You thought coffee was bad for you? Actually, it seems to protect against all sorts of ills, from diabetes to liver cancer
Every passing week brings news for latte lovers, and the latest on coffee is the best buzz yet. It turns out that a cup of joe--or a carafe--may chase away the blues; turn you into a better athlete; and protect against diabetes, Parkinson's disease, gallstones, and some cancers. Last week's headline: Researchers at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases found that a two-cup-a-day habit can dramatically cut the risk of chronic liver disease in those at greatest risk. "If its benefits continue to mount, coffee may come to be viewed as a health food," says Lona Sandon, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.
This is quite a turnaround from the not-so-distant past, when the brew was blamed for a host of ills ranging from pancreatic cancer and fibrocystic breasts to fatal heart arrhythmias and elevated cholesterol. What has made nutrition experts rethink the pros and cons? Worrisome preliminary findings have been refuted by bigger, more rigorous studies. "A lot of early research was flawed," says Manfred Kroger, a now retired food scientist from Pennsylvania State University who has long been tracking it. "Coffee lovers are more likely to do harmful things like smoke and drink alcohol in excess, so coffee was often falsely incriminated."
The health benefits of coffee are not so thoroughly proven yet that anyone is suggesting actually upping your intake. Nor is anyone saying coffee is entirely benign. Pregnant women are still advised to abstain, since there's a concern that more than a couple of cups a day may trigger a miscarriage. Too much caffeine can upset some stomachs, exacerbate heartburn, and make people too jittery--or sleepless. But "if you're already drinking five or six cups a day, I'd be hard pressed to come up with a reason you should cut back," says Walter Willett, chairman of the department of nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health and a leading investigator of coffee. (If you load them with whipped cream and sugar, however, you invite an expanded waistline and other health problems.)
Nutrition experts like Willett point out that, like tea, coffee is rich in antioxidants--substances in vegetables and fruits that deactivate disease-causing byproducts of the body's metabolism. "Coffee is by far the largest source of antioxidants in our diet," says Joe Vinson, a chemistry professor at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania. That's not just because we drink so much. In tests conducted at Vinson's lab, coffee topped the list of foods that are densest in antioxidants, surpassing blueberries, broccoli, and most other produce. Only chocolate, dried fruits, and dried beans ranked higher.
Wired brains. Much-maligned caffeine appears to be a protective substance, too. Beyond waking up sluggish minds, caffeine may serve as a mild antidepressant--or so researchers theorize. One Harvard study of 80,000 American women found that those who drank more than two or three cups of regular coffee daily cut their risk of suicide over 10 years by one third. And the stimulant has been shown in animal experiments to inhibit the brain-cell destruction that occurs in Parkinson's disease. A 30-year study in Hawaii of 8,000 Japanese-American men found that coffee consumers were about 48 percent to 84 percent less likely to be diagnosed with Parkinson's. Another study on the mainland yielded similar findings and traced the protective effect to caffeine in coffee, tea, and colas.