Coffee – health food or dietary demon?

Photo courtesy Dreamstime © Obak

Photo courtesy Dreamstime © Obak

This past weekend marked National Coffee Day, a time to celebrate one of life’s pleasures.  For many years, the beverage was consistently labelled as a culprit . Way back in the 1950s, scientists   studied its impact on assorted ailments like cardiovascular disease, and eye disorders like glaucoma. Even its effect on children’s behaviour was scrutinized.

While there are currently scientific investigations that still report on coffee’s adverse effects, it’s only been in the past decade that the brew has been linked to various health perks such as a decreased risk of   diseases like diabetes and Parkinson’s.  But whether coffee is a smart choice for you depends on a number of factors including your age, blood pressure readings and if you’re pregnant.

To most people, when you mention coffee, the first thing that comes to mind is caffeine.  But in fact, coffee contains an assortment of compounds, many of which may be beneficial. Like other plant foods, the coffee bean is chock full of a variety of phytochemicals – substances such as chlorogenic acids and diterpenes like cafestol and kahweol.   And it’s only since science has focused on these protective substances that researchers have investigated coffee in a positive light.

Coffee was then suddenly included along with other plant foods like fruits and vegetables as its polyphenols were studied. Apples, red wine, tea and chocolate are just a few of the polyphenols-rich foods that have grabbed the nutritional spotlight as of late.  And according to some research, coffee is the largest source of antioxidants in Western diets due to the fact that it is consumed so widely and on a regular basis.

A number of large studies of population groups has linked a considerable reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes in those who drink coffee both regular and decaffeinated coffee. In one study from the University of Minnesota more than 28,000 women were followed for an 11-year period to see the link between the development of diabetes and how much coffee they consumed. Compared with women who reported drinking no coffee daily, women who consumed six or more cups per day had a 22% lower risk.

But before you down that much java, be aware that most of the coffee was decaffeinated. In another study, though, women who drank caffeine-containing coffee, even just a couple of cups a day, also lowered their odds of developing the disease. Because the risk is reduced with both caffeine-containing and decaf, there’s something else in the coffee fending off diabetes. Speculation is that part of it may be the phenols improving insulin sensitivity. But don’t abandon your healthy lifestyle efforts, such as  enlightened eating and active living, and drink coffee instead to lessen your odds of developing diabetes.

Coffee is also showing up in research as a protector against the development of Parkinson’s disease and other neurodegenerative diseases. And once again, both decaf and caffeine-containing seem to offer perks.

Up next:  some potential downsides of coffee.

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Categories: Research Roundup

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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