Experts Set the Record Straight: Is Coffee Healthy, and How Do You Make It Even Healthier?

It’s the morning jolt you look forward to and the pick-me-up to get you through an afternoon slump. But it turns out your coffee habit is doing more than just giving you a much-needed rush of energy and helping you stay awake. Recent research shows that drinking about two cups a day can provide a ton of health benefits (great news for coffee addicts alike). So I asked health experts to spill the tea—ahem, coffee—on all the health benefits of coffee, how to make sure your cup of coffee is as healthy as possible, and if coffee really is as beneficial as studies may suggest. Grab your fave brew, and let’s dig in. 



The health benefits of coffee:


Boosts energy levels and brain function

No surprise here: Your go-to morning bevvie contains caffeine, a central nervous system stimulant that helps fight fatigue and level up your energy levels, which is probably why you love it so much. But how does it work? When the body ingests caffeine, specific receptors in the brain that mediate critical functions like sleep, arousal, cognition, memory, and learning are blocked. In other words: Bye-bye, fatigue. Hello, alertness. “Coffee has been shown to positively impact brain function, with studies suggesting that coffee can improve alertness, memory, and reaction time,” agreed Monica Russell, a nutritionist and the founder and CEO of Acquired Coffee.


Packed with antioxidants

Step aside, chocolate and blueberries because coffee is also chock full of antioxidants. Not only is it antioxidant-rich, but it might be one of the most antioxidant-rich products we have access to. “Coffee is one of the richest antioxidant drinks in the world,” explained Michael Murdy, a food scientist, dietitian chef, and founder of Robust Kitchen. “It contains polyphenols, a type of antioxidant, which can help reduce inflammation, protect cells from damage, and even help to lower the risk of some chronic diseases.” 


May assist healthy weight loss goals

If weight loss is one of your goals, your morning Starbucks run may be doing more for you than just boosting energy levels. According to one study done in 2021, coffee could alter fat storage and support gut health (gut health is an important factor in healthy weight management). In another promising study, increased coffee intake was linked to overall decreased body fat in women specifically. Furthermore, drinking coffee may help you be more active, which can be beneficial if increased activity is part of your weight loss plan: another promising study found that people who drank 1-2 cups of coffee per day were 17% more likely to meet recommended physical activity levels, compared with those who drank less than one cup per day. 


Contains essential nutrients

As registered dietician Devon Peart, MHSc, BASc told Cleveland Clinic, coffee contains about a thousand different botanical compounds. While scientists haven’t studied all of them yet, the verdict so far is looking good. What’s more, Murdy cited that coffee contains essential vitamins and minerals, such as potassium (an essential electrolyte), magnesium (supports muscle and nerve function and energy production), and niacin (supports a healthy nervous system and digestive system). 


Can improve physical performance

If you’ve ever drank coffee pre-workout, you may have noticed anything from a little pep in your step to feeling like you’re The Hulk (but prettier, obvi), and for good reason. Coffee stimulates the body to use fat stores instead of muscle glycogen (AKA sugar) during long workouts. The result? Prolonged use of working muscles, meaning you have increased ability to train longer, with greater power output and resistance to fatigue. 


But wait…coffee may not be good for you.

While there are some amazing health benefits, it’s important to know that every body is different and therefore reacts differently to every practice, routine, and food–including coffee. Along with the benefits of coffee, there also may be some downsides. Dr. Anna Arabyan, a hormone expert and founder of NutraFemmeRX, laid out the potential downfalls of caffeine, particularly on women with a reproductive cycle. “It’s important to note that the effects of caffeine on women with a reproductive cycle can vary depending on individual sensitivity to caffeine,” Dr. Arabyan continued. “If you are a woman with hormone-related health concerns, talk to your healthcare provider about how much caffeine is safe for you to consume.” Potential downfalls of coffee include:


Hormonal imbalances

Caffeine can affect the levels of the hormones estrogen and progesterone. In higher dosages, there is a possibility that excess caffeine intake can cause an imbalance of the two hormones, leading to negative health effects (think: premenstrual syndrome, heavy periods, fibrocystic breasts, period symptoms, etc.). Additionally, caffeine can cause your body to produce excess cortisol (AKA the stress hormone), which can result in inflammation. 


Increased anxiety and insomnia

Caffeine can cause nervousness, restlessness, and anxiety, particularly in women who are already prone to these conditions. It can also interfere with sleep, which can lead to fatigue and other health problems. 


Potential toxin consumption

Conventional coffee is among the most heavily chemically treated crops in the world. Coffee bean crops are commonly treated with synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides that do not always get processed out when the bean is turning into your cup of coffee. Because mold, toxins, and pesticides may be lurking in your java, knowing where your coffee is coming from matters. 


