The Surprising Health Benefits of Coffee
From reducing inflammation to enhancing focus, registered dietitians and nutritionists discuss the evidence.
Here’s good news for coffee drinkers everywhere: Having a daily coffee habit may actually be a good thing.
Yes, coffee once had a reputation for being bad for you, and it was even classified as a possible carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer in the early ’90s. “However, the past 25 years have yielded better-quality data and expanded our understanding of coffee’s impact on health,” says Shahzadi Devje, RD, a certified diabetes educator in Toronto. “And the case for coffee is stronger than ever.”
One thing to keep in mind, though, is we’re purely talking about coffee itself. “The benefits studied are generally from the coffee,” says Ginger Hultin, RD, a Seattle-based spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “So if you drink coffee with added sugar or high-fat cream products, those additions may negate the health benefits.”
Of course, dietary habits are all about balance and moderation. So if you’re adding just a sprinkle of sugar and that’s your only source of added sugar for the day, you may be OK. But you might also find that a dash of cinnamon in your java is all the sweetness you need.
Now, let’s get into those health benefits.
Regular and decaf coffee contains antioxidants
“Coffee is one of the most plentiful and consistent sources of cell-protecting antioxidants, since many people consume it daily,” says Dana Angelo White, RD, a certified athletic trainer in Fairfield, Connecticut. Indeed, coffee is one of the main sources of antioxidants in the Western diet, per a 2014 study in Antioxidants.
What about decaf? When it comes to antioxidants, “both regular and decaf coffee have similar amounts,” explains Melissa Nieves, RD, who is based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. “However, it seems that the caffeine extraction process may somewhat reduce the amounts of phenolic acids and antioxidant capacity in decaf coffee.” In a nutshell: Regular coffee may offer more health benefits than decaf, but you’ll still get health perks from decaf coffee. (Add these antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables to your grocery list, too!)
Coffee may help reduce inflammation
A major benefit of consuming antioxidants on the daily: Doing so may help reduce inflammation. “Most of the reported health benefits of coffee bank on the premise that coffee may have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that, over time, may reduce inflammation,” says Devje. Wondering what reducing inflammation accomplishes? It may ultimately decrease your risk of chronic disease, per a 2017 review study in Annual Review of Nutrition that found that coffee intake was associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes and Parkinson’s disease, among other conditions.
Coffee may help prevent cancer
“Observational studies have linked coffee consumption with a probable decreased risk of breast, colorectal, colon, endometrial, and prostate cancers,” says Devje, referring to the previously mentioned Annual Review of Nutrition study. Drinking four- to five cups of coffee a day was associated with lower risk of developing some cancers, but “keep in mind that the data is observational in nature, and we cannot assume a cause and effect relationship,” Devje cautions.
Coffee is linked to a lower risk of depression
Yup, some research suggests that drinking java is linked to a lower risk of this mood disorder. “A large longitudinal Harvard study with more than 50,000 women found that women drinking moderate amounts [of coffee] had a lowered risk of depression,” notes Jeni Hollifield, RDN at Healthy Grocery Girl in Colorado Springs, Colorado. In the study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, women who drank two to three cups of coffee a day had a lower risk of depression than women who drank one or fewer cups per week. Drinking decaf coffee wasn’t connected with a lowered risk of depression in the study.
Coffee may aid heart health
Here’s great news to anyone with a family history of heart health problems: Having a coffee habit may lower your risk of heart disease. A review study in Circulation found the biggest benefit to fall at three to five cups of coffee a day. Drinking coffee may help reduce risk of other types of heart problems, too. “The American Heart Association observed that drinking coffee was associated with decreased risk of developing heart failure by seven per cent and stroke by eight per cent with every additional cup of coffee consumed per week, when compared with non-coffee drinkers,” says Nieves.
And finally, sipping java may help reduce the risk of atrial fibrillation, which the American Heart Association notes may lead to stroke. Regularly consuming up to 300 milligrams a day of caffeine may be protective against heart rhythm disorders, according to a 2018 study in the JACC: Clinical Electrophysiology.
Coffee may enhance your focus
“Caffeine improves performance on simple and complex attention tasks, as well as alertness,” says Devje. A small March 2020 study in Consciousness and Cognition found drinking coffee may improve your concentration, but not your creativity. In the study, the researchers gave 200-milligram caffeine pill (one cup of coffee) or a placebo to a small group of 80 people. Upon reviewing caffeine’s effect on problem-solving, idea-generation, working memory, and mood, the researchers found caffeine enhanced their problem-solving abilities. These effects would have to be tested in larger populations.
Coffee may help you be a better athlete
Yes, coffee can help you win the race. “Caffeine has the power to enhance athletic performance and aid in muscle recovery post workout,” says Angelo White. “Coffee is a good vehicle for safe doses of caffeine, as many supplements containing the stimulant aren’t properly regulated and often have inaccurate labeling. Plus, the amount of caffeine found in a typical medium-sized coffee has been found to be effective.”
How much coffee should you drink?
Now that you’re well aware of coffee’s benefits, it would help to know how much should you be drinking a day. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration advises capping intake at 400 milligrams of caffeine per day, which typically equates to three to five cups. “Many studies indicate that this moderate consumption is the limit where they see benefits,” Hultin says. Pregnant women should limit intake to no more than 200 milligrams per day, according to the March of Dimes.
Beware, though, that some restaurant coffees contain more caffeine than the typical cup. Even an eight-ounce tall Starbucks Reserve Roast has 190 milligrams of caffeine, while that amount almost reaches the daily limit if you go for a 16-ounce grande, the Caffeine Informer reports.
Too much caffeine can cause other issues. “More than five cups of coffee a day has been shown to cause problems due to caffeine intake,” says Hollifield. “Consuming too much caffeine can lead to anxiety, rapid heart rate, upset stomach and even high blood pressure. Caffeine affects all people differently depending on your genetic make-up and how your body metabolizes the caffeine.”
Of course, if you’re not already a coffee drinker, you don’t need to start a java habit. “You don’t have to drink coffee to be healthy,” says Hultin. “One of the most interesting benefits is that it has antioxidants. You could get those from tea or from other foods like fruits and vegetables. It’s important in general to eat a diet that contains whole foods due to their vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Health comes from the whole, big picture.”
Next, find out the best time of day to have coffee.