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Healthy Coffee: What Health-Conscious Coffee Drinkers Should Know
This article has been written by experts and fact-checked by experts, including licensed nutritionists, dietitians or medical professionals. The information in the article is based on scientific studies and research.
It is designed to be honest, unbiased and objective, and opinions from both sides of an argument are presented wherever there is disagreement.
The scientific references in this article (marked by 1, 2, 3, etc.) are clickable links to peer-reviewed research material on the subject being discussed.
Isn’t the adjective unnecessary? After all, we don’t say “wet water” or “hot heat.” When you say water, everyone knows it’s wet. When you say heat, everyone knows it’s hot.
And everyone knows that – despite what your parents might have told you when you were growing up – coffee is good for you. Right?
Well, yes, that’s basically true.
Too much coffee may cause problems, particularly for those with existing digestive system issues. And going heavy on add-ins like sugar, synthetic sweeteners and other overly sweet stuff (we’re looking at you, pumpkin spice latte!) can turn a cup of coffee into a carb-and-calorie-laden mess – even though it might taste wonderful.
The research is clear, however. Generally speaking, coffee is good for your health.
Then why would anyone want to research “healthy” coffee? To put it simply, some types of coffee are healthier than others, and there are ways to boost the health benefits contained in your morning cup of joe.
At least to us, “healthier” coffee sounds even better than “healthy” coffee.
Here are some of the ways to get from healthy to healthier.
The Known Health Benefits of Coffee
In the mid-20th century, there wasn’t enough research on the effects of coffee to definitively establish whether it was good or bad for you. That’s why many people simply considered coffee and cigarettes to be “bad habits” that were prevalent at the time. Most people indulged, but the majority felt somewhat bad about doing it.
Obviously, we know better now. Cigarettes bad, coffee good.
Here are just some of the benefits of coffee that our grandparents (or our parents) weren’t aware of. One word of caution: we’re talking about black coffee here, not all of the specialty beverages that Starbucks or your local upscale coffee shop specialize in.
Coffee is Loaded with Nutrients and Antioxidants
There are only about five calories in a cup of coffee, with virtually no carbs, cholesterol or fat. Yet it contains a wide range of important vitamins and minerals, including vitamins B2 and B3, potassium, magnesium and manganese. Studies have also shown that coffee can help with regular hydration.
You’ve certainly heard about antioxidants, which prevent free radicals from causing damage in the body that can lead to many chronic and serious diseases. And coffee is loaded with antioxidants; chlorogenic acids, diterpenes and caffeine are among the most significant. Even more important: research has found that coffee is the biggest source of antioxidants in the average adult’s diet.
Coffee is a Potent Stimulant
How potent? We don’t have to tell you that it can wake you up in the morning or perk you up during a boring workday, of course. But the caffeine in coffee stimulates the same part of the brain as cocaine, and it’s been shown to increase alertness and improve mental performance, boost overall brain function and help coffee drinkers fight depression.
Coffee Has Strong Anti-Inflammatory Effects
The anti-inflammatory properties of coffee are noteworthy.
Anti-inflammatories do more than just relieve pain, although over-the-counter anti-inflammatory NSAIDs like ibuprofen and aspirin certainly do that. Coffee’s anti-inflammatory abilities apparently go further, helping to treat inflammatory and autoimmune diseases like arthritis, IBD (inflammatory bowel disease), multiple sclerosis, lupus and celiac disease. And lowered inflammation in the body can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and some forms of cancer.
Diabetes deserves a little extra attention here. Study results are somewhat mixed, but research indicates that over the long-term, drinking a lot of coffee can help prevent the development of type-2 diabetes while lowering blood sugar levels – perhaps due to the apparent link between coffee consumption and moderate weight loss.
What’s a “Healthy Amount” of Coffee to Drink?
If you’re the type who relies on government guidelines, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) says that up to 4-5 cups of caffeinated coffee (containing a total of about 400 milligrams of caffeine) per day is both safe and beneficial for healthy Americans.
If you prefer to listen to medical experts, you’ll basically get the same answer. Studies repeatedly show that most of the health benefits of coffee are maximized at 3-4 cups per day, and that fewer benefits are realized when drinking more than that.
That may seem like a lot of coffee. But here’s something to make you feel a bit better: a huge study published in the British Medical Journal a few years ago showed that moderate coffee consumption – and 3-5 cups is considered moderate – is almost always associated with benefits, not harm.
How to Make Your Coffee Healthier
Black Coffee Is Your Friend
We’ve already alluded to one of the healthiest things you can do to ensure your coffee provides maximum benefit: drink it black (or opt for espresso instead). Yes, going dairy- and sugar-free may take some getting used to, and it’s not ideal for those used to getting their fix from fancy coffee drinks. But you can develop a taste for black coffee – and we did say “healthiest,” right? (Incidentally, instant coffee provides almost all of the same benefits as brewed coffee, as long as you drink it black.)
Would you like sugar? No, thanks.
If black coffee isn’t your thing, there are healthier substitutes that will be better for you than the traditional teaspoon or packet of sugar.
