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Feature Article The Benefits of Coffee ... Really!

By Sara Lee Thomas, Registered Dietitian

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If you’re someone who feels guilty about drinking coffee, take heart, I have good news for you. In moderation coffee is not a problem. It even has health benefits. The latest U.S. dietary guidelines increased the limit on caffeine to 400 mg a day in adults. This is about 32 to 40 ounces of coffee. 40 ounces of coffee is an excellent source of potassium (820 mg) and magnesium (71 mg). Coffee is also a top source of antioxidants in the American diet. They are beans after all!

Contrary to what we used to believe, research now shows that coffee is not dehydrating. You can count coffee toward getting the fluids you need. 

Are you trying to start exercising again? Drinking some coffee before exercise may help decrease pain afterward by 48 percent in older adults as well as boost the pain relief of aspirin. Coffee also helps open up lung passages which can ease asthma and congestion temporarily.

Do you tend to feel faint when you get up after a meal? Coffee may help prevent the drop in blood pressure after a meal that leads to fainting and falling in some older adults.

Research has also linked coffee to a decreased risk of colon cancer, kidney stones, gallstones in men, suicide in women, cirrhosis of the liver, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and a reduced risk of getting diabetes.

Bottom line? Most people can enjoy coffee in moderation and feel good about the antioxidants, nutrition and health benefits. Coffee does have a downside for some people however: 

Some people break down caffeine much slower than others and need to limit coffee to two to three cups a day. Higher amounts increase the risk of heart disease for these people.

If you have anemia, you may want to drink your coffee between meals. Drinking regular or decaf coffee with your meals blocks iron absorption by about 35 percent.

If you have acid reflux and heartburn, coffee can make it worse.

Coffee and caffeine can interact with some medications. When you get a new medication ask if it is okay to mix with caffeine and coffee.

If you have problems with insomnia, anxiety, panic attacks, or are in recovery for drug or alcohol abuse, then coffee may make these problems harder to handle.

If you have high blood cholesterol, always use a paper filter. This traps the coffee oils. Coffee made without a paper filter, like espresso, can increase your cholesterol by 10 percent or more.

Finally, if you are watching your weight, cholesterol or blood sugar, make sure to watch what you add to your coffee so it doesn’t turn into a liquid candy bar! You can get 280 calories and 30 percent of the daily limit for saturated fat if you drink five cups of coffee and add just one packet of sugar and 2 tablespoons of half-n-half to each cup of coffee. Saturated fat increases cholesterol, worsens insulin resistance and may make it harder to control your appetite.

Sara Lee Thomas is a registered dietitian and the clinical nutrition manager at Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center in Corvallis, Oregon. 

View a downloadable infographic on the benefits of coffee.