Guiltless Coffee? The Drink May Actually Make Us Healthier

Coffee is officially off the vice list as new studies show health benefits for ailments ranging from cancer to Parkinson's disease


I am not, by nature, a morning person. So ever since the age of 20, I have been a proud member of Coffee Achievers of the World--people whose daily intake of Morning Joe is an essential factor in getting the brain and body kick-started in the morning (or mid-afternoon, or before a college all-nighter). Getting a cup of coffee in the morning is such a high priority for me, in fact, that when I climbed a mountain high in the Himalayan mountains, I took a zip-lock bag of Coffee Singles along with me. I could handle yaks, glaciers, and whatever other discomforts the day had to throw at me, as long as I could start it with a steaming hot cup of Java.

As a result, I have also spent the past decades periodically defending my habit to non-coffee-drinking friends and the occasional health-fanatic doctor--because, as we all knew, coffee was bad for you. "Look," I'd tell the critics. "I don't have many vices. So I'm very attached to the few I have."

Well, huzzah and hurrah, all that is changing!

In a study published Tuesday in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, a group of Harvard researchers announced that they'd found that coffee consumption actually reduces the risk of prostate cancer, and particularly lethal prostate cancer, in men. Not only that, but a Swedish study published last week in Breast Cancer Research indicates that coffee could also help reduce a woman's risk for post-menopausal, ER-negative breast cancer.

All of that is in addition to other recent studies that have found links between coffee consumption and a decreased risk of gallstones, type 2 diabetes, and Parkinson's disease, as well as lower rates of disease progression in liver cancer and cirrhosis. Other recent studies have indicated that coffee may not even increase a person's risk of heart disease or stroke. Turns out that coffee contains antioxidants and compounds that can improve glucose metabolism and insulin secretion. It also seems to have an effect on sex hormones, which is why researchers looked at its impact on prostate and breast cancer.

There are caveats to the results, of course. The strong correlation in the Harvard study came from men who drank six cups of coffee a day, and the Swedish study results applied to women who drank five or more cups of coffee a day. What's more, a German study (the MARIE study) that was used to validate the Swedish research findings did not show a statistically significant link between coffee consumption and a reduced risk of breast cancer--a result the Swedish researchers think may have to do with the fact that Swedish coffee is boiled, while German coffee is filtered. Of course, boiled coffee has also been shown to raise cholesterol levels, so drinking huge amounts of Swedish coffee in an effort to ward off ER-negative breast cancer might not be such a terrific idea. The Swedish paper also notes that the scientific community is still divided in its opinion of the toxicity of coffee.

But still. How has coffee managed to go from a universally agreed-upon vice to at least a potential virtue in such a relatively short period of time? The Harvard researchers suspect that part of the issue is that coffee drinking has traditionally been associated with other high-health-risk habits--e.g. drinking more alcohol, smoking, and not exercising--that muddied the waters of what role the coffee itself was playing.

"The difficulty of being able to separate the effects of coffee on health from the effects of associated behaviors, such as smoking or alcohol use, is one reason that coffee was seen as negative for so long," said Kathryn Wilson, one of the Harvard researchers. "Until there were computers that could handle the necessary statistics, along with studies with larger sample sizes, it was very difficult to control for multiple factors at once to see their individual effects on health outcomes."

The caveats are important, too. As an article in the New York Times Sunday Business section this week pointed out, scientific studies do support Quaker's claim that eating oatmeal can reduce cholesterol ... but only if you eat three or more bowls of it a day. Same with Activa's claims that the probiotics in its yogurt help to stimulate digestion (at least three servings a day). A "healthy" diet trying to hew to the standards of all these studies would be a horrific gorge-feast of multiple pots of coffee and so much oatmeal, yogurt, and other supposedly "healthy" foods that there'd likely be nothing all that healthy, and certainly nothing balanced, about it.

And that's not even taking into account the changing views on what foods are even healthy. Eggs were bad, and then good. The big benefits of soy milk are now suspect, even as coffee is seeing a reprieve. Drinking alcohol is a health risk, but drinking a moderate amount of red wine is good for your heart. On the other hand, a 2002 study by Spanish researchers found that people who drank more than two glasses of wine a day had a dramatically reduced risk of getting a cold. The head could spin, trying to keep up with it all.

Given all of that, I asked the Harvard team what advice they had for the average person, based on their research results.

"I wouldn't recommend that men change their coffee consumption based on this study (or any single study)," Wilson answered. "[But] I think this study is part of mounting evidence that you don't need to feel guilty about your current coffee consumption."

Guiltless coffee. Is it possible? I might have to ponder that over a glass of red wine ... or another cup of steaming Java.

Image: kennymatic/flickr