Is Coffee Actually Healthy?

For millions of Americans, coffee is a fixture of everyday life. But is this daily habit improving our health or slowly killing us? STACK has the answer.

Coffee.

If you clicked on this article, you probably can't imagine going a day without it. Sipping a hot cup of coffee to start your morning is a relaxing ritual, but one that ultimately leaves you more energized. For millions of Americans, that's an irresistible offer.

But just how nutritious is coffee? Is it a guilty pleasure that's slowly leeching your health away? Or is it a bonafide superfood capable of benefiting your body from head to toe?

To be clear, this is a piece about coffee—meaning black coffee or something relatively close to it. A shot of cream or a dash of sugar won't drastically alter the nutrition of your coffee, but some of the sugar-stuffed abominations Starbucks serves up barely qualify as coffee. Black coffee doesn't have sugar or fat. It barely even contains calories. A 12-ounce Pumpkin Spice Latte, on the other hand, packs in 300 calories, 11 grams of fat, 40 grams of carbohydrates and 38 grams of sugar. That's not healthy.

With that in mind, let's investigate how healthy coffee really is.

As we've stated previously, coffee doesn't have a whole lot going on in terms of basic nutrition facts. It contains very little calories, fat, sodium, cholesterol, carbs, fiber, sugar and protein. There's some potassium in there, but that's about it. The reason for coffee's barren nutrition facts is because it's about 99 percent water.

WIRED explains that a cup of hot coffee is technically a "super solvent, leaching flavors and oils out of the coffee bean. A good cup of Joe is 98.75 percent water and 1.25 percent soluble plant matter."

That soluble plant matter contains a bevy of powerful substances and compounds. In fact, coffee contains about 30 different organic acids. These include citric acid—which aids in giving coffee its bitter, acidic flavor—and chlorogenic acid, a potent antioxidant. But the one compound in coffee that receives the most attention is caffeine. Caffeine is the most widely consumed psychoactive drug in the world. Caffeine is almost entirely responsible for that energizing jolt we get from a cup of coffee.

But is this "super solvent" of hot water and soluble plant matter actually good for us?

During the late '70s and early '80s, a number of studies came out linking coffee consumption to cancer, cardiovascular disease and other undesirable outcomes. This research was a big reason coffee consumption decreased during the era. A 1996 article by anthropologist William Roseberry notes that 74.7 percent of adult Americans identified as coffee drinkers in 1962. By 1988, that number had dropped to 50 percent.

But there was a problem with much of this research—it didn't control for other high-risk behaviors that coffee drinkers may engage in. "Earlier studies didn't always take into account that known high-risk behaviors, such as smoking and physical inactivity, tended to be more common among heavy coffee drinkers," the Mayo Clinic writes on the topic.

There's since been a major reversal regarding the research on coffee's health effects. The case for drinking coffee today may be stronger than ever before.

A recent study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine is one of the most comprehensive to date regarding coffee consumption and its effects on mortality. The results? Coffee consumption was associated with a lower risk of death due to heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, respiratory disease and kidney disease for African-Americans, Latinos, Japanese-Americans and whites. Participants who consumed one cup of coffee per day were 12 percent less likely to die compared to those who did not drink coffee, while those who drank two to three cups per day were 18 percent less likely to die.

"This study is the largest of its kind and includes minorities who have very different lifestyles," Veronica W. Setiawan, the study's lead author, told ScienceDaily. "Seeing a similar pattern across different populations gives stronger biological backing to the argument that coffee is good for you whether you are white, African-American, Latino or Asian." Interestingly enough, these effects were seen in both drinkers of regular coffee and decaf coffee, indicating caffeine was not responsible for these effects.

However, caffeine offers plenty of other benefits. It's an especially attractive substance for athletes. Research has found that moderate amounts of caffeine can help you delay exhaustion, burn more fat, reduce exercise-related pain and help better restore muscle glycogen levels.

RELATED: The Incredible Benefits Coffee Offers Athletes

"Caffeine, studied in its isolated form, has been found to be one of the most tried and true performance enhancing substances of all time. It can basically just help you get that extra push you need during an athletic performance," Ryan Andrews, RD and nutrition coach at Precision Nutrition, told STACK. Two-hundred mg of caffeine—about what you'd find in a large coffee—has also been found to enhance "memory consolidation" (essentially the process of turning a short-term memory into a long-term memory).

What other health benefits can coffee offer? Regular coffee consumption has been associated with a reduced risk of depression. A 2016 analysis published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry found that for every cup of coffee participants drank per day, their risk of depression dropped by 8 percent. In 2014, researchers from the Harvard Chan School found that "increasing coffee consumption by more than a cup a day over a four-year period reduced type 2 diabetes risk by 11 percent."

Many of the traditional fears regarding coffee consumption have since been debunked. It won't stunt your growth. A morning cup of coffee is no longer considered dangerous for pregnant women. Coffee doesn't dehydrate you—in fact, it seems to hydrate you nearly as well as plain water.

However, this doesn't mean coffee is totally without risk.

There's certainly a thing as too much coffee. A recent review published in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology looked at 700 studies to determine what qualifies as "safe" caffeine consumption levels. Their findings indicated the following amounts of daily caffeine consumption to be safe as they're not associated with "overt, adverse effects":

  • 400mg for healthy adults
  • 300mg for pregnant women
  • 2.5mg per kg for children and adolescents (so an 150-pound child/adolscent would have a limit of 170mg per day)

To put those numbers into context, an 8-ounce cup of black coffee contains 95mg of caffeine. When the researchers looked at consumption beyond these levels, they found links to things such as anxiety, hypertension and reproductive issues.

Does exceeding these limits instantly mean you're endangering your health? No. "There's a great deal of inter-individual variability in how people respond to caffeine. That's one of the research gaps. We need to better identify differences and identify people who are more sensitive," Esther Myers, an author on the review, told The Atlantic. So there are certainly individuals who can safely exceed those limits, but the limits are safe for the overwhelming majority of the population.

Coffee is healthy. Much of the old research that established coffee as dangerous was flawed and inaccurate. We now know that regular coffee consumption can significantly lower our risk of disease and increase our longevity. Regular coffee consumption can also improve our daily lives in a number of ways, from enhancing memory to fighting off fatigue. While it's certainly possible to drink too much coffee, most people will find the recommended daily limits to be sensible. But remember—if you add significant amounts of sugar and fat to your coffee, you run the risk of turning this nutritious beverage into junk food.

Photo Credit: GeorgeHanf/iStock, agrobacter/iStock

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Topics: NUTRITION | PERFORMANCE NUTRITION | COFFEE | HEALTHY EATING | ANTIOXIDANTS | DRINKS | DIETITIAN | HEALTHY DIET | CANCER