Coffee tastes so good and feels so good, but is it as good for our health?
Twenty years ago, Ireland was the tea-drinking capital of the world and a cup of coffee meant Maxwell House. You drank it either black or white.
Nowadays, it’s baristas, Americanos, lattes, double macchiatos, and Nespresso coffee clubs in every office.
After water and tea, coffee is the most consumed beverage in the world. The Irish are catching up on the Americans and have gone mad for the beans. Coffee sales have exploded in recent years and have proven to be not only recession proof, but sales are actually thriving.
Coffee tastes so good and it feels so good, but is it as good for our health?
How Much Is Safe?
Caffeine is a key component of coffee, and it’s this compound that is responsible for the controversy surrounding coffee.
Caffeine is a psychoactive drug, which means it is a chemical substance that acts upon our central nervous system. It can alter brain function, which can change our mood and behaviour. Other examples of psychoactive drugs are alcohol and cannabis. So it’s no wonder that coffee can get a bad rep when it is classed with these drugs.
However, coffee is loaded with antioxidants (which protect the body and help keep us young) and provide other health benefits, though not everyone responds equally to coffee.
There are two types of people in this world – those who metabolise caffeine well and those who don’t. How well we metabolise caffeine is genetic and predetermined – there is nothing we can do to change this.
The amount of coffee you should drink per day depends on how well you metabolise caffeine. Slow metabolisers don’t process caffeine very effectively and are adversely affected by it. They get the jitters and are buzzed up for up to 9 hours after drinking coffee.
Slow metabolisers should limit their coffee to 1-2 cups per day. A higher coffee consumption in slow metabolisers has been associated with increased risks of miscarriage, worse PMS symptoms, stroke, diabetes, increased blood pressure and heart attacks.
At high doses, it can also increase anxiety, insomnia, and possibly risk of fracture due to loss of calcium from our bones.
Coffee should be treated with care and those who do not metabolise it well should consider lowering their intake. However, fear not, a cup or two of coffee is relatively safe for most people and will do no harm.
On the other hand, fast metabolisers get a boost in energy and alertness for a few hours after drinking coffee and do not show the same association between coffee and disease - it might even improve your health. For those who metabolise coffee well, its consumption has been associated with reduced mortality and deaths from cardiovascular disease.
There are no recommended daily upper limits for caffeine consumption in Ireland, except for pregnant women. There is a lot of research to show that pregnant women or those with postmenopausal problems should avoid an excess of coffee because it interferes with oral contraceptives and postmenopausal hormones.
Therefore pregnant women are advised to limit their daily intake to 200mg a day, which is approximately 2 cups of brewed coffee.
Overall, coffee can be recommended as health-promoting, and even reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke. It may also offer a protective effect against neurodegenerative diseases (such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s), improve asthma control, and lower risk of some gastrointestinal diseases.
It should be noted, however, that the majority of the evidence for or against coffee stems mostly from observational studies and there is very little clinical data to back up any of the claims.
So what does this mean for me? Should I drink coffee or avoid it? For the majority of people, 2 or 3 cups of Joe a day is safe. The advantages of drinking coffee should be weighed against the potential risks. Go by how drinking coffee makes you feel. If you suffer from anxiety, insomnia, the shakes or palpitations (abnormal heart beat) then you should consider reducing your coffee intake if not avoid it altogether.
Morning Coffee Kick
Coffee is best consumed in the morning to match our naturally higher cortisol levels at this time.
Cortisol is released from the adrenal glands in response to stress and a low level of blood sugars. When released, it increases blood pressure, spikes blood sugar and prepares the body for “fight or flight” mode in response to stress.
Coffee tends to temporarily increase cortisol levels so if we drink coffee during a time when it’s already natural higher, then our normal levels should not be affected.
Continued elevated levels of cortisol are not good news, so your body will not thank you for drinking coffee in the afternoon when your cortisol levels naturally drops.
Again to note, this varies in individuals, and not all are affected in the same way. A safe bet is to consume coffee in the mornings and tea in the afternoons or something decaffeinated.
How Do You Take Yours?
Loading your coffee with cream, sugar, and sweeteners just adds unnecessary calories and artificial gunk. Also, if you prefer your coffee loaded with cream and sugar then it might be the cream and the sugar that you like the taste of and not the actual coffee!
It might take a while to adjust to the taste, but try it a few times and you’ll never have it any other way! If you really struggle with black coffee, try adding a pinch of cinnamon or cocoa powder and a splash of unsweetened almond or coconut milk for a twist.
As a Stimulus
Billions of people all over the world drink coffee as a stimulant to get more energy and to feel more alert. Even athletes have been using caffeine as an effective ergogenic aid – to enhance sports performance – for years.
Caffeine has been reported to spare muscle glycogen (stored fuel) by increasing fat oxidation. It can also enhance endurance performance by delaying fatigue.
The stimulatory effect of coffee for sports depends on the type of coffee, the amount you drink, when you drink it, and the person who is drinking it. Some athletes will be very sensitive to the actions of caffeine in coffee, whereas others can be insensitive, especially regular users who have developed a tolerance over time.
I am a self-certified “coffee addict”. But am I really?
According to research, while drinking coffee can affect the same parts of the brain as cocaine, it does so in completely different ways and is nowhere near as pronounced.
Drinking coffee is a self-reinforced behaviour, rather than an addiction. Coffee does not fit the profile of addiction – it does not cause harm to the individual or society and drinkers aren’t compelled to drink it.
While there’s evidence for coffee withdrawal symptoms such as headache and lethargy, the symptoms are easily and reliably reversed by drinking coffee and some people will never develop a tolerance or withdrawal symptoms.
At the end of the day, moderate intake of coffee is relatively safe for most people and may even increase your well-being. Have it black and pair with a square of smooth dark chocolate for an extra taste bud pleasure hit!
Thanks for reading,
Karen, your local Nut Coach
[As published in The Herald on 10th November 2014 as part of my weekly nutrition column - Look Good Feel Good]