As I sit here with my freshly ground espresso, I’m curious what the latest scientific findings will tell me about coffee. I mean, it is a plant after all, but is it actually good for you? I’m sure you’ll agree that there’s something about that astringent buzz and rich aroma that has you craving that morning coffee. So, excuse me while I take you for a journey to answer the question once and for all.
To put things into perspective, coffee is second only to oil as being the most valuable commodity in the world (1). Coffee is consumed at a daily global rate of 1.6 billion cups (2). So what on earth is all the fuss about, and why have we developed an obsession with all things caffeine? I examined some leading research into the remarkable effect that coffee has within the body:
Specific compounds, caffeic acid and chlorogenic acid, have both been shown to have a protective effect within the body (3). Antioxidants play an incredibly important role as they are the key to fighting free-radical damage. Everyday stress, refined foods and exposure to pollution all play a part in free-radical damage.
The scientific findings I came across show that caffeine reduces the risk of breast, prostate and pancreatic cancer, amongst many others (4). I couldn’t help but notice that science is yet to explain how. I know that antioxidants have been proven to help fight disease, and in particular halt the growth of cancerous cells, and I would not be surprised if future studies reveal this in coffee.
In a large scale study of over 330,000 participants, caffeine was found to reduce feelings associated with depression by 8% per cup of coffee in a day. This figure significantly grew when consumption was above 68mg per day (5). This is likely due to an increased release of dopamine (6). Suicide is also decreased by 13% for every cup of coffee consumed daily (7).
You’ve likely already experienced the effect a cup of coffee has on your ability to focus and take on challenging mental tasks. Now, science is showing the many benefits of reducing cognitive decline, including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s for lifelong coffee drinkers (8).
As you already know, everyone’s body is unique, and even though it’s clear that coffee has a lot of beneficial properties, sometimes coffee just isn’t for you. Here I explore factors that may influence your ability to enjoy coffee altogether.
If you’re the type to dash to the toilet at the mere smell of freshly ground beans, you might wish to re-think your choice of beverage. In a study of ninety-nine healthy volunteers between the ages of 17 and 27, 29% claimed that coffee induced the desire to, well, defecate (9) .
That same study concluded that in some normal people, drinking coffee can stimulate a ‘motor response of the distal colon’, sometimes within as little as four minutes of drinking coffee, and lasting up to as much as thirty minutes after consumption.
Therefore, if you suffer from gallstones, IBS, celiac disease or other common digestive issues, you might find that coffee is something to be avoided.
There’s a pretty popular claim circling around that coffee causes anxiety in some people.
One interesting study I did stumble across was of twelve healthy volunteers receiving either a 250mg placebo of caffeine or a 500mg placebo (10). While the 250mg group had favorable effects such as peacefulness, pleasantness and elation as a result of the caffeine, the 500mg group experienced restlessness, irritability, anxiety and nervousness.
In reading this study, I couldn’t help but think- I do know some people that experience anxiety after just one cup. What becomes complicated is surrounding lifestyle factors such as high stress, undiagnosed anxiety, etc. in their life. This is where studies are a bit murky, and I guess there’s a lot of things that science just can’t yet explain.
However, what is clear is that you can move pretty quickly from the positive effects of coffee to those you’d rather shake off. If you do find that you’re highly sensitive to coffee, or have pre-existing anxiety, again I would recommend another choice of beverage like herbal tea, decaffeinated coffee or a turmeric latte.
Consuming a high number of acidic foods and beverages, such as alcohol and coffee, can create an inflammatory environment within the gut. Inflammation has been found to be the underlying cause to an incredibly high number of modern-day disease (11) so it’s certainly something we want to avoid in our healthy diet and healthy lifestyle habits.
If you’re following a whole food plant-based diet anyway, then this shouldn’t be an issue, as you’re likely already including an abundance of alkaline-forming foods to balance out the coffee. But let’s explore what drinking more than one cup of coffee a day means if your diet swings to more refined foods.
All foods and beverages, once digested, are measured in terms of pH (potential of hydrogen), which is a scale that runs from 1 to 14. Anything under a pH of 7 is considered to be more acidic, with higher numbers alkaline (think leafy greens, lemons, coconut water). When coffee is introduced to the body, it has an acidic effect, as it has a pH of only 4.0. This is 1000x more than tap water! If you have a diet high in processed foods, animal products and soft drinks/alcohol, you are likely to be highly acidic as it is – so throwing in coffee on top of that sort of diet is certainly not something I would recommend.
While on the topic of alkaline versus acid-promoting foods and behaviours, I think it’s important to quickly touch on the ‘Alkaline Diet’ (you’ve probably heard people talking about this) and the claims around this diet helping with cancer, chronic disease, etc. To my knowledge, there are no studies that categorically show it is the change in pH level that is responsible for the health benefits and may be more related to the positive food choices that the Alkaline Diet encourages you to make. By incorporating whole plant foods into your diet, you are getting a lot more nutrition (an abundance of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients) than standard processed and animal-based diets, so my belief is that a reduction in chronic disease risk is more likely due to better nutrition across the board rather than just a change in pH. Take home message here: whole food plant-based nutrition will promote health more than processed or animal-based foods.
I first covered this topic in my blog “Will my iron levels be affected on a plant based diet?” A specific compound in coffee, chlorogenic acid, is a potent inhibitor of iron. Yes, the same antioxidant I covered earlier.
Therefore, anyone with low iron shouldn’t have coffee within an hour of an iron supplement or iron rich meal. However, on the contrary, higher iron stores are associated with an increased risk of diabetes, so the unique compounds found in coffee can be used in favour of those that fall into this category. (14).
Coffee itself is low calorie with only 3 calories per 30ml espresso shot. However, when you start adding in milk (plant or cow) and sugar, the calories can build up quickly, particularly if you are having multiple cups a day. All of the above science and benefits are on coffee consumption, so don’t confuse these benefits as being associated with ‘sugar’ or ‘added milk’, as that would be a misinterpretation of the science.
The below diagram I have made can help you track the calories in common coffees. I highly recommend training your taste buds to enjoy an espresso (without sugar) or a low sugar plant milk, without adding any refined sugar. If you have multiple coffees a day, and enjoy plant milk, a good trick is to move down from a Latte, to a smaller serving size like a Piccolo, where you will still get the same caffeine/coffee benefit but will be consuming less calories with each serving.
So I bet the coffee lovers are glad to have read the above.
What I found here is just the very tip of the iceberg when it comes to the many health benefits of coffee, hence its popularity across the globe. These studies have only enforced my desire to continue including coffee in my daily diet. If you don’t suffer from any of the side-effects I covered in this article, then I absolutely believe that coffee is good for you. Of course, if you have been advised by your doctor not to consume coffee (i.e if you have Glaucoma or have trouble sleeping), then it’s best to either get a second opinion, or just remove it from your diet – luckily there are plenty of alternatives to coffee that you can enjoy, like Matcha Lattes, Turmeric Lattes and herbal teas. Just like changing the foods we eat, it takes about 4-6 weeks to adjust to a change in your drink choices. So if you swap your Soy Latte for a Turmeric Latte, I expect within 4 weeks you will have a new favourite drink, so don’t fret – behaviours and taste buds can be changed when we set our intentions and have a strong mindset.
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