Coffee has become a significant part of our culture is such a short time: it’s a point of contact, getting together and catching up with friends; it is used to rev us up, to focus the mind and allows us to push-on when we have a deadline to meet but the eyelids are getting heavy.
People assume that, as a nutrition health geek, I am anti-coffee. I certainly used to be, but I love a good coffee and I have made peace with my desire for coffee by ensuring the coffee I drink is only of the very best quality and only in small amounts.
As with much of the world of nutrition, there are few absolutes when it comes to coffee drinking but increasingly studies are showing that consumption of regular but not excessive amounts of caffeine (found in tea but far more so in coffee), offers some significant health benefits, so below I have highlighted some pros and cons of the UK’s favourite hot beverage:
Drinking coffee has been found to …
- boost metabolism and can therefore enhance performance when exercising
- increase reaction time and improves cognitive function
- contains low levels of B vitamins and a range of minerals
- appears to be protective against dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease
- reduces the risk of getting type 2 diabetes and liver disease
- contains good levels of cell-protecting anti-oxidants
So coffee appears to be protective against some serious chronic diseases and is physically and mentally performance enhancing – really positive! However, don’t forget that caffeine is addictive, which by definition means that you will need more and more to get the same level of benefit and this can then lead to some negatives associated with excess coffee consumption:
- for those who are poor sleepers, caffeine can really impact on ability to get to sleep or stay asleep. Caffeine is a significant stimulant of the brain (psychoactive), more so for some than others. I know that I have a certain gene that means I process caffeine slowly. This means it stays in my system for longer than those who are able to process caffeine more quickly. You don’t need a gene test to know this. There are those who can drink a double espresso after dinner and be fast asleep an hour later. For people like me, caffeine after around midday will affect my sleep – even an afternoon cup of green tea can affect my sleep.
- again it’s very individual, but exceed your limit of caffeine and you can trigger feelings of anxiety and a racing heart.
- caffeine can add stress to tired adrenal glands, leading to exhaustion and an inability to cope with stressful situations.
Quality, as with all food and drink, is key. Nutrients benefits and caffeine content varies a lot. Surprisingly, the weaker filter / jug / gravity-feed coffee and cafeteria makers, where the water is passing though the coffee slowly, tends to pick up little flavour but lots of caffeine. A powerful espresso machine, or a stove top coffee maker that uses steam pressure to push the water through the coffee quickly, picks up lots of flavour but much less caffeine because the water is in content with the coffee for far less time. So strong and short is better than endless cups of weak-flavoured coffee.
Aim for coffee that says ‘Fair Trade’ on the packaging. This not only means you are supporting the financial welfare of the growers, being fair-trade also means the beans will have been sprayed with far less pesticides and fungicides as this protects the pickers. Standard coffee beans are highly sprayed, and these chemicals will still be present when you drink the coffee.
Decaffeinated coffee is becoming increasingly popular. I have an issue with this (the same applies to decaf tea). The standard process of extracting the caffeine from these crops requires steeping in chemical solvents. This not only adds a chemical load to your coffee / tea but the process negatively affects the beneficial anti-oxidants found in coffee and tea.
If caffeine doesn’t agree with you, if you are adrenally weak and you know you need to cut the coffee but cannot imagine life without it, then you need to source organic, fair trade, water (Swiss method) or CO2 decaffeinated coffee, as these methods are far gentler and less toxic. Do remember however that decaf coffee and tea will still contain a small amount of caffeine.
And then there’s the matter of that pastry, muffin, plate of biscuits – whatever it may be, that you associate with your coffee or that grabs your attention as you wait to order at your local coffee shop. This is one of the biggest problems with our hot beverage obsession, the desire for something sweet to have with it!
Finally, it also matters what you put in your coffee and what you have with your coffee. It is often the vast amounts of milk, sugary flavorings, processed creamers and sugar / sweeteners that make a somewhat healthy drink really unhealthy. There is A LOT of sugar in milk – lactose, naturally occurring sugar, never mind what other sweeteners you are adding. Having 2 – 4 caffé lattes a day means you are consuming huge amounts of sugar from milk plus lots of oestrogen and growth factors that exist in milk, which can be very detrimental to health. So, just because you’re drinking your calories, don’t forget to focus on the quality and quantity.