Eating Well | Wake up and smell the health benefits of coffee

Written by by Laurie Syring, RD/LD. Posted in January

It’s no secret that coffee is brewing big sales, with the coffeehouse becoming the trendy new place for meetings, dates, working, and socializing. In the United States, this coffee-brewing boom is driven largely by one particular population: Millennials. That’s right, this oft-maligned demographic born roughly between the years of 1982 and 2004 (the generational demarcation is imprecise) consumes 44% of the coffee in our nation.


Unlike their parents and grandparents, Millennials think nothing of spending over five dollars for a coffee drink. They also started drinking coffee at a much earlier age than their forebears, and they consume it freely. In a typical day, Millennials can frequent a coffee house upwards of three times. College campuses are even cashing in on these frequent flyers and giving them quality coffee products.

Turns out those Millennials may be on to something. We’ve long considered coffee a “functional” beverage—it’s something we drink to wake up in the morning, stay awake in the afternoon, and get revved up for sports and other activities that demand our attention or exertion. But the benefits of drinking coffee may go beyond that.

Harvard researchers have reported in the journal Circulation that drinking between three and five cups of coffee (400mg caffeine) per day could actually lower the risk of mortality. This association has been observed with cardiovascular disease, neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s, type 2 diabetes, and even suicide. (Note: pregnant women should limit their coffee consumption to two cups a day.)

The research was gathered from over 74,000 women in three ongoing large studies, validated over 30 years. The protective action of coffee was more evident in those drinking up to three cups a day who had never smoked. Benefits were seen in drinkers of both caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee, with both seeming to have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, suggesting that there are bioactive components in coffee other than caffeine. We do know that brewing whole or ground coffee beans releases the phytochemicals shown in studies to increase antioxidant effects and reduce inflammation and insulin response. For neurodegenerative disease, depression, and suicide, caffeine is the most likely the source of benefit according to researchers. However, for people who don’t drink coffee or don’t like coffee, the evidence is not strong enough to recommend starting a coffee habit.

Given its potential health benefits, coffee is a good substitute for people who drink a lot of sugary sodas or other sugar-laden beverages. Ah, but there is a kicker (wait for it!). A lot of those fancy coffee drinks, or “fu fu coffee” as my husband calls them, can be loaded with sugar and saturated fats. All those calories outweigh any benefits you might get from drinking black coffee alone. Using a splash of fat-free milk or artificial sweetener is fine, but that “Caramel Cinnamon Roll” coffee should be treated like a dessert and enjoyed only as an occasional indulgence.

So, can black coffee be a part of a healthy diet? Absolutely! In fact, the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans supports this assertion, reporting that moderate coffee consumption can be included in a healthy dietary pattern. Millennials are certainly willing to pay for the culinary enjoyment, quality, and convenience of coffee today. Perhaps the rest of us could learn a thing or two from this coffee-quaffing generation—giving a whole new meaning to “Wake up and smell the coffee.” ❦