If Starbucks offered an I.V. option, you might just think about signing up. With that precious elixir coursing through your veins each morning, you feel like you can do anything — even if “anything” is defined as simply surviving your commute without nodding off and drooling on the shoulder of the person next to you.
But, somewhere along the way, coffee got a bad rap — putting it right up there with some pretty major vices like alcohol and cigarettes. That’s why you always feel a tinge of guilt with each subsequent cup you consume throughout the day, afraid that all that caffeine is secretly wreaking havoc on your brain and your body. But is it? Are your fears really justified?
“For so many years, people were afraid of coffee,” says Andrea Giancoli, M.P.H., R.D., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “But, now we’re seeing more and more studies that find that it has benefits.” So, she’s saying your coffee habit has been redeemed. (Well, sort of — we’ll explain.)
First, you need to understand what coffee actually is. Brewed from the roasted seeds of the coffee plant (read: coffee beans), it’s essentially a plant-based beverage, full of the same kind of natural antioxidants you’ll find in fruits and veggies. “Coffee is not just a vehicle for caffeine, but contains hundreds of plant compounds, including phenolic compounds, vitamins, and minerals,” says Robert M. Van Dam, Ph.D., an adjunct professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health.
And, all those plant compounds are what researchers believe might have beneficial effects on your long-term health. Studies have shown that moderate coffee consumption may be linked to a lower risk for type 2 diabetes and liver cancer. Coffee drinkers might also live slightly longer, according to research published online in the New England Journal of Medicine last year.
That said, caffeine is also technically a drug — and not everyone can handle it. But, if coffee’s status as a stimulant is negatively affecting you, you’ll probably already know it, says Van Dam. “The amount of caffeine that people are comfortable with and can metabolize varies genetically,” he says. “Tremors, difficulty falling asleep, or nervousness all suggest that you may be using too much caffeine for you.”
For someone who shows no signs of jitters or sleeplessness, caffeine in moderate doses can actually be healthy, says Giancoli. It can boost your metabolism and your brain in the short-term, making you more alert and focused. Plus, research has proven it can help you power through your morning workout. Down a cup one hour before you exercise, and you might go longer on your morning run — without really feeling the extra effort, says Giancoli. (And no, it won’t dehydrate you.) “There’s this myth that coffee is a diuretic,” she says. “But coffee is essentially water with flavoring and plant compounds, so it’s actually contributing to your hydration.”
That’s fascinating, for sure. But, what if you’re still a little confused on how to strike the balance between doing it right — and overdoing it? Here are four incredibly simple rules to help you keep your coffee habit in line.
Stick to six cups (or less) a day. And, by cup, we’re talking about eight ounces of coffee here — which means that morning 20-ounce Venti, for example, already puts you close to halfway there. (Of course, adjust this count accordingly — and drink yours before 2 p.m. — if you’re having trouble sleeping or showing other signs of caffeine sensitivity.)
Rethink those fancy coffee drinks. Taking six cups a day with cream and sugar will add up quickly, as will a daily syrup-sweetened latte habit. “All of that flavor and creaminess comes with calories that will lead to weight gain,” says Giancoli. So drink plain old brewed coffee most of the time — and make those other drinks once-in-a-while treats.
Forget your French press. This tidbit from the experts blew our mind: Turns out, coffee from a French press or percolator is technically unfiltered, and coffee’s health benefits have only been proven in the filtered variety. What’s more, unfiltered coffee produces compounds called turpines, which have been shown to raise cholesterol. (So while it’s not like a cup of pressed coffee every now and again will hurt you, Van Dam does recommend switching to a drip-brewing method to feed your daily fix.)
Don’t nurse that cup all day. According to Andrew Geller, D.D.S., a New York City dentist, you’re asking for cavities and bad breath if you sip your latte slowly...for hours. “You’ll have all that sugar and natural acidity on your teeth all day long, never being washed away,” he says. Limit coffee to meal times, if you can (so you can brush afterwards), and sip through a straw to prevent nasty stains. That's the unfiltered truth.
Illustrated by Gabriela Alford