For so many years I’ve had clients tell me they want to quit coffee, because they’ve heard that it’s “bad for you.” And for just as long I’ve been wondering when we can finally stop demonizing this delicious beverage. My stance on coffee is:moderation, moderation, moderation. There are great reasons to drink coffee, but like anything else, it matters how much and what kind you drink. Recent research offers good reasons to reconsider coffee, and some tips for being a responsible coffee consumer.
Here’s a very recent, pretty persuasive reason to give coffee a new look: You might have seen in the news that a study found regular intake of coffee may help alleviate erectile dysfunction. The study, published in May in PLOS One, found that two to three cups of coffee per day reduced erectile dysfunction in men, including those who were obese or had hypertension (both of which are linked with erectile dysfunction). Coffee would do this, the researchers think, by helping with cavernous smooth muscle relaxation, which is necessary for an erection. That’s great news, since men can now enjoy both coffee and an improved sex life!
Still, there are other reasons to like coffee. There’s also recent research to show that caffeine is an excellent scavenger of free radicals, which damage cells and cause disease. Potentially by sweeping these up, coffee seems to be beneficial for a host of health concerns, including cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal disorders, and neurodegenerative diseases, and to be associated with lower mortality overall. Here again the ideal amount seems to be around two to three cups of coffee per day.
The effects of caffeine on memory have also recently been studied, with researchers concluding that caffeine can help us with formation of long-term memories. Even the energy-inducing part of coffee — which of course has a downside in the nervousness and insomnia it can cause — can have potential upsides in its effect on exercise performance and endurance (though it should not be abused as a stimulant!).
Those are all great reasons to drink coffee — in moderation! Again, these studies are finding two to three cups per day to be the right range. Not 10 cups. As a Peruvian, two cups sounds to me like the right amount. In Peru we enjoy a cup of coffee with a meal, at breakfast or after Almuerzo (bigger meal of the day, lunch). Coffee is part of our larger enjoyment of our food and conversation, and we savor it. I love to have a coffee that way. But if you are relying on coffee entirely to get through your day, so that you need to drink five or six cups just to function, then you are not enjoying it anymore, and you are getting into a range where it is no longer a health benefit. In fact, it’s just propping up your lack of life balance. You need at that point to sleep more, stress less, eat better, and yes, cut back on the caffeine.
Coffee is also no longer a healthy choice if it’s loaded with sugar (see a recent research review in the New York Times arguing that sugar is worse for you than artificial sweetener!). If you are drinking giant coffee “milkshakes” full of sugar, flavored syrups, whipped cream, and who knows what else, then the health hazards will outweigh the benefits. It’s not just the many calories in such drinks, it’s that they get most of those calories from cane sugar and high-fructose corn syrup (and milk fats). Such simple sugars are associated with a host of metabolic disorders, and increasingly are being questioned as a point of origin for cardiovascular disease and other devastating health conditions. Cutting back on sugar is imperative, so tracking where your sugars come from can help you manage your sugar intake.
If your coffee is mostly a vehicle for refined sugars, that is a problem. Instead, try to develop a taste for the coffee itself, and for responsibly farmed beans. Like chocolate, coffee is a healthy choice when it’s bitter, dark, and dense. The lighter, sweeter, and fluffier it becomes, the more adulterated it is, and the less pure its healthy effects.