Better latte than never: is coffee actually good for you?
Published 30/01/2013 | 06:00
Geraldine Lynagh can't wait to put the kettle on after hearing her caffeine habit is healthy
The irony's not lost on me that I'm writing this piece with a cup of coffee close at hand. There are times when I need the boost it gives. I often anchor the news on TV3's Ireland AM, which means I'm up at the unspeakable hour of 4am. If I could get an intravenous drip of caffeine going on those mornings, I would.
Every so often it does cross my mind that my coffee habit isn't healthy, but I reason that I could be a slave to far more harmful drugs.
I'm heartened to see the growing body of scientific evidence that not only backs up my way of thinking but seems to show my daily caffeine habit might just be doing me some good.
In one of the biggest studies of its kind, the US National Cancer Institute has found that coffee drinkers live longer than those who abstain.
Researchers studied 400,000 men and women aged over 50 between 1995 and 2008 and found coffee drinkers were less likely to fall victim to heart disease, respiratory disease, stroke, diabetes and infections – plus injuries and accidents. Proof that coffee does make you more alert.
It also seems that the more you drink, the greater the benefits. Those who drank three or more cups a day had a 10pc lower risk of death from these conditions when compared to non-coffee drinkers.
US-based expert Neal Freedman, who carried out the study with colleagues, says it's proof that the scare stories that often abound about coffee aren't necessarily true. "Although we cannot infer a causal relationship between coffee drinking and lower risk of death," he says, "we believe these results provide some reassurance that coffee drinking does not adversely affect health."
Hurrah, stick on the kettle!
Why coffee seems to have these effects is unclear, and further studies may be warranted to find this out, though it would be a mammoth undertaking. Coffee contains one thousand compounds, and any one of these – or any one of their endless combinations – could be the magic ingredient. Although this study focused on caffeine, the health benefits were strangely similar in those who drank high amounts of either decaf or regular.
Researchers at the American Cancer Society followed one million participants for 30 years and found that coffee drinkers who put away four or more cups a day may cut their risk of dying from mouth and throat cancer by half.
Another major piece of research, from Harvard University, has found that women who averaged four or more coffees a day had a 25pc lower risk of developing endometrial cancer. Men fond of a coffee have a lower risk of dying from prostate cancer.
The European Journal of Neurology links coffee consumption with enhanced brain function and a lower risk of developing Alzheimer's. The Journal of Alzheimer's Disease says people who drink three to five cups of coffee a day cut their risk of developing the condition by 65pc.
Separate studies have also found coffee may be responsible for reducing inflammation, lowering the risk of developing breast and skin cancers and cutting the risk of depression.
In the face of such evidence from highly respected researchers, coffee really does seem like a wonder drug, and you'd even wonder why doctors don't prescribe it.
But the truth is, coffee is still a divisive topic, and it's a long way off becoming a health drink. Just as I'm thinking, 'Jeepers, maybe I should be drinking more coffee', Dublin-based consultant nutritionist Elsa Jones brings me back to Earth.
"Coffee deserves a bad press," she says. "It's a powerful drug which has a powerful effect on the body. It increases your heart rate and your blood pressure and affects your nervous system. It can lead to increased feelings of anxiety and irritability, mood swings and sleep problems."
Elsa doesn't need to consult scientific studies to make these claims. She sees the evidence in front of her every day in the clients who come to see her. "People who suffer from stress or anxiety benefit hugely from reducing their coffee intake," she says.
She disputes in particular the studies that link coffee with a reduced risk of depression, saying quite the opposite is true. "Coffee is a strong stimulant. It comes down to each individual and their tolerance to it. As long as you're not sensitive to coffee, then one or two cups a day is fine. But if it's affecting your sleep or your mood, you should cut it out."
The closest she came to making any positive comment about coffee at all was when she told me: "If it was a choice between drinking two cups of coffee a day or two cans of cola, you'd be better off with the coffee. At least it doesn't contain sugar."
Elsa isn't alone in her views, and I challenge you to find an expert who'll encourage your caffeine habit.
"For every study that comes out showing the benefits of coffee, there are 10 that will show you the opposite," she says. "Coffee does contain anti-oxidants, but so do fruit and veg. You're better off eating those.
"I'm not completely against coffee. I have one now and again. It just needs to be consumed in moderation."
It seems that, like most pleasures in life, coffee comes with a caveat. Enjoy it, just not too much.