Today I thought I’d dive deep into the topic of coffee and that age old question, is it good or bad for us? When we love something as much as we all love coffee, wouldn’t it be great if it was also a health food? Nutritional Therapist, Grace Kingswell, has the answers…
Personally I feel the messaging around coffee gets so confusing, pregnant women are told to give up coffee but elite athletes use it to boost their performance, so what’s going on here?!
Firstly, I think it’s really crucial that we understand and separate coffee and caffeine. Just looping back to the pregnant women vs athletes for a moment, the issue in pregnancy is with excessive caffeine as it’s a powerful stimulant that increases stress hormones and heart rate and mental focus, not what you want when you’re trying to remain calm and grow a human, but definitely what you might want if you’re about to compete at a high level.
Most of what I’m going to discuss today centres around the benefits of coffee, not caffeine so much, so bear that in mind as we go.
The Benefits of Coffee - is coffee really good for you?
As with most nutritional science: It depends! The number one thing I always ask clients is how do you feel when you drink it? Any anxiety? Any racing heart? Any urgency to use the loo? And then my second question is always how many cups are you drinking per day? You see, caffeine is a chemical that needs to be processed and detoxified out by the body. It involves a number of complicated biochemical reactions and due to genetic or lifestyle factors, some of us simply don’t do that very well. In those instances, it may be a case of working on health, gut and nervous system to induce a better response to caffeine (note, caffeine not coffee), or if it’s genetically mediated then you’re probably just someone who would benefit from drinking decaf.
Now to the bean itself. There are some really incredible, and documented, benefits to drinking coffee (including decaf). These include:
- Reduced risk of neurodegenerative conditions
- Reduced risk of liver disease
- Enhanced aspects of exercise performance
- Improved glucose and lipid (fat) metabolism
- Reduced risk of cancer
- Less risk of death
The reason the conversation around coffee is so nuanced is because if you’re someone that really doesn’t tolerate it well, then some of the above simply won’t apply: it might actually be pro-inflammatory for you (for example if you struggle to metabolise histamine, then drinking coffee may exacerbate your symptoms).
Most of the above list are due to coffee’s high polyphenol content. Polyphenols are plant chemicals that are packed with antioxidants and in the case of coffee it’s mainly chlorogenic acid but also caffeic acid. Both of these have antioxidant effects, anti-inflammatory effects and anti-apoptotic (prevent cell death) effects. This in turn gives a high level of protection against neurodegeneration, but also plays into all the bullet points above too - inflammation, liver disease, weight management etc.
So in short, coffee can be really good for you! However, it’s important to take into account your individual tolerance as discussed above, and to also say that common sense still wins here - seven cups a day is not going to be healthy, but one a day may well be. The quality of the bean you’re buying is also of paramount importance. Not all coffee was created equal…
What are some of the downsides to drinking coffee?
Sadly, a lot of the coffee we purchase on the high street is of a poor quality. I’ve mentioned the high antioxidant levels in coffee, but this isn’t the same for every coffee bean - some are significantly higher than others. Moreover, coffee is a hard crop to grow so most growers use conventional pesticides and fertilisers that ultimately can leave a residue on the bean when it gets roasted and then ground. If you typically search out organic food over non-organic, then your morning coffee should be no different. Who wants chemicals in their cup? Certainly not me!
Another key consideration is mould. Yes, I know - mould! There are quite a few sources of mould in our food supply which can have a negative impact on our health. Moulds produce things called mycotoxins (more on this in a later blog post I’m sure), and it’s actually possible to test your coffee for these. Some companies are now doing this, Exhale is a good example, and can therefore guarantee that their organic coffee is mycotoxin free. If you regularly feel sick, unwell or just generally not good after your cup of coffee then I’d seriously consider trying a healthier coffee first!
What about bulletproof coffee?
Bulletproof coffee has become a hot topic in the Keto world of late! It refers to the process of making coffee whereby you add MCT oil (medium chain triglycerides) to the coffee and then blend it. The result is actually pretty delicious (especially if you add turmeric, my personal fave). In terms of health, if I'm totally honest there isn't a huge benefit unless you're actively trying to get into ketosis (MCT oil is a great fat fuel source as travels quickly from gut to liver and doesn't require bile to be broken down like longer chain fats). What I like about adding in a little fat to my coffee sometimes is the blood sugar balancing benefits of fat, especially if you're drinking your coffee on an empty stomach, adding MCT oil could help you feel more balanced and less jittery. Ultimately MCT oil helps to promote ketone production, which can be beneficial for brain health and weight loss (if you're in ketosis).
Lastly, what you’re having your coffee with really matters. The studies I’ve cited below, and indeed all of the research that’s been done on coffee so far, is on the coffee itself, i.e. black coffee, not pumpkin spiced lattes...unfortunately our obsession with oat milk these days means that we’re drinking a really hefty dose of sugar along with our shot of coffee, and that really does wreak havoc with our blood sugar levels - completely negating some of the documented benefits to glucose metabolism that coffee has.
So in conclusion, coffee really can be a contributor to a healthy lifestyle so long as you’re taking care which coffee you drink, what you have it with and your individual tolerance. Ultimately it’s always going to be a personalised opinion and no amount of research is as good as the feedback you can get from your own body.
References and Further Information
A BMJ (British medical journal) concluded that “The…benefit associated with coffee consumption was supported by significant associations with lower risk for the generic outcomes of all cause mortality, cardiovascular mortality, and total cancer. Consumption was associated with a lower risk of specific cancers, including prostate cancer, endometrial cancer, melanoma, non-melanoma skin cancer, and liver cancer. Consumption also had beneficial associations with metabolic conditions including type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, gallstones, gout, and renal stones and for liver conditions including hepatic fibrosis, cirrhosis, cirrhosis mortality, and chronic liver disease combined. The beneficial associations between consumption and liver conditions stand out as consistently having the highest magnitude compared with other outcomes across exposure categories. Finally, there seems to be beneficial associations between coffee consumption and Parkinson’s disease, depression, and Alzheimer’s disease.”
Consumption of decaffeinated coffee protects against the development of early non-alcoholic steatohepatitis: Role of intestinal barrier function https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30605883/
An outlook on the role of decaffeinated coffee in neurodegenerative diseases