Is coffee healthy, or not so much? Brew another pot as you study up on the health benefits of coffee.
Considering there’s a good chance you drink some every single day (64 percent of American adults do), it’s worth wondering: Is coffee healthy or not?
Here, dietitians share the buzz about the health benefits of coffee and the risks, plus coffee nutrition facts you need to know so you can have the final answer to whether coffee is good for you or not.
What Is Coffee, Though?
The beans used to brew coffee are the roasted seeds from coffee cherries, the fruit that grows in coffee trees, according to the National Coffee Association (NCA). A typical coffee tree grows about 10 pounds of coffee cherries annually, which yields 2 pounds of green beans that are ready to roast.
There are two main coffee tree varieties sold commercially:
- Arabica, which accounts for 70 percent of coffee made worldwide.
- Robusta, which makes up the remaining 30 percent and is used mostly in blends and instant coffees.
Roasting turns the green seeds brown and brings out their aromatic qualities, which really show off once you grind and brew them in water. (Or, you know, whip ’em into Instagram-worthy Dalgona drinks.)
ICYWW, the difference between coffee and espresso all comes down to the size of the bean grind and prep method. Espresso is essentially super-concentrated black coffee created by forcing hot H2O through packed, finely-ground coffee beans—but the beans themselves are exactly the same. [Wow! Who knew, right?]
The Health Benefits of Coffee
First let’s establish the basic nutrition of coffee: A cup (8oz) of black coffee has 2 calories, 96mg caffeine, and 118mg potassium (about what you’d score in one-third of a small banana or 3oz of yogurt), according to the USDA’s FoodData Central nutrition database. All other macro- and micronutrients are negligible when you take a deep dive into coffee nutrition facts.
But what do coffee’s nutrition facts mean about coffee’s health benefits? Here’s the DL.
One of the big benefits of black coffee is that, at just 2 calories per cup, it’s less calorie-dense than juices, smoothies, and other higher-sugar drinks.
“Coffee, in its pure form, has essentially no calories, but it can be rare these days to find anyone who drinks black coffee,” says Jenna A. Werner, R.D., creator of Happy Strong Healthy in West Orange, New Jersey.
Remember that the nutrition profile changes the second you add cream and sugar. (For perspective, 2 tablespoons of heavy cream tacks on 102 calories and 11g fat, and a teaspoon-sized packet of sugar has about 15 calories and 4g sugar.)
It’s high in antioxidants.
“Coffee is loaded with immune-boosting antioxidants,” says Rachel Fine, R.D., a registered dietitian and owner of the nutrition counseling firm To The Pointe Nutrition in New York City.
In fact, one study published in the journal Antioxidants reported that roasted coffee has about the same amount of polyphenols (powerful, beneficial compounds found in certain plant foods) as red wine, cocoa, and tea. Chlorogenic acid appears to be the main polyphenol in play, and may slightly reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes by way of its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-hypertensive (aka blood pressure-lowering) qualities, according to Harvard medical experts. More on that next.
It might reduce your risk of certain diseases and death.
Research shows that moderate coffee consumption is associated with reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease in healthy adults, and may reduce the risk of certain cancers, according to an advisory report published by the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP) that looked at multiple meta-analyses and study reviews. That could play into the reason why coffee consumption is also associated with a reduced risk of total mortality (3-4 percent lower mortality with 1 cup/day), according to the ODPHP.
It helps hydrate you.
Health pros used to believe that the caffeine in coffee made it too much of a diuretic (in other words, it makes you pee) to count toward your healthy hydration quota for the day. But the latest science proves that the water that comes along with that cup of joe is enough to produce a net-positive water consumption. That said, be sure to still sip plenty of plain H2O to keep your system running at peak efficiency.
Caffeine Benefits and Risks
The 100 or so milligrams of caffeine we mentioned in the coffee nutrition facts are important to note too—and come with their own set of benefits and risks aside from the benefits of coffee itself.
It can boost your exercise performance.
“Research has shown that caffeine, the main stimulant in coffee, improves endurance by sparing glycogen, which is your muscles’ primary fuel source,” says Fine. That means that your body won’t “run out of gas” quite as quickly since the body typically burns through its glycogen stores in about 2 hours. By sparing it, you’ll have more for later. On the flip side, caffeine can help you power through a workout when your glycogen stores are already low (think: if you haven’t eaten in a while, are doing a morning workout before breakfast, or are on the keto diet). Why? One theory: A study on cyclists suggests that, when glycogen stores are low, caffeine might allow your muscles to more efficiently metabolize fats for fuel, rather than rely on muscle glycogen stores.
“Caffeine also slightly increases heart and breathing rates, which can promote stronger athletic performance,” adds Fine.
It increases your pain tolerance.
