Confused by Nutrition News? Go Ahead, Have That Cup of Coffee

It’s a safe bet you’ve heard both good things and bad things about drinking coffee. On the bad side: All that caffeine isn’t good for you, it can stunt your growth, and coffee may cause cancer. The good stuff: Coffee helps you focus and may lower your risk of certain diseases.

For more than a century, coffee has been both pilloried and praised, and scientists and health advocates have frequently reassessed its place in the nutritional hierarchy. In fact, the World Health Organization in June removed coffee from a list of known cancer-causing agents—after 25 years suggesting the hot beverage may raise the risk of bladder cancer.

Coffee isn’t the only food that has swung from good to bad. Researchers are reevaluating the health risks of butter, for example. After being associated with higher mortality, cardiovascular disease and diabetes for decades, a recent study found there are “relatively small or neutral overall associations of butter with mortality, CVD, and diabetes.”

What’s going on here? Are coffee and butter good for us or bad for us?

In the case of coffee, we have pretty good evidence that, with some exceptions, coffee is not bad for us and may have benefits. Robert Davis, PhD, an award-winning health journalist and author of Coffee Is Good for You, says the problem lies with the way we study the health effects of food.

“Nutrition science is tricky,” Davis says. “We typically cannot do the kinds of tests that are randomized trials, where we assign some to eat and some not to eat. You have to lock people away. It’s hard to do, and it costs a lot of money.”

That’s the way drug trials are performed. In its simplest form, patients are randomly split into two groups. One group takes the drug, while the other group does not. In these studies, researchers can rule out other influences and focus solely on the drug interaction.

Few nutrition studies follow this model, which is generally considered the gold standard of science research. Instead, nutrition studies are typically large cohort studies. In these studies, scientists look at the nutrition habits of large numbers of people. They also look at the diseases and conditions participants in the study develop. To put it another way, researchers follow what people eat and see what diseases they get.

But this approach produces associations, not definitive cause and effect. Drinking coffee, for example, was associated with cancer for many years. “Studies linked coffee to cancer, but there was a problem with those studies,” Davis says. “Researchers didn’t control properly for smoking. People that drank coffee had higher rates of cancer, but they were also smokers. It showed this false correlation with drinking coffee and cancer, and coffee got a bad reputation.”

Cohort studies of single ingredients also have other challenges. When researchers publish a study that suggests drinking wine is good for heart health, they are speculating as to what substances in the wine are responsible for the good benefit. It turns out that wine—and coffee—are incredibly complex.

“What is it in the wine that’s responsible? For years scientists thought it was resveratrol. But there’s no resveratrol in beer or liquor, but those have a beneficial effect as well in other studies. So is it the alcohol? It’s hard to pinpoint a single ingredient,” Davis says. “There are a thousand different compounds in coffee. We think that coffee is good for you, but we don’t why it’s good for you.”

So does this mean we should ignore nutrition studies altogether? With all the flip flops nutrition research has made, it would be easy to give up—but it wouldn’t be the healthy choice. Davis recommends focusing less on specific ingredients and more on your overall diet.

“Just because we can’t understand everything about the cosmos doesn’t mean we should dismiss everything we hear from astronomers,” Davis says. “There are good studies that show the total diet you eat has effects on your health. If you eat more junk food, more sugar, more refined carbs, you’re going to have more risk for certain disease. Don’t dismiss that and eat whatever you want.”

As for coffee, most studies point to positive benefits of drinking a cup a Joe or two every day. “The evidence is pretty compelling, but it’s not cause and effect. I think there are enough studies in enough different populations all pointing in the same direction to suggest we have very strong circumstantial evidence that coffee is beneficial and probably not harmful,” Davis says.

But there are caveats. Some people who are sensitive to caffeine may experience insomnia, jitteriness or upset stomach. There’s also potential concern for pregnant women, and coffee may increase fracture risk in women.

The amount you drink can also be a factor in your health risks; study results are conflicting, but most studies suggest that four cups of coffee a day are probably okay.

Finally, most coffee studies are done on black coffee—without cream, sugar and calorie-rich flavorings. If you’re having a Starbucks Grande Frappuccino, you’re absorbing 400 calories along with whatever beneficial ingredients the java has. The calories and fat may undo whatever good the coffee is doing.

