Those of us who start our day with a cup (or two or three) of coffee tend to look at it as a necessity, not part of a healthy breakfast. As it turns out, that cup of Joe is actually loaded with goodness that can lower our risk for a whole slew of diseases, as well as boost our brain power.
"Coffee intake has been linked to numerous health benefits, including improved cognitive function, protection against degenerative diseases, better heart health, and a decreased risk of type 2 diabetes," says Alissa Rumsey, MS, RD, a New York City-based dietitian and the author of Unapologetic Eating.
How much is a healthy amount of coffee?
That being said, when it comes to coffee (and so many delicious things), moderation is key. "There are varying opinions on the optimal 'dose' of caffeine," explains Vikki Petersen, DC, CCN, CFMP, a California-based functional medicine doctor and clinical nutritionist. "While the FDA may say three to five cups [of coffee] is safe, I recommend my patients stick to one to two cups, and not to drink any caffeine after midday to ensure no sleep disruptions that night."
Still, you can't argue with the evidence that your daily coffee is an energy booster and a legitimate disease fighter. Read on for all of the health benefits of this pick-me-up drink.
Top Health Benefits of Coffee
It's packed with essential vitamins and minerals.
Why is coffee considered a superfood? It's loaded with essential vitamins and minerals like riboflavin, pantothenic acid, and magnesium, as well as bioactive compounds that ward off disease. "Chlorogenic acids are a group of polyphenols present in coffee that have antioxidant effects, shown to help reduce inflammation," says Claire Carlton MS, RD, LD/N, a North Carolina–based registered dietitian nutritionist and digestive health expert.
It reduces risk of heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers.
Regular (moderate) coffee intake has been linked to preventing major diseases. One study found that drinking three to five cups per day reduced the risk of cardiovascular disease. Another study by the Journal of the American Heart Association, found that drinking more than a cup of coffee per day was associated with a 25 percent lower risk of stroke in women. According to research, there are certain compounds that help the body use glucose for energy, which lowers your risk for type 2 diabetes as well.
Several studies have also shown that coffee intake can help prevent certain kinds of cancers, like colorectal, prostate, endometrial, and liver cancers. "Breakage of your DNA can ultimately lead to cancer and tumors, but one study found that dark roast coffee decreases that breakage, thereby reducing your risk of developing abnormal cancer cells," Petersen says.
It increases brain health.
Many people can't even engage with their partner, children, or pet until they've had their first cup of coffee—and for good reason. "Coffee is a natural stimulant which activates our central nervous system, making us feel less tired, while at the same time improving our ability to concentrate, focus, and quickly react," Rumsey says.
Not only that, but coffee is beneficial for our long-term brain health as well. "One study showed that drinking three to five cups of coffee per day at the midlife age was associated with a 65 percent decreased risk in dementia and Alzheimers late in life," Petersen says. Several additional studies have yielded similar results, showing a reduced risk of Parkinson's Disease, Alzheimers. and cognitive decline.
It helps boost metabolism.
As a natural stimulant, coffee is also a metabolism booster. "Coffee not only helps the body burn fat, but as a diuretic, it keeps your digestion moving," says Megan Roosevelt, RDN, LA-based registered dietitian nutritionist and founder of HealthyGroceryGirl.com. One study found that just one cup of coffee increased participants' resting metabolic rate, energy expenditure, and fat burning for energy.
There can be such thing as too much coffee
While coffee is clearly worthy of accolades, it does have its limits. "Caffeine affects people differently and may cause irritability, anxiety, or nervousness in those who are more sensitive to it or in higher amounts," Rumsey says. "Plus, too much caffeine, or just at the wrong time of day, can impact your sleep and even cause insomnia." In addition, many people find coffee is hard on the gut, stimulating acid in the stomach, which can exacerbate heartburn and reflux, especially if you're drinking it on an empty stomach.
You'll also want to be careful not to use coffee as a crutch. "I like to refer to coffee as a 'fake energy' because, while it's a stimulant and will give you a temporary cognitive boost, for more sustainable energy you'll need to go back to the basics of adequate sleep, regular meals, and good nutrition," Carlton says. "If you find yourself drinking coffee to get through the day, you're probably drinking too much."