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The healthiness (or unhealthiness) of the coffee habit has been a point of controversy since 1970’s-era studies reported a link between coffee drinking and heart disease. But these studies didn’t account for unhealthy behaviors, like smoking, that were often associated with coffee drinking at the time, rendering those findings largely invalid. More recent studies have actually suggested there may be certain coffee-related health benefits, further buoying coffee’s reputation. But there are still ups and downs.
Many of the downsides of coffee are related to the caffeine content that makes the drink so appealing in the morning. Dangerous caffeine overdoses generally don’t occur with coffee, but the unpleasant effects of too much caffeine – like anxiety, GI upset, and palpitations – can occur. And for those who become dependent on a morning cup of joe (myself included), caffeine withdrawal can be uncomfortable, causing symptoms like headache, fatigue, and irritability. Independent of caffeine content, coffee can also exacerbate gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) in certain people, so if you get heartburn or an upset stomach after drinking coffee, stay away. Many people worry that coffee can induce arrhythmias in susceptible individuals, but this has never been shown to be true in moderate amounts (up to 4 cups per day).
On the other hand, there are major potential upsides to the coffee habit. In observational studies, people who drink coffee regularly appear to have lower rates of diabetes, stroke, heart disease, certain cancers, and dementia. And more recent studies have even shown that coffee drinkers seem to have lower all-cause mortality – that’s death from any cause – than non-coffee drinkers. Studies like these show association, not causation, but many experts think that a causative relationship between coffee drinking and improved health is plausible given coffee’s high antioxidant content. In the short-term, coffee can also boost mood, alertness, mental energy, and concentration, which should come as a surprise to almost no one.
My verdict: though there isn’t enough evidence to recommend that everyone start drinking coffee for good health, daily coffee drinkers shouldn’t feel guilty about the habit. In fact, as the science continues to evolve, we may find that drinking coffee could be one of the healthier things you can do.
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