Caffeinated and motivated. Most days that's how I describe my life, and I know I’m not alone. Coffee is the preferred fuel of high-powered executives, soccer moms, and 6 a.m. CrossFit junkies. With such a loyal band of groupies, it’s not surprising there's been such scientific interest in our BFF joe.
The recent cohort study to hit the news has us all raising our No. 1 Pug Mom mug in a caffeine-induced high. Conducted across 10 European countries with more than half a million men and women, researchers found the heaviest coffee drinkers had the lowest risk of all-cause mortality (translation: drinking coffee may help reduce risks for common causes of death). Even the decaf version offered life-enhancing benefits in half the countries analyzed.
This isn’t the first study to give coffee drinkers an I’ll-live-forever pat on the back though. Another large group study with more than 90,000 American adults found that coffee drinking (regular or decaf) lowered the risk of death across the board. Association of Coffee Consumption With Overall and Cause-Specific Mortality in a Large US Prospective Cohort Study. Loftfield E, Freedman ND, Graubard BI. American journal of epidemiology, 2015, Nov.;182(12):1476-6256.
Science-Backed Coffee Talk
But what exactly is coffee’s role in helping people live longer? Apparently, it’s got a pretty long CV. Here are a few highlights (from science) that back it up.
- BAI, blueberries: In one study, coffee was found to be the greatest source of antioxidants in the Western diet (more than fruits, vegetables, and, yes, even wine). While upping your caffeine game may not be advised for individuals with high blood pressure, research suggests moderate consumption may lower the risk of heart disease and stroke. Coffee consumption and risk of stroke: a dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies. Larsson SC, Orsini N. American journal of epidemiology, 2011, Sep.;174(9):1476-6256.
- Decaf doesn't mean de-healthified: A number of research studies and systematic reviews have found that drinking coffee (in some cases, especially decaf) may help reduce the risk of diabetes by as much as almost 50 percent.
- Up the cup: One large study found that just two cups of coffee per day reduced the risk of colorectal cancer by 26 percent, while other research found the same serving slashed the risk of liver cancer by 43 percent. Coffee Consumption and the Risk of Colorectal Cancer. Schmit SL, Rennert HS, Rennert G. Cancer epidemiology, biomarkers & prevention : a publication of the American Association for Cancer Research, cosponsored by the American Society of Preventive Oncology, 2017, Jan.;25(4):1538-7755.
- Coffee breaks are the new snack times: Coffee may be your new bestie when it comes to a balanced diet. Research suggests caffeine may help temporarily boost metabolism and increase fat burning by as much as 29 percent.
- Nothin' but love for ya, liver: Coffee may actually improve the liver's function. Studies suggest your daily joe may help mediate the onset of liver cirrhosis (a.k.a. the permanent scarring of liver tissue caused by alcoholism, hepatitis, or uncontrolled metabolic syndrome).
- Not just for hangovers: A strong cuppa joe may be your go-to brain juice after a late night out, but science suggests it may also aid in chronic decline as well as reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
MoonHappy juice: One large study on over 50,000 women in the United States found that caffeinated coffee helped reduce the risk of depression by 20 percent. Happy brew, happy you.
Now, before you go rushing out to Starbucks for a double chocolate chip Frappuccino with extra whip and sprinkles announcing to the barista and your entire Instagram following that a dietitian told you to do it, let’s think this through. While coffee on its own may offer some healthful benefits (see above), how you drink it will determine whether or not you reap the rewards. Here are the ways I recommend getting the most out of your coffee order so you can live forever (that’s a joke).
1. Avoid the Orange Mocha Frappuccinos
Do you want some coffee with your sugar and cream? If the beneficial active ingredients of coffee are in the espresso (decaf or caffeinated), downing a coffee drink that is no more than 10 percent caffeine probably isn’t the best bang for your caloric buck. Most large blended coffee drinks pack well over 500 calories, over 60 grams of sugar, and 20 grams of saturated fat that quickly counteract any of the heart, blood sugar, and weight management benefits.
2. You Wear LBDs, So Drink LBCs
Once you’ve given up the syrup-soaked coffee drinks that some places call "smoothies," go easy on what else you add to your joe. Each pack of sugar adds 4 grams of sugar, and each little half-ounce cream container adds 20 calories. Tuck into three double doubles throughout the day, and you’re looking at an extra 210 calories each day. For the record, that’s the equivalent of one doughnut. I’m not telling you to pick out a different Krispy Kreme every morning to pair with your black coffee, but hey, it’s (tasty) food for thought.
3. Consider Coffee a Treat
Since most of the research we have to date are cohort observational studies, we don’t know if it was the addition of coffee or the absence of something coffee was replacing that contributed to most of the apparent benefits. I play it safe by enjoying coffee in place of another treat or sugary beverage I already have in my diet such as dark chocolate, ice cream, or a happy hour cocktail.
4. Coffee Cake Is Still Cake (Shocking, We Know)
Anytime a headline sings the praises of a particular food or food component, the food industry has a field day cramming it into everything it can. Coffee cakes, coffee donuts, coffee cookies, cereal, coffee shakes, and coffee brownies all get health halos by slapping a “made with coffee” label on the front. Truth serum: Coffee-flavored cakes are still cakes. Even if a bakery or food manufacturer did manage to squeeze a single shot of espresso into their brownie (which, let’s be real, is a stretch), the benefits would quickly be outweighed by the sugar and fat. Dark chocolate infused with coffee or morning smoothies made with cold brew are a different story.
5. Curb the Coffee Addiction
More is not always better. Like everything in nutrition, we’re always balancing the risks and benefits of consuming more of any food or nutrient. Coffee is no different. We all know headaches, nervousness, irritability, insomnia, and any other unpleasant side effects of overdoing it on the energy juice never feel great. Unless you’ve got clearance from your doctor, most healthy adults should limit their intake to no more than 400 milligrams of caffeine per day; that's about the equivalent of three 8-ounce cups. Also, pay attention to your body. Most caffeine highs last between four and six hours, so cut yourself off by mid-afternoon if it’s interfering with your zzzs.
The Bottom Line
Bottom line, folks, coffee may offer some serious health benefits with an energy-boosting bonus, but don’t drown out its perks with caloric excess. The simpler your order, the better. Your body, the barista, and everyone in line behind you will thank you.