favourite drinks. In fact, according to the International Coffee Organization, people around the world consumed over 151-million 60k bags of coffee in the 2015-2016 year. That’s an average annual growth rate of 1.3 per cent in global coffee consumption since 2012-2013.
But over the years, studies have come out that have both labelled the hot beverage as a health hazard, as well as a drink with many health benefits. This has left many to wonder: is coffee good or bad for you?
Well, it depends, dietitian Andrea D’Ambrosio says.
“I’d say overall in moderation caffeine (a main component of coffee) is safe and there are potential health benefits,” D’Ambrosio, spokesperson with Dietitians of Canada and dietitian with Dietetic Directions, says. “It’s important to note, however, what moderate caffeine consumption looks like. But there are some cons as well.”
What does “moderation” mean?
According to Health Canada, healthy adults should limit their caffeine intakes to no more than 400 mg per day – or three eight ounce cups of brewed coffee a day.
Women who are pregnant, breastfeeding or plan to become pregnant should have no more than 300 mg of caffeine per day – or a little over two eight ounce cups of coffee.
The healthy side of coffee
It’s true, coffee can be good for you.
A long list of studies have piled up over the years linking the drink to many health benefits, reassuring coffee consumers everywhere that their favourite beverage can be a healthy choice.
“Coffee contains antioxidants which are also known as polyphenols, or plant antioxidants,” D’Ambrosio says. “These have been shown to help in the prevention of cardiovascular disease. There’s also potential for a decreased risk of Type 2 diabetes among coffee drinkers. It also may be protective against cancer development and may improve cognitive brain functioning.”
According to an American Cancer Society study in 2012, researchers found a link between caffeinated coffee and a lower risk of oral and pharyngeal cancer. Those who drank more than four cups of coffee per day halved their risk of death of these “often fatal cancers” compared to people who just drank coffee occasionally, the study says.
Another study, this time by the American Heart Association, found that drinking more than a cup of coffee daily was associated with a 22 per cent to 25 per cent lower risk of stroke in women.
The risk of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) – the most common form of liver cancer – is also reduced by about 40 per cent just by drinking coffee regularly, the American Gastroenterological Association concluded in a 2013 meta-analysis.
“The more that we’re studying coffee, the more complex it actually appears because I think it goes beyond just the caffeine in general,” D’Ambrosio says. “Research is also finding that decaffeinated coffee appears to have similar health benefits, which leads us to believe that the benefits are due to the polyphenols, or the antioxidants in the coffee, which are found in both decaf and caffeinated coffee.”
For example, a 2014 study by the National Cancer Institute also found that drinking decaffeinated coffee was linked to better liver health.
The research shows “that a higher coffee consumption, regardless of caffeine contact, was linked to lower levels of abnormal liver enzymes,” a statement reads. “This suggests that chemical compounds in coffee other than caffeine may help protect the liver.”
When coffee is unhealthy
Despite what coffee worshipers would like to think, coffee does have its downfalls,
“It’s quite individualized,” D’Ambrosio explains. “So for some people they metabolize coffee differently and might be slow coffee metabolizers. In these cases, they feel some effects from consuming too much coffee, like anxiety, insomnia or an upset stomach. There’s also the issue of dependency as some people become very reliant upon caffeine and experience symptoms like headaches and drowsiness if they don’t have their caffeine fix.”
D’Ambrosio adds that coffee can also increase one’s heart rate and blood pressure, a finding reiterated by Harvard Medical School.
(For those who get an upset stomach or heartburn, however, you can always switch to a dark-roasted coffee blend. According to the American Chemical Society, French roast and espressos may be easier on the stomach because they contain a substance that tells the stomach to reduce the production of acid.)
Studies have also come to light revealing some of the potential health downfalls of coffee.
A study published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings in 2013 found that people under 55 years of age who drink more than 28 cups of coffee a week had a 50 per cent increase in mortality in both men and women from all causes compared to those who drank less.
But not everyone likes a black cup of coffee as some like to overload their drinks with sugars, creams, half and half or honey.
This can contribute significantly to weight gain, D’Ambrosio says.
“A lot of these times these specialty drinks with 500 or more calories are filled with a ton of sugar,” she says. “They’re not a healthy choice. And the thing about when we drink our calories is that we don’t tend to compensate and eat less so they generally promote weight gain because we’re consuming more calories at the end of the day.”
As long as consumption is moderate and extra ingredients like sugar are kept to a minimum (or eliminated altogether), coffee drinkers are in the clear, D’Ambrosio says.
Just make sure you pay attention to what you’re drinking, she adds.
“Just be aware of the coffee you’re getting and know how much you’re actually drinking,” D’Ambrosio cautions. “For example, if you’re drinking three 20 ounce Tim Hortons coffees a day, you’re getting almost 700 mg of coffee a day, which goes well above the recommended 400 mg a day. And if you drink from a thermos, know exactly how much your thermos holds.”