Before moving to Nashville in 2014, it’s safe to say I qualified as a coffee person. Save for the occasional French press on the weekend I mostly drank from a good old-fashioned drip coffee maker, but I had never heard of a Chemex. Living in this coffee metropolis, however, made a bonafide coffee fanatic (read: snob) out of me.
I lived on hot cups of coffee during my stent as a nutrition resident at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. It didn’t help that training to become a dietitian demanded long hours in the hospital, little sleep, and constant expense of mental energy, making me more reliant on coffee fixes. Luckily, Nashville is saturated with some of the most celebrated coffee shops in the south, many within walking distance of my Hillsboro Village apartment. Being in short supply was never an issue.
Amazing Health Benefits of Coffee
While my stress level during residency was anything but healthy, my coffee habit was more beneficial than originally thought. As it turns out, the perks of a daily dose extend far beyond the energy boost. In fact, more and more evidence is accumulating on the effects coffee has on our health:
- Aids in weight loss: Caffeine affects the central nervous system, which signals fat cells to break down. It raises the metabolic rate by up to 11% and mobilizes fatty acids from tissues, increasing fat burn and aiding in weight reduction.
- Boosts physical performance: Downing a cup of coffee before your training session may give you an edge in the workout room. One study published in the British Journal of Sports Science found participants were able to run 1500 meters on the treadmill 4.2 second faster than the control group, on average.
- Improves cognitive functioning: Caffeine from coffee increases the rapid firing of brain neurons, leading to better mental function. No wonder we reach for another cup of coffee in the afternoon when we hit the afternoon slump!
- Decreased risk of type 2 diabetes: Common in overweight and obese individuals, insulin resistance is one of the leading factors in developing type 2 diabetes. Studies show caffeine in coffee improves the body’s sensitivity to insulin, leading to better blood sugar control and a decreased risk for developing diabetes.
- Brightens mood: Caffeine blocks the neurotransmitter adenosine, increasing production of the feel-good neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin in the brain, the result of which has been shown to improve outcomes in 50% of suicidal patients, according to one study.
- Reduces cancer risk: There is evidence that coffee intake can significantly reduce your risk of cancer, specifically prostate cancer, endometrial cancer, and basal cell carcinoma. Caffeine and other chemical compounds in coffee have been shown to prevent cancer cells from metastasizing, and increase the death of cancer cells.
- Decreases risk of mortality: Of the 10 leading causes of death, coffee consumption lessens your risk of 7 of them. Heavy intake of coffee is associated with decreased mortality from all causes, including heart disease and stroke. Drinking 4 or more cups per day is associated with greater protection from nonvascular death (ex: cancer), according to one study.
What’s in Coffee?
About 83% of adults in the U.S. drink coffee daily and, in the process, they’re getting over 1000 different antioxidants/chemical compounds per cup that are formed during the roasting process. In fact, coffee is the single greatest contributor of antioxidants in the modern diet, outranking both fruit and vegetables combined! An average cup of coffee boasts 396 milligrams of polyphenols, or antioxidant plant compounds that fight free radicals and prevent diseases. Coffee also contains:
- B Vitamins: per cup, coffee provides 11% of the RDA for vitamin B2 (riboflavin) and 6% of the RDA for B6 (pantothenic acid)
- Potassium and Magnesium: per cup, coffee provides 3% of the RDA for both essential minerals
- Caffeine: the main stimulant in coffee that acts on the central nervous system.
- Chlorogenic acid: a bioactive compound in coffee that may slow absorption of carbohydrates
While research points to the dozens of benefits of enjoying a good brew, it has also put forth cautionary claims. Like anything, too much of a good thing has its drawbacks. Here are a few risks of over consuming coffee:
- May cause restlessness/insomnia: Caffeine tolerance is actually written in our DNA — some of us metabolize it more quickly than others, meaning it has less of a negative effect on us falling asleep later. If you’re caffeine sensitive, limit your intake to 400 milligrams per day.
- Increases stress hormones: Excess consumption of coffee can increase the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline (released in times of “fight or flight”), which may lead to weight gain and adrenal fatigue. You may want to cut back if life is already highly stressful (i.e., on stress hormone production overload) — something I wish I’d have known during residency!
- It may affect cholesterol levels: Brewing methods that do not use a filter, (such as French press, espresso, and Turkish coffee) can raise LDL cholesterol, A.K.A. “bad cholesterol”, due to the natural oils from freshly roasted beans. If you have high cholesterol or a family history of high cholesterol, stick to pour-overs and drip coffee makers.
- Increases urination: Caffeine acts as a diuretic, which has the potential to lead to dehydration due to more frequent urination. So, remember to down plenty of water to rehydrate after having coffee.
So how do we reap the health perks from a coffee habit while avoiding the risks? Most of the studies I read suggest maximum health benefits are reached by drinking 2 to 4 six-ounce cups per day. Unless you’re on a Eurotrip, it’s more likely you are downing 8+ ounces at a time. My advice? Enjoy 2 or 3 cups mindfully while taking in all Nashville’s coffee scene has to offer (after all, life and pretty much everything now happens over coffee). Dietitian’s orders.