Coffee: How to maximize health benefits and minimize harms 

By Charlie Williams
Published August 25, 2020

Key Takeaways

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a beverage with a more passionate fan base than coffee. In addition to the rich, roasty taste, its ability to pull us out of fatigue, and the fact that many of us literally can’t go without it for fear of eternal grouchiness, many coffee drinkers have added a new bona fide to the list: Overall, the scientific evidence suggests coffee is good for you.

Good thing, too, because we humans consume more than 2 billion cups of coffee every day, making it one of the most consumed beverages in the world. Stories covering coffee’s benefits to our health aren’t difficult to find—they point to amazing benefits like boosted metabolic rates, type 2 diabetes risk reduction, and dementia deterrence.

Then again, you can have too much of a good thing—overconsumption of coffee fits many of the stereotypes, sometimes making you anxious and jittery, causing you to lose sleep, and throwing off regular digestion.  

There’s plenty of evidence linking coffee to good and bad health outcomes, but most popular stories neglect to answer an important question: Is the simple act of drinking coffee enough, or is there more to be done to maximize the benefits and minimize the harms?

Here are three ways you can ensure you’re making the most of your next cup of joe.

Consider your brewing technique

Want to know one of the downsides of coffee? It contains two diterpenes, called cafestol and kahweol, which are naturally present in the oil contained inside coffee beans. These chemical compounds have been shown to raise serum levels of LDL cholesterol, which can lead to serious heart complications if left unchecked.

The good news? Diterpenes are super easy to avoid. All you have to do is brew your coffee through a paper filter. In one study that measured the amount of cafestol in a cup of coffee brewed this way, investigators found that just 0.15% of the cafestol present in the unbrewed coffee grinds passed through to the brewed cup. The rest remained trapped in the spent coffee grinds (87.45%) and in the paper filter (12.41%).

Drinking instant coffee could also be a decent workaround for those looking to keep their cholesterol in check. Studies suggest that instant, or soluble, coffee contains virtually no diterpenes. On the other hand, instant coffee has roughly double the amount of acrylamide—a potentially harmful neurotoxic and carcinogenic chemical that’s a byproduct of the roasting process.

To avoid higher levels of diterpenes like cafestol, stick to paper filters and avoid brewing techniques used for Scandinavian boiled coffee, French press coffee, Greek coffee, and Turkish coffee.

Think about what you add to your coffee

Coffee purists might scoff with elitist pride when people overload coffee with cream or sugar, but health-conscious people cringe with concern for a different reason: Dumping sugar into your coffee quickly turns it from a healthy way to start the day into junk food.

The science is clear: Too much sugar is harmful to health. It’s linked to obesity, reduced cognitive function, and diabetes. It can even induce compulsive eating and cause addiction.

The best way to skip the horrible health effects of adding sugar to your coffee is to never add it in the first place. But for those who need their coffee to make it through the day and can’t imagine it without that sweet kick, evidence suggests that using stevia, a natural sweetener, can help reduce caloric intake, lower blood sugar, and avoid many of sugar’s harmful effects.

What about cream? Nearly all dairy products you can add to coffee also have some sugar in them. A single 8-oz serving of milk has 13 g, which means a splash of milk in your coffee probably has somewhere between 1 g and 5 g of sugar. Most popular coffee creamers contain roughly 5 g of added sugar per serving, so adding two creams to your coffee in the morning means you’ve already made it about a third of the way to the American Heart Association’s daily recommended limit of sugar—36 g for men and 25 g for women.

Unfortunately, there’s not much research examining the health effects of adding milk, dairy creamer, or artificial creamers to coffee, so consumers are left to measure each product’s nutritional value on their own. Most dairy products are a mixed bag—they contain calcium and protein to help strengthen bones and muscles, but plenty of saturated fat and cholesterol, too. If you want to make the most of the health benefits of your coffee, your best bet is to add low quantities of natural dairy products and avoid artificial substitutes.

Want to add something that’s scientifically proven to improve health? Toss a pinch of cinnamon in your coffee grinds to increase your cup’s antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antidiabetic, and antimicrobial effects. Or, add some cacao for extra magnesium, iron, zinc, and selenium.

Watch the clock before you drink coffee

The logic for drinking coffee first thing in the morning goes something like this:

“I’m tired. I don’t want to feel tired anymore. Coffee to the rescue!

Makes sense, right? Turns out that our bodies already have a chemical that solves this problem—cortisol. Also known as the stress hormone, cortisol is secreted from the adrenal glands when we wake up in the morning as part of the process that shifts our bodies from a resting to an active state.

Cortisol levels peak 30 to 45 minutes after waking, then drop rapidly over the next several hours, and decline slowly throughout the rest of the day, hitting their lowest levels at around midnight. For those looking to ride the wave of cortisol and boost your energy with caffeine, consider letting your cortisol do its job first before having your first cup of the day. Drinking coffee while cortisol production is peaking limits the positive effects of cortisol and can increase stress and jitters.

Later, as cortisol production wanes a few hours after waking, dive into a good cup of coffee to maintain that energetic momentum. For someone who wakes up at 6:30 am looking to follow this strategy, the best time to consume coffee in the morning is between 9:30 to 11:00 am, when cortisol levels are much lower.

Coffee drinkers should also be wary of drinking coffee too late in the day. The caffeine in coffee reaches peak levels in your blood within 30 to 60 minutes of consumption, but it has a half-life of 3 to 5 hours. That means that some of the caffeine from one cup of coffee can still have energizing effects 10 hours or more after you drank it.

What’s wrong with that? Well, caffeine is a stimulant—the type of drug that promotes alertness and prevents you from feeling sleepy. And it just so happens that quality sleep is essential for good health. Matthew Walker, PhD, professor at University of California Berkeley and author of Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams, put it like this:

“Scientists have discovered a revolutionary new treatment that makes you live longer. It enhances your memory and makes you more creative. It makes you look more attractive. It keeps you slim and lowers food cravings. It protects you from cancer and dementia. It wards off colds and the flu. It lowers your risk of heart attacks and stroke, not to mention diabetes. You’ll even feel happier, less depressed, and less anxious. Are you interested?”

Any guess what the remedy might be? It’s sleep. And if you’re drinking too much caffeine too late in the day, you might be missing out on all its incredible benefits.

Bottom line

It’s easy to get excited about good news—for the more than 50% of American adults who consume coffee every day, what could be better than knowing your favorite daytime beverage is good for you? It’s also easy to overlook the fact that there are tons of coffee drinking habits that can add stress to your life, cause you to lose sleep, or pack on the pounds.

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