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Coffee Consumption: Health Pros and Cons

Written by Tom Nikkola - Director of Nutrition & Weight Management

It’s hard to drive more than a mile down a major city block without seeing a coffee shop. Coffee is one of the most-consumed beverages worldwide. Past concerns about the negative effects of coffee are being replaced by a growing list of health benefits associated with the beverage. The following are some of the health benefits research has linked to coffee drinking. Remember, though, these benefits are for plain, black coffee. The coffee creations commonly ordered in today’s coffee shops are often loaded with excessive amounts of sugar and fat, so any potential health benefits to be gained from the coffee disappear. For those who enjoy a simple cup of coffee, even with a small amount of cream or a taste of sugar, you may be gaining more benefit than just the taste one of life’s simple pleasures.

Diabetes, Heart Disease and Inflammation

The rising rates of diabetes heart disease continues to be a major health problem in the United States. While coffee consumption won’t make up for the fact that most Americans are overweight (which is closely tied with diabetes and heart disease), there is certainly evidence to justify coffee drinking along with a healthy diet.

The occurrence of diabetes among regular coffee drinkers is significantly lower than among non-coffee drinkers. It has also been shown to reduce the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease, gallstones, colon cancer, liver damage and seems to improve cognitive function.(1) Many of these conditions are linked to chronically high levels of inflammation. Chronic inflammation increases the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and other health complications.(2)

A recent study showed coffee can lower chronic inflammation and even raise HDL cholesterol levels.(3) HDL cholesterol is often called the “good” type of cholesterol, where higher levels are generally associated with reduced heart disease risk. Another study showed that coffee consumption was associated with lower rates of cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease death in Japan. The effect was more significant in women than in men.(4) A Dutch study also showed both tea and coffee are associated with a reduced risk of heart disease.(5)

Inflammation may have a role in the rate of aging in the body and the rate of cognitive decline. In women, coffee and tea consumption was shown to reduce the rate of brain loss with aging. Women who drank three cups of coffee or six cups of tea per day were shown with MRI brain scans to have slower reduction in brain matter with aging. Men were not shown to have the same benefit, which left the researchers believing the effects could be related to a difference in hormones.(6) One additional reason for coffee’s health benefits may be its antioxidant content. In fact, some estimates show Americans get more antioxidants from coffee than any other food. Of course, they also eat far fewer vegetables than they should as well.

Coffee and Body Composition

Beyond long-term health benefits, coffee can support a healthy body composition as well. Coffee consumption seems to affect glucose metabolism, or the way the body metabolizes sugar.(7) By increasing insulin sensitivity the body can metabolize carbohydrates with lower amounts of insulin, one of the body’s most potent fat-storing hormones.

Caffeine from coffee can be beneficial from an exercise standpoint because it has been shown to help increase fat-burning, improve focus, power and endurance,(8) and may even reduce the risk of hypoglycemia during exercise.(9) A pre-work cup of coffee may help you power through your workouts and allow you to enhance your level of fitness more than going without the cup of Joe.

Risks of Consuming Coffee

Some people do experience stomach irritation from drinking coffee. Those who consume this acidic beverage under high chronic stress, or if they’ve used drugs that aggravate the digestive system could be prone to more stomach problems from consuming too much coffee. According to recent findings, the gut irritation isn’t caused by any single ingredient in coffee. It may from a combination of substances found in coffee including the caffeine, catechols, and other substances that may increase the secretion of stomach acid.(10) Now that researchers have found out what causes the stomach irritation, it’s likely they’ll also be able to determine how to brew coffee in a way that reduces the negative effects on some peoples’ digestive system. Almost two out of ten people have to avoid coffee because of heartburn and stomach pain from consuming it.(11)

Another drawback from drinking coffee is the ability to become dependent on it. If you drink coffee just to get yourself going each day, you may need more and more to get the same effect. Because excessive amounts of caffeine can negatively affect your adrenal glands, long-term drinking of large amounts of coffee can lead to problems. Your adrenal glands must function properly to handle stress, and stress is often the cause of less sleep and more dependence on caffeine, which can lead to a downward spiral. There is a point of diminishing returns where if you build up a tolerance for caffeine, studies show additional caffeine will not positively affect your alertness or energy.(12) If you find yourself needing several cups of coffee just to make it through the day, it’s time for a lifestyle and diet review. Eating a proper diet and getting sufficient sleep can help you get the energy you need and will probably have a positive effect on many other aspects of your health and fitness.


Coffee drinking may not be for everyone, but for those who do drink it, the health benefits seem to outweigh any potential risks. The exception to that statement is those who live under a constant, high level of stress. Whether it’s physical or mental stress, stress and coffee drinking aren’t the best combination. As long as you can keep your coffee (and other caffeine) consumption at a moderate level, you’ll likely gain some great health benefits and be a little more productive during the day. Just remember, we’re talking about coffee – not a cup of sugar and cream with coffee mixed in, and extra whip. In an upcoming article, we’ll take a look at the differences in where you might get your coffee from.


  1. Havard Medical School Press Release. Coffee Health Risks: For the moderate drinker, coffee is safe says Harvard Women’s Health Watch. Harvard Health Publications
  2. Daniells S. Coffee’s anti-diabetes benefit strengthen. Nutra online article, March 16, 2010.
  3. Suzanne Price. More Support for Health Benefits of Coffee. American Society for Nutrition, Medical News Today. March 16, 2010
  4. Sugiyama K, Kuriyama S, Akhter M, et al. Coffee Consumption and Mortality Due to All Causes, Cardiovascular Disease and Cancer in Japanese Women. J Nutr. 2010;140(5):1007-1013
  5. American Heart Association. Coffee or Tea: Enjoy Both in Moderation for Heart Benefits, Dutch Study Suggests. ScienceDaily 19 June 2010
  6. Fields D. The Fountain of Youth in a Cup of Coffee – Ladies Only. Psychology Today, The New Brain blog. March 18, 2010
  7. Sartorelli D, Fagherazzi G, Balkau B, Touillaud M, Boutron-Ruault M-C, de Lauzon-Guillain B, Clavel-Chapelon F. Differential effects of coffee on the risk of type 2 diabetes according to the meal consumption in a French cohort of women:  the E3N/EPIC cohort study. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010;91:1002-1012
  8. Medical News Today. High Doses of Caffeine Directly Increase Muscle Power and Endurance During Relatively Low-Intensity Activity. Medical News Today. June 30, 2010
  9. Fiore K. ADA: Cuppa Joe May Prevent Exercise Hypoglycemia. MedPage Today. June 27, 2010
  10. Hendrick B. Brewing a Gentler Java. WebMD Health News. March 22, 2010
  11. American Chemical Society. Brewing Up a Gentler Java: Dark-Roasted Coffee Contains Stomach-Friendly Ingredient. ScienceDaily 22 March 2010
  12. Christian Nordqvist. Regular Coffee Drinkers May Not Feel Boosting Effects of Caffeine. Medical News Today. June 2, 2010

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

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