By Susan Burke March, MSEd, RDN, LDN, CDE
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Despite the results of a large number of positive clinical studies, many consumers are still suspicious of the claim that coffee is good for your health. But it’s true; coffee is linked to a lowered risk for type 2 diabetes, depression, dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and even some cancers.
According to MedicalNewsToday.com, over 400 billion cups of coffee are consumed globally annually, making it the world’s most popular drink. Wikipedia notes that the largest per capita consumption are in the Scandinavian and surrounding countries. Finland consumes 12 kilos per capita yearly, followed by Norway and the Netherlands. Canada consumes 6.5 kg, France 5.4 kg, Spain 4.5 kg, and the USA 4.2 kg. In South America, Brazil, the largest producer of coffee in the world holds the title for most cups consumed, 1.32 cups or 4.8 kg per capita. In Ecuador, it’s about 0.7 kg.
Researchers have brewed up plenty of good news about coffee and its effect on a myriad of diseases. Here are just a few…
Mood: Caffeine affects the release of the “good mood” neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, and that’s something that may prevent depression and even suicide. In one study, researchers reviewed data from three large-scale U.S. studies, and compared those drinking little or no regular coffee and decaf drinkers to adults who drank from two to four cups of java daily. The results showed a 50% lower risk of suicide for those drinking regular coffee. Coffee has also been linked to lower risk for depression among women. One study showed that drinking up to four cups of coffee daily lowered a woman’s risk for depression by 20%.
Alzheimer’s: A study involving laboratory mice showed that moderate daily caffeine/coffee intake throughout adulthood can protect against Alzheimer’s disease later in life. Research on humans shows that drinking three cups of coffee daily could slow the development of dementia. Elderly people with mild cognitive impairment who consumed higher levels of caffeine (from approximately three cups of regular coffee daily) developed Alzheimer’s disease two to four years later than their counterparts who had lower levels of caffeine. Scientists have noted that coffee consumption is not proven to completely protect from Alzheimer’s, but there does appear to be a strong link to reducing the risk or delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s.
Cancer: The American Cancer Society’s Cancer Prevention Study II linked drinking more than four cups of coffee daily to a 50% lower risk for mortality from throat or mouth cancer compared to non-drinkers. The study found no such effect for those who drank decaf or tea. Researchers noted that coffee contains antioxidants, polyphenols and other compounds that may help protect against the development or progression of cancer, but noted that they could not conclude from the study that drinking coffee prevents cancer. They will be doing additional research on at least 300,000 adults to examine a more diverse study group.
But how much is too much coffee?
According to the Harvard School of Public Health, drinking up to six cups daily is not associated with increased risk of death from cancer or cardiovascular disease—or from any cause. MayoClinic.org says up to 400 milligrams (mg) of caffeine a day appears to be safe for most healthy adults. That’s roughly the amount of caffeine in four cups of brewed coffee, 10 cans of cola or two “energy shot” drinks.
All coffee is not consumed in a healthy manner and it’s possible to drink too much. Excess caffeine from any source (coffee, soda, energy drinks, tea, ice cream) can lead to the jitters, anxiety and insomnia. Too little sleep is linked to lower immunity and weight gain.
One cup equals eight ounces, and experts say on average this equals about 100mg of caffeine. Yet some high-test varieties pack much more.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest has created a chart that compares the caffeine content of various popular coffee drinks. It shows that a 16-oz McDonald’s coffee has 133mg of caffeine, while the same size Starbucks “grande” has almost triple the caffeine (330mg).
Although caffeine use may be safe for adults, it’s not a good idea for children. And adolescents should limit themselves to no more than 100 mg of caffeine a day.
As published in ClevelandClinic.org, a study presented at the American Heart Association meeting showed that kids under age six represent more than 40% of the emergency calls to poison centers that were related to energy drinks. Why? Heart arrhythmia, seizures, and palpitations — all because many of these drinks contain pharmaceutical-grade caffeine, in high doses. Maybe adults can imbibe safely, within limits, but little kids can’t. And manufacturers market energy drinks directly to kids. Some of the drinks have multiple caffeine sources — namely coffee or coffee extract, plus added caffeine. For example, a cup of coffee contains about 95 milligrams of caffeine while the amount of caffeine in one energy drink, according to the AHA, is up to 400 milligrams per can or bottle.
Pregnant and nursing women should avoid caffeine. Caffeine is metabolized slowly, and since caffeine crosses the placenta, it can reach the fetus and produce the same effects on the unborn or nursing child. So, although coffee has health benefits for adults, some experts recommend no caffeine for pregnant or nursing women; others recommend no more than one cup a day. Speak to your doctor for their recommendation.
Some experts recommend everyone should brew their coffee with a paper filter to remove substances that can increase “bad” LDL cholesterol.
Some gourmet coffee drinks are essentially high-calorie desserts.
Savvy consumers know that coffee is basically a no-calorie beverage, but like many inherently healthy foods and beverages, (think whole grain bread or pasta), it can serve as a “carrier” for extra calories in the form of fat and sugar. Be on the lookout for additions that carry the calories that tend to creep into doctored-up coffee drinks.
Check out CalorieCount.com, just one of the free online foods and beverages databases, to check out the nutritional info on a variety of coffee drinks. For example, Starbucks’ tall Caffe Mocha with whole milk and whipped cream loads a hefty 340 calories, 19 grams of fat, 12 grams of saturated fat, and 26 grams of added sugars.
So enjoy your favorite coffee brew without compromising your health. Drink it unadulterated black or lighten it up with nonfat milk. If possible, buy organically.
According to LiveStrong.com, coffee is the most popular beverage in the world after water, a standing which helps rank it as one of the largest traded commodities — second only to oil, according to “The Organic Food Shopper’s Guide.” Organically grown coffee is free of chemical residues; only a moderate number of coffee drinkers need opt for organically grown beans to make a substantial positive impact on the environment and in the lives of organic coffee farmers.
Susan Burke March, a Cuenca expat, is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian, a Certified Diabetes Educator who specializes in smart solutions for weight loss and diabetes-related weight management. She is the author of Making Weight Control Second Nature: Living Thin Naturally—a fun and informative book intended to liberate serial dieters and make healthy living and weight control both possible and instinctual over the long term. Do you have a food, nutrition or health question? Write to me at SusanTheDietitian@gmail.com