Bottom line: is coffee healthy or unhealthy?

The age-old debate remains: Is coffee a superfood or damaging for your health? “The answer is, it depends,” Russell stated. “Coffee can be a great source of antioxidants and brain-boosting benefits, but it’s also high in caffeine, which can be harmful in large amounts. Whether coffee is good or bad for you depends on your biochemistry.” In other words, because of bio-individuality, every body will react differently to coffee. “Coffee is a complex beverage, and its effects on one person may vary widely from what other experiences,” Murdy echoed. “Some people may find that it increases their energy, focus, and cognitive performance, while others may find it to have negative effects such as increased anxiety, agitation, or interrupted sleep. Pay attention to how your body responds to coffee and adjust your consumption accordingly.”

Translation: Get to know your body and how you feel with or without caffeine, and make the choice that is best for you. Talk to your doctor about how coffee could affect you (especially if you have anxiety, insomnia, or hormone-related symptoms), and experiment with at least a few days without caffeine to see how you feel. You just might find that “detoxing” from caffeine has a long-term benefit on your energy levels or improves symptoms such as headaches, PMS, or anxiety. Also, if you feel dependent on coffee to be able to stay awake or wake up in the morning, talk to your doctor about naturally increasing energy and potentially limiting caffeine to get over any caffeine dependence. However, if you feel no dependence or symptoms and you want to enjoy coffee as a part of your routine, enjoy a cup or two, knowing you’re getting some amazing health benefits (as long as it’s organic–more on that below!).


Tips to make your cup of coffee as healthy as possible


1. Choose organic Arabica beans 

Since coffee is a highly sprayed food, Russell recommended reaching for organic coffee whenever possible to reduce your exposure to pesticides and chemicals. “When shopping for coffee beans, look for high-quality, organic, and specialty-grade beans,” she continued. “These are usually grown in specific regions and are carefully harvested and processed to produce the best possible flavor.” As for the healthiest types of beans? “Arabica beans are generally the best choice,” Murdy confirmed. “They contain fewer caffeine and acids than Robusta beans, making them easier on the stomach and less likely to cause heartburn or indigestion.”


2. Be mindful of how you take your coffee

“Using too much sugar in your coffee can increase blood sugar levels,” Murdy explained. “Instead, try using natural sweeteners such as honey or maple syrup to sweeten your coffee. Or if you don’t need any sweetness, you can skip it altogether.” Russell favored adding a small amount of almond or coconut milk for creaminess or opting for a sugar alternative like stevia. To take it a step further, Murdy suggested adding spices to your cup of java: “Adding spices to your coffee can help enhance the flavor and add a boost of antioxidants. Try adding a pinch of cinnamon, nutmeg, or cardamom for a delicious and nutritious twist.”


3. Brew your own coffee

We get it: you’ve reached VIP status at your local Starbucks, but Russell suggested DIYing at home to not only save you cash, but also to give you more control over the ingredients you use. Dr. Sony Sherpa, a holistic physician from Nature’s Rise, encouraged using filtered water when brewing your coffee: “Coffee is 99% water, so using clean, filtered water will help to improve the taste and quality of your coffee. With filtered water, you can ensure that your coffee doesn’t contain impurities that may be present in tap water.”


4. Go for a dark roast

All those different “roasts” you see at your local coffee shop actually mean more than just how coffee connoisseurs order their ideal cup. The variety of roast can also vary in caffeine, acid levels, antioxidants, etc. The differences are slight, but may be worth it if you’re a heavy coffee drinker and don’t have a preference anyway. “Dark roast coffee has slightly less caffeine than light roast coffee, so the former is better if you’re trying to cut back on caffeine intake,” Dr. Sherpa explained. “Dark roast coffee has also been shown to contain more antioxidants than light roast coffee.” Russell agreed: “Darker roasts tend to be lower in acidity, making them easier on your stomach. Plus, they often have a stronger, bolder flavor.”


5. Consider decaf or a coffee alternative if you’re sensitive to caffeine

If you want to avoid caffeine due to hormonal concerns, mental health, or insomnia, but still love a cup of coffee as your morning ritual, there are options for you too. “Consider switching to a caffeine-free alternative like decaf or trying a coffee alternative like dandelion coffee or chicory root coffee,” Russell proposed. There are other super nutritious substitutes like viral MUD/WTR and matcha tea, which both have additional benefits you don’t want to sleep on (hint: can improve focus and energy, beneficial for gut health, boosts your immune system, etc). 


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