To Coffee or Not To Coffee?

All images from the blog Cozy Trees and Coffee Please. http://cozy-trees-and-coffee-please.tumblr.com/
All images from the blog Cozy Trees and Coffee Please. http://cozy-trees-and-coffee-please.tumblr.com/

That is often the health question… On this blog I have openly admitted to loving coffee. Throughout the course of applying my studies in naturopathic medicine to my own life, I’ve been able to make necessary changes to my diet and have watched the way I eat evolve quite dramatically over the past three years. I was once a vegetarian, who ate a carb-heavy diet, full of pasta, and now I follow a whole foods diet, free of diary, gluten, processed foods and refined sugars. There is one thing I’ve been unable to give up for good, however, and that’s coffee.

I can go time without it and often put myself to the challenge to do so. But, while it’s been over a year since I’ve bitten into a baguette, I just can’t say good-bye to coffee forever. And should I even try? When it comes to coffee, there are few foods that receive more mixed messages with regards to the health benefits or risks. Here are some of the pros and cons to visiting your favourite local beanery.

Pros:

While coffee isn’t quite green tea when it comes to health benefits, there certainly are a few.

Coffee reduces your risk of death. So, for the pro side, we might as well start off with a bang. Researchers at the New England Journal of Medicine found that coffee consumption reduced the risk of death from all causes. The studies show correlation, which does not necessarily equal causation, but when someone tells you your favourite drink is associated with decreased death, do you really need telling twice? Decaffeinated coffee was just as effective and the phenomenon was found more strongly in women than in men.

Coffee reduces your risk of type 2 diabetes. Studies show that consuming coffee can reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes by anywhere from 30-50%. No difference was found between caffeinated and decaf coffee, and studies noticed the greatest effect when participants consumed 7 cups of coffee per day. So, while 7 cups per day is probably not the best way to prevent diabetes, it’s a great excuse for visiting your favourite cafe.

Coffee improves memory and cognitive function. Consuming coffee helps you with short term recall. This is probbaly why I find it impossible to give up my favourite drink during exam week. It’s a good thing I don’t because I would be missing out on a significant performance-enhancer. In a study in the journal Psychopharmacology, coffee helped participants perform better on virtually every cognitive test. Other studies have shown that the compounds in coffee protect against neuronal damage. Coffee has also been shown to prevent neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.

tumblr_mmbxdkpfzV1qic91bo1_500

Coffee contains antioxidants. Over 1,000 phytochemicals have been found in the coffee plant. While you can’t necessarily start counting your morning cup as a serving of fruit or vegetable, you can rest assured that, by drinking coffee, you are reaping the antioxidant benefits of a significant amount of plant compounds, helping to reduce free radical damage and prevent diseases such as cancer.

Coffee helps aid digestion. Coffee’s bitter properties aids in digestion by contracting the gallbladder. This not only helps to digest fats after a large meal, but also reduces the risk of gallstones by 40%, according to a large US study.

Coffee enhances your mood. Everyone knows that sociable feeling of alert well-being that arises with a friendly jolt of caffeine. The social events surrounding coffee – conversing with a friend in a cafe, nursing a warm, frothy latte inside on a cold winter day – also make us associate the drink with positive feelings.

Coffee doesn’t cause dehydration.  It seems that most people still believe that coffee causes dehydration despite the myth having long been debunked. Studies looked at urinary output in people who drank a caffeinated beverage and an equal amount of decaffeinated beverage, such as water or juice. The amount of urine produced by both drinks, caffeinated and decaffeinated, were equal, showing that coffee is not a diuretic and actually hydrates the body as much as any non-caffeinated liquid. Caffeine does have a diuretic effect when exceeding a dose of 575 mg (1 cup of coffee has about 150 mg of caffeine, for comparison’s sake).

Coffee is good for your liver. Many naturopathic detoxes involve eliminating caffeine and alcohol, as well as other over-the-counter drugs, which our hard-working livers are responsible for eliminating from our bodies on a daily basis. However, studies show that coffee actually reduces the risk of hepatocellular carcinoma (a liver cancer) and liver cirrhosis, showing that it is in fact beneficial for this important detox organ.

