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Five Surprising Health Benefits of Coffee

Evidence is pouring in that drinking a cup of joe — or three — can help with everything from managing blood sugar to getting more from a workout

Healthy fit young woman headed to yoga with yoga mat and coffee cup

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Caffeine lovers looking for a healthy way to get their daily fix have long been led to believe that tea offers greater health and wellness benefits. Not anymore. Nutrition experts and medical researchers are finding all kinds of reasons to recommend indulging in that cup of joe, most of them rooted in the fact that coffee is the single greatest contributor to total antioxidant intake.

“Coffee is abundant in bioactive compounds that promote health,” says Kristin Kirkpatrick, a registered dietitian at Cleveland Clinic. As she explains, research published in The New England Journal of Medicine shows that these compounds may improve the gut microbiome (made up of healthy bacteria that aid in digestion and boost immunity) and reduce what's called oxidative stress, which occurs when free radicals outnumber antioxidants in a way that leads to disease-causing cellular damage in the body. “The beans also have a deep rich hue, and we know that the deeper the color of a plant, the more benefits we can expect for health.” Those benefits, research shows, translate into everything from lowering your risk of diabetes to potentially boosting your brain health.

Moderation, of course, is key. According to current dietary guidelines, three to five 8-ounce cups of coffee — or up to 400 mg of caffeine — per day can be part of a healthy diet. But that’s true only for plain black coffee, not cappuccinos, lattes and macchiatos, which are typically high in calories, sugar and fat. And keep in mind that “some medications or health conditions may limit your tolerance to caffeine or its safety profile, so discuss this with your health care provider,” says Jill Weisenberger, a registered dietitian nutritionist and author of The Overworked Person’s Guide to Better Nutrition.

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​Here are five solid health benefits of coffee that give you even more reason to enjoy your next cup (or three).

1. Lowers your risk of type 2 diabetes

This will perk you up, especially if you have prediabetes: A large review of studies published in Nutrition Reviews found that your risk of developing type 2 diabetes drops by 6 percent for each cup you drink per day. Why? “Coffee is jam-packed with phytochemicals that may act as antioxidants, anti-inflammatory compounds, insulin-sensitivity boosters and more,” says Weisenberger. Same goes for decaffeinated brews, “though the concentration [of phytochemicals] may be less compared to regular coffee,” she says. “However, they still add up for people who drink lots of decaf.” 

Whether you fill your cup with caf or decaf, opt for filtered coffee. In a study published in the Journal of Internal Medicine, people who drank two to three cups of filtered coffee a day — as opposed to unfiltered coffee made with, say, a pod, an espresso machine or a French press — had a 60 percent lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes than people who drank less than one cup of filtered coffee a day. Those drinking unfiltered coffee did not see such a reduction in risk.

2. Protects your ticker (in quite a few ways)

As counterintuitive as it may seem, your go-to for kick-starting the day or powering you through a sluggish afternoon has heart-healthy benefits. A review of three major studies published recently in Circulation: Heart Failure found that drinking one or more cups of plain caffeinated coffee a day may reduce your risk for heart failure. (Decaf didn’t yield the same benefits.) And a large study presented recently at the European Society of Cardiology’s annual conference suggests that the benefits of coffee extend to your overall cardiovascular system. Among people without diagnosed heart disease, researchers found that drinking up to three cups of coffee per day was associated with a lower risk of stroke, death from cardiovascular disease, and death from any cause. To understand why, researchers examined magnetic resonance imaging results for more than 30,000 study participants. The MRIs showed that the daily coffee drinkers had healthier-sized and better-functioning hearts than those who didn’t drink coffee regularly, though experts say that more research is needed to fully understand the connection.

If possible, though, drink filtered coffee. “Unfiltered coffee contains two compounds that raise LDL cholesterol in some people,” says Weisenberger. High levels of LDL cholesterol increase your risk for heart disease and stroke.

3. Boosts brain health (if you don't overdo it)

Can a coffee habit reduce your risk for dementia? Scientists aren’t entirely sure. But some research suggests that regular caffeine consumption may indeed offer protection. In one study of people ages 65 to 84, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, those who drank a cup or two of coffee daily had a lower rate of mild cognitive impairment than those who never or rarely consumed coffee. Other studies suggest coffee may also protect against Parkinson’s disease. ​

Careful, though, on the refills. “New data suggests that having over five or six cups a day may have an adverse health impact on the brain,” says Kirkpatrick, citing the results of a large study recently published in Nutritional Neuroscience. Researchers who studied the brain scans of more than 17,000 people ages 37 to 73 found that drinking six or more cups of coffee a day was significantly associated with smaller total brain volume and an increased risk of dementia. As the researchers point out, the study can’t confirm the underlying reason for the association, just that the more coffee people drank, the more brain shrinkage their scans showed.

4. Improves your mood — for longer than you'd guess

You don’t need an expert to tell you how much better that first jolt of morning java can make you feel. But what you may not know is that the effects could be more than fleeting. Drinking coffee may reduce your risk of depression by nearly one-third, according to research from Harvard Medical School. The effect may be related to coffee’s anti-inflammatory properties, Weisenberger explains. “Researchers suspect that both coffee and some antidepressant medications lower the body’s levels of inflammation, which may have an effect on depression. What’s more, coffee has phytochemicals that feed the good bacteria in our guts. The good bacteria may produce or enhance other compounds that act on the brain and have beneficial effects on mood.” 

5. Gives your workout a measurable assist  

It’s not your imagination: Downing a cup of joe before you head off to the gym can make a difference in your workout. Why? When consumed prior to working out, coffee improves circulation, endurance and muscular strength — plus, it may reduce pain, according to a review of research published in 2019 in Sports Medicine. Keep in mind, though, that coffee can also act as a diuretic. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends that caffeine lovers drink extra water during exercise to avoid dehydration, especially in the heat. How long before your workout should you drink coffee to maximize the benefits? Most research suggests drinking coffee within an hour of your start time, though at least one study shows drinking coffee a half-hour before you work out may boost fat-burning in particular.

How to Pick the Best Creamer

Add-ins — whether a powdered creamer or a high-calorie, sugar-laden flavoring — can quickly strip coffee of its good-for-you status. “Coffee with a couple pumps of vanilla or hazelnut syrup and heavy cream is an indulgence we should save for the rare treat,” notes Weisenberger, who recommends nonfat latte or a cup of coffee with a splash of low-fat milk as a healthy standard.

Beyond that, be sure to check the label on any creamer. A lot of store-bought options aren’t dairy products, and you’ll want to skip those with ingredients like carrageenan, a thickener believed to cause inflammation and digestion problems. The best options, says Cleveland Clinic’s Kirkpatrick, will have only one or two ingredients.  

From there, be sure to scan the Nutrition Facts label for added sugars and saturated fats. “Both should be as low as possible,” Weisenberger says. If you really want sweetness, consider stevia. Finally, know that the serving size listed in the Nutrition Facts on most coffee creamers is typically one tablespoon. So be sure to do the math if you’re adding creamer to multiple cups of coffee or, say, a jumbo 24-ounce cup. Not only do the calories add up, but so does the sugar — especially, Kirkpatrick notes, with many plant-based options like oat milk or almond milk.

Kimberly Goad is a New York-based journalist who has covered health for some of the nation’s top consumer publications. Her work has appeared in Women’s Health, Men’s Health and Reader’s Digest.

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