Caffeine may also help you feel less pain; one 2018 study published in Psychopharmacology found that the more caffeine people consumed, the higher their pain tolerance. (The group of people studied—62 adults from age 19 to 77—averaged 170mg of caffeine per day or about two cups of coffee.) This is because caffeine blocks some of the nerve endings from sending pain signals to the brain, says Fine.
Great news: This benefit extends to your workout as well, meaning strenuous exercise might feel easier, she adds.
It boosts your brainpower.
“Caffeine has been shown to affect the parts of the brain that control short-term memory and concentration, improving both,” says Fine. Some research even suggests that caffeine is associated with a slightly lower risk of cognitive decline or impairment and a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease, according to the ODPHP.
Interestingly, in a 2018 study published in the journal Nutrients, decaf coffee (which has just 1mg of caffeine) also increased alertness when compared to placebo, though not as much as regular coffee. So if you’re trying to cut caffeine consumption but need an afternoon pick-me-up, opting for decaf might do the trick.
It can improve your mood.
In addition to improving your cognition, caffeine has been shown to boost your mood. That could be because caffeine seems to affect the release of dopamine (a neurotransmitter that results in feelings of euphoria or pleasantness) and serotonin (a neurotransmitter linked to wellbeing and happiness).
And its effects may last beyond the initial morning mood boost: A meta-analysis of 12 studies covering 346,913 people found that caffeine, particularly from coffee consumption, may have a protective effect against depression. Another 2016 analysis of 11 studies done in China over 35 years found that caffeine may significantly decrease your risk of depression.
The Potential Risks of Caffeine
As with most foods and drinks, “quantity is the key to keeping consumption health-promoting and safe,” explains Werner. “Consuming excess amounts of caffeine daily can be related to insomnia, increased heart rate—possibly mirroring feelings of anxiousness, restlessness, stomach distress, and even headaches.”
It’s also addictive, and humans tend to build up a tolerance to it—meaning more is required to receive the coffee health benefits and brain boosts noted above. The addictive quality is linked to the stimulant qualities of caffeine. The brain chemistry actually changes in those who chronically and frequently consume coffee, and over time, if you find that you have trouble controlling your caffeine consumption or can’t function without it, it’s likely time to cut back. Negative effects might include sleep troubles, migraines, irritability, quickened heartbeat, nervousness, and nausea.
Aim to cap your caffeine consumption at 300mg (about three cups of brewed coffee) per day, depending on your tolerance and medical history. It’s worth noting that different types of coffee have different amounts of caffeine, according to the USDA’s FoodData Central nutrition database.
If you’re pregnant, nursing, have a cardiac condition, or are at risk for low bone density (say, you have a history with an eating disorder or don’t eat a lot of dairy or other calcium-rich foods) Fine suggests talking to your doctor or a dietitian about your safest consumption level, as the caffeine may impact your specific condition negatively.
The Healthiest Coffee Drinks
While there are plenty of healthy Starbucks menu items, there are also several common coffee shop orders that can add 500 calories to your diet.
“Be wary of frozen coffee drinks and whipped toppings, which can add a significant amount of simple sugars,” says Fine. “In combination with caffeine, sugar can result in an energy crash that leaves you feeling sluggish soon after drinking.”
Instead, order black coffee and add a sprinkle of cocoa powder, a dash of cinnamon, or a tiny splash of pure vanilla extract.
When ordering out, remember that small changes can make a big difference.
“A simple swap like ordering an americano instead of a latte can save a lot of calories. Lattes are made with steamed milk whereas Americanos are made with hot water, both with espresso. I love to order an Americano and then add a splash of half-and-half myself to get it to the color I like without an excess of milk or milk substitute,” says Werner.
Here’s a rough guide to coffee nutrition facts (without milk or add-ons) for coffee shop drinks in the 12-ounce size:
- Americano: 10 calories
- Latte: 100 calories
- Mocha: 210 calories
- Cold brew or regular black coffee: 5 calories
How to Use Coffee In Recipes
Of course, you can drink coffee straight-up, but you can also use it to boost the flavor of other recipes.
Fine enjoys adding espresso powder into chocolate desserts, such as cake or brownies, for a hint of mocha flavor. For a midday boost, Werner loves sipping on a smoothie made with coffee, coconut milk, a scoop of chocolate protein powder, 1 pitted date, and 1/2 banana.
A few bonus sweet and savory coffee recipe ideas:
- Add ground coffee to energy balls.
- Sprinkle ground coffee into spice blends or rubs.
- Blend espresso powder into ice cream custard before churning.
Okay, Final Answer: Is Coffee Healthy?
As mentioned above, black coffee benefits your energy levels and might benefit your heart a bit, too. But just like many things in life, there can be too much of a good thing.
“If you drink coffee daily, you may build a tolerance to it. As a result, it may take more and more coffee to feel the boost from caffeine,” notes Fine. Keep your intake in check, and you should be fine to keep sipping coffee daily.
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