If you’re concerned about coffee or any other ingredient in your diet, talk to your MDVIP-affiliated physician. You can work with them to create a nutrition plan tailored to your health needs.If you or a loved one needs an MDVIP-affiliated physician, find one near you by clicking here

8 Comments
Frank Adler
Jul 26th, 2016
I wear a pacemaker and had previously been advised that, for this reason, I should forego caffeinated coffee. Does that still hold true?.
1 Reply
MDVIP
Jul 28th, 2016
Greetings Frank,

Yes, please listen to your doctor’s instructions. Many of coffee’s health benefits come from antioxidants and caffeic acid. However, the caffeine is a stimulant that can affect heart rhythm and pacemakers.

In Good Health,
MDVIP
Stephanie shirit
Jul 23rd, 2016
I make "french press" style coffee with organic beans. I suffered from a pretty bad concussion/head injury and wake up with terrible head pain every morning and have trouble functioning. The 6 Oz cup lowers the head pain quite a bit in the morning and helps my brain start to work a little better along with the medicine I also take in the eves. It's been a lifesaver...glad to see this report.
1 Reply
MDVIP
Jul 25th, 2016
Greetings Stephanie,

We’re very sorry to hear about your head injury. As for coffee, it’s actually the caffeine that is easing your pain. This is why caffeine is a common ingredient in pain relievers. It works by reducing inflammation and boosting the effectiveness of aspirin, ibuprofen and acetaminophen. We hope you feel better.

In Good Health,
MDVIP


Shirley Feaux
Jul 21st, 2016
My grandmother lived to the ripe old age of 102 without ever doing great workouts, hiking, or eating very well. She loved fatty foods, was overweight all her life. She drank coffee all day long until the day she died. I always felt it had some good effect on her health. It certainly did not kill her!
Shirley
1 Reply
MDVIP
Jul 22nd, 2016
Greetings Shirley,

It’s nice to hear that you had your grandmother for so long and that she was able to live life on her own wellness terms. You’re right, the coffee certainly didn’t kill her and may have had a positive effect on her health.

In Good Health,
MDVIP
Lori
Jul 21st, 2016
Does decaffeinated coffee have the same potential benefits?
1 Reply
MDVIP
Jul 21st, 2016
Greetings Lori,

The decaffeination process does not seem to affect the health benefits afforded by drinking coffee. For more information on decaffeinated coffee, read this article: http://www.livestrong.com/article/163602-caffeine-vs-decaf-coffee/.

In Good Health,
MDVIP

James R. Madden
Jul 20th, 2016
"... studies suggest that four cups of coffee a day are probably okay."

Define "cup", please. Bags of ground coffee indicate 5 oz as a standard serving. A mug may hold 2-3 times that volume.

I did note black coffee is the basis of the studies.

Do artificial sweeteners impact the coffee benefits to your knowledge?
1 Reply
MDVIP
Jul 21st, 2016
Greetings James,

Generally, a cup of coffee is eight ounces and contains 100 mg of caffeine. Artificial sweeteners don’t seem to interfere with the benefits of coffee; however, are not recommended. Artificial sweeteners have been linked to health issues. Experts recommend using Stevia. You can learn more about artificial sweeteners reading this article: http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/artificial-sweeteners/art-20046936.

In Good Health,
MDVIP


Bill Hoffman
Jul 20th, 2016
I'm encouraged on many fronts by this article. It does not. however, address any relationship between coffee's stimulant effect and heart issues. Is there any?
1 Reply
MDVIP
Jul 20th, 2016
Greetings Bill,

The primary stimulant in coffee is caffeine. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), many studies have been conducted to see if there’s a connection between caffeine, coffee drinking and coronary heart disease. A link couldn’t be established because the study results are inconsistent. The AHA attributes this to the way the studies were done and confounding dietary factors. However, the AHA does suggest that drinking coffee on a moderate basis, i.e., 1–2 cups per day, doesn't appear to be harmful.

In Good Health,
MDVIP
Kerry J.
Jul 20th, 2016
One of the best articles I've read on nutritional values concerning coffee and the way researchers perform health and nutritional studies on different types of food.
1 Reply
MDVIP
Jul 20th, 2016
Greetings Kerry,

Nutrition studies and the advice they suggest can be very be confusing. We’re glad you found the information in the blog helpful and that it shed some light on why there is so much contradiction surrounding nutrition information.

In Good Health,
MDVIP

Jim Cooper
Jul 18th, 2016
News on a Parkinson Disease cure.
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