There are about five grams of carbs and 20 calories in a teaspoon of sugar, but they add up quickly. What’s worse is that table sugar is mostly fructose, so added sugar dramatically increases blood sugar. In short, eating lots of the white stuff (and brown sugar, too) is linked to issues like diabetes, obesity and heart disease.
The natural sweetener stevia is a better choice because it contains no calories, no carbs and doesn’t affect blood sugar. Make sure it’s 100% stevia extract; many stevia products include other natural sweeteners like xylitol, which do contain some carbs and calories. (Xylitol is a good second choice when it comes to natural sweeteners, though.) Skip the artificial zero-calorie or low-calorie sweeteners, which can actually lead to weight gain.
Consider other healthy sugar substitutes as well. Honey and maple syrup are natural and will add their own health benefits, but they also are high in carbs and calories. Better alternatives are flavorings like cinnamon and unsweetened cocoa powder (or dark chocolate) because they each bring additional health benefits to the table.
Use those last two in moderation, because they each contain carbs and calories. However, cinnamon may stabilize blood sugar and reduce inflammation (and can even be added to ground coffee beans before you turn on your coffee maker), and dark chocolate is said to help improve cholesterol levels. Besides, who would be opposed to coffee that tastes like a mocha?
How about milk?
Milk does contain nutrients, of course, and it can help provide the calcium that caffeine may slowly leech from bones. Nut milks are healthier choices, though. For example, almond milk is lower in calories and provides additional vitamins; oat milk has about the same number of calories as cow milk but fewer carbs and a lot more fiber, good for reducing cholesterol. Coconut milk is vitamin rich, but its high saturated fat content isn’t ideal for those with heart concerns.
The taste of nut milk will affect the taste of your coffee, but it’s a nice switch on dairy milk. If you’re going to stick with the “real” stuff, the healthiest milk is grass-fed. Stay away from non-dairy coffee creamers, though, because they often contain unhealthy trans fats, sugar and corn syrup which are bad for weight control and cholesterol levels.
Your Barista Isn’t Always Your Best Friend
If you’re used to stopping by Starbucks for your morning brew – or for a mid-day treat – be careful. Unless you stick with espresso (or regular black coffee) the barista will probably adding ingredients loaded with sugar. Those calories and carbs add up quickly and can contribute to a greater risk of dying from heart disease.
Here’s one comparison: a grande caramel frappuccino contains 380 calories, 16 grams of fat (half of it saturated), and 54 grams of sugar; black coffee contains no fat, no sugar and five calories. Even a Coke (190 calories, 52 grams of sugar) is better for you.
Make Smart Choices at Home
If you enjoy brewing your own coffee at home, or you like the cost savings and convenience, there are three easy ways to boost its health benefits.
Use organic beans, which contain no hazardous chemicals or pesticides; stick with light roast, which doesn’t burn off as much of the beans’ healthy chlorogenic acids; and use a paper filter, which lets “good” antioxidants in coffee pass through but blocks cafestol, a diterpene which can increase cholesterol levels.
Other Tips for Keeping Your Coffee Healthy
- Bulletproof coffee, which is black coffee with added butter and MCT oil, has become popular among keto dieters. It’s not a good overall health choice, though, because of its high levels of saturated fat and high cholesterol content. Healthy is better than trendy.
- Another recent trend has been to add nutritional supplements like plant proteins or collagen into coffee for an added energy boost. Nutritionists and dietitians say that’s a good way, particularly for non-breakfast eaters, to add protein to their diet – but it’s not an acceptable substitute for a balanced, healthy diet. In other words, the additives aren’t a magic bullet.
Does Coffee Have Side Effects?
There’s no need to spend a lot of time detailing the possible effects of consuming too much caffeine. You already know them.
Difficulty sleeping and increased anxiety immediately come to mind. Drinking coffee – or any other caffeinated beverage – can also lead to a short-term increase in blood pressure. However, after a few experiences with the jitters after caffeine over-consumption, it’s relatively easy to figure out your body’s tolerance level and to stay below it.
Three groups of people may be exceptions to the benign effects of coffee.
- It’s been shown that, contrary to popular believe, coffee doesn’t cause heartburn or GERD. However, its caffeine does increase the stomach’s natural production of acid – and increased acidity can cause issues for those with existing acid reflux or sensitive stomachs, particularly when drinking coffee on an empty stomach.
Decaffeinated coffee is a better choice for those folks, as is cold brew coffee which is less acidic. (Careful; cold brew isn’t the same thing as iced coffee.)
- Pregnant women may have more trouble getting pregnant or carrying to term if they drink a lot of coffee; sticking to decaf is a good idea for them too.
- Heavy coffee drinkers can become addicted to the caffeine in coffee and develop a complete tolerance to it, meaning they may go through a type of withdrawal if they don’t get their “fix.” Tapering down consumption can solve that problem.
There’s one final coffee myth to debunk.
It’s true that caffeine may slightly reduce the body’s ability to absorb calcium, and alarmist suggest that could lead to bone loss. The effect is so small, however, that it won’t harm anyone who gets a decent amount of calcium from their regular diet. What about those who don’t get enough calcium? Just adding a little milk to coffee can eliminate any potential issue.