Coffee: Should you drink to your health?

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You have likely heard the news: Drinking fairly copious amounts of coffee is very unlikely to kill you, and might even do you some good! Reviewing the study, I agree the cup of Joe is half full in this case, but I also think it comes with a grain of salt.

The study in question is based on self-reported coffee intake from two large cohorts, the Nurses Health Study (women) and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study (men), both convened by the Harvard School of Public Health. In observational trials such as these, subjects do what they do–there is no intervention–and fill out surveys to keep the researchers informed.

Why would one person drink 6 cups of coffee daily, and another only 2? We don’t really know. Maybe the person who drinks 6 is less vulnerable to a caffeine buzz, and maybe whatever makes them less vulnerable to a caffeine buzz also makes them less vulnerable to heart disease! I’m not saying this is true–in fact, I just made it up–but it COULD be true. And it it were, it would explain why higher coffee intake would be associated with a lower death rate, and the benefit would not really be attributable to the coffee.

But we do have reason to think coffee confers actual health benefits. For one thing, it is a fairly concentrated source of antioxidants. For another, intervention studies have shown some disease-specific benefit with both regular and decaf coffees, in particular a reduced risk of diabetes and better blood sugar control. It thus makes sense that over time, habitual coffee consumption might reduce, and certainly not increase, all-cause-mortality.

So the news about coffee is good–reassuring at a minimum. But it really is not a reason to make a concerted effort to drink more coffee. We don’t yet know whether coffee reduces the risk of dying, or whether people who tend to drink the most coffee have a lower risk of dying to begin with. More research is needed to sort that out.

Between now and then, I will continue to enjoy my 2-3 daily cups of French roast coffee with a bit of non-fat powdered milk mixed in. Imbibe as you see fit.

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