Cons:

As I was investigating some research for this article I found (to my pleasant surprise) that there are far fewer health risks to drinking coffee than I imagined. Many of the risks that have surfaced in past research have since been debunked. I share a few with you here, but wonder if coffee’s bad rap comes with the stress-induced, overworked lifestyle it tends to represent and the tendency of many to consume caffeine as a means of staying awake when we’ve long burned ourselves out.

tumblr_mgqmd9B13x1r03p4ro1_500

Coffee can increase the risk of osteoporosis. Coffee can reduce the ability of the body to absorb calcium. This is much debated, however, as an article in the New York Times debunked the “myth” that there is an increased risk of osteoporosis with coffee consumption. This is a still a controversial area of study and there is speculation that some of the research indicating the increased risk of osteoporosis may be due to the tendency of people who drink large amounts of coffee to have a lower dietary intake of calcium. So, if you’re into the joe, keep up your consumption of leafy greens. If you are worried about your osteoporosis risk, talk to your naturopathic doctor about calcium supplementation.

Coffee can cause weight gain. Although caffeine does have metabolism-stimulating effects, coffee’s diabetes-risk-reducing blood sugar effects can lead to sugar cravings. Some articles also point to the fact that many of us order a muffin with our coffee, or consume sugary, creamy “coffee” drinks. So, order a regular coffee, an americano or a soy or almond-milk latte, hold the sugar and, if you’re hungry, enjoy a protein and fibre-rich snack like fruit or nuts to keep your blood sugar under control.

Most commercially produced coffees contain pesticides. Many things in our food supply are contaminated by a lot of chemical junk and coffee is no different. When drinking coffee it’s best to stick to organic varieties. Not only does it taste better, but you can make sure that you’re maximizing your coffee benefits without adding a lot of unwanted poisons to your body.

Caffeine is addictive. Sitting in a sunny cafe, writing your novel while listening to Bob Dylan sounds romantic and poetic. Needing to down a large Tim Hortons double-double to ward off a 3:00 pm caffeine-withdrawal headache? Not so much… Using caffeine to wake up is not the healthiest way to jolt ourselves alert. From time to time it can be a useful tool in helping to increase energy levels, however, over the long term its effects decrease, requiring us to use more in order to obtain the same effect. Physiological addictions are also characterized by withdrawal effects, which, in the case of coffee, involves needing coffee to stay awake, even after a decent night’s sleep, or a withdrawal-induced migraine. Addictions aren’t cool. Enjoying coffee occasionally, getting enough sleep and learning to manage stress in healthful ways are important for avoiding caffeine addiction.

Some people may have a caffeine sensitivity. For some people, any consumption of caffeine, rather than producing subtle feelings of alert well-being, produces exaggerated feelings of jitteriness, nervousness, headaches and gastrointestinal distress, such as diarrhea. The symptoms of ingestion of a healthy amount of coffee (1 to 2 cups) for these individuals is akin to a caffeine overdose in someone without a sensitivity. If you suspect a caffeine sensitivity, try eliminating sources of caffeine for one month and then reintroducing it. If reintroduction causes a return of symptoms, you are most likely sensitive and would do better to avoid caffeine altogether. Also, remember that even decaf coffee contains some caffeine.

tumblr_mhidnhdulc1r9164to1_500

The bottom line? While I don’t believe that I could ever give up coffee (I like it even more than dessert, I’m serious), I continue to practice temporary coffee fasts when I begin to experience withdrawal headaches and when my consumption increases to 2 or more cups a day. I try to get enough sleep, exercise and eat a proper, whole foods diet, while managing stress, and use caffeine as a pick-me-up only when absolutely necessary. Non-caffeine-related strategies for slapping yourself awake involve, going for a brisk walk, drinking some water, splashing cold water on your face, deep breathing and getting some exposure to sunlight. I try to do these as much as possible when feeling sleepy and reserve my coffee trips for times when I want to relax in a cafe or simply taste the delicious, antioxidant-rich bitterness. 

In a cafe in Montreal, Canada.
In a cafe in Montreal, Canada.

So, for all you coffee-lovers, as long as you practice safe coffee (purchasing organic coffee, avoiding sugary treats along with your cup and not using it as a wake-up tool in order to keep on working), your favourite cup brings with it significant health benefits and is part of a natural, plant-based diet. Drink up!

This article is not meant to serve as medical advice. For any questions regarding caffeine consumption and disease prevention, talk to a licensed naturopathic doctor. 

Advertisements

8 thoughts on “To Coffee or Not To Coffee?

  1. I do not even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post was great. I dont know who you are but certainly you are going to a famous blogger if you arent already 😉 Cheers!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s