It’s not necessarily better for you than tea, since caffeine is a mild addictive stimulant. And coffee does have modest cardiovascular effects such as increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, and occasional irregular heartbeat that should be considered. It seems studies have been largely inconclusive regarding coffee and its effect on breast cancer and osteoporosis for women. Coffee has been blamed for everything from moral turpitude to cancer. But none of the bad raps have stuck. Coffee may even be good for you.

Since most coffee-drinkers in long-term studies over the past thirty years have been smokers, most of the links that tried to single out coffee as the cause of pancreatic cancer or heart disease cannot be conclusive. A Harvard medical study actually shows that coffee in moderation can be healthy–and moderation is considered three cups a day!

The study reached some interesting conclusions.

  • The caffeine in coffee will temporarily restrict your arteries, but only the ones that are far away from your heart–like the brain’s arteries. And this is why in some analgesics, caffeine is listed as an ingredient, since it will relieve those “throbbing” headaches which are caused by dilated vessels, not necessarily due to a lack of an addictive drug.
  • Coffee increases your blood pressure, but not by too much. And it doesn’t cause chronic high blood pressure. And the study shows that blood pressure changes tend more to occur in people drinking coffee who don’t usually drink it.
  • Coffee does help you stay more alert. But drinking 2-3 ounces an hour will keep you more alert than if you drink 16 ounces in one hour.
  • Coffee can increase levels of LDL cholestorol. (That’s the bad cholesterol!) But paper coffee filters usually catch these compounds. It’s those who drink espresso, French-pressed, or boiled coffees that will catch these toxins. (By the way, that’s why French-press tastes so good!)
  • Homocysteine is a homologue of the amino acid cysteine, which causes heart disease. Deficiencies of vitamins like folic acid, or pyridoxine can lead to high homocysteine levels. But so can coffee, apparently. Another study showed that coffee had no effect on homocysteine levels for people who had healthy diets, consisting of the proper amounts of folic acid and vitamin B12. For vegans who drink coffee, however, that could be a problem unless they get more of the daily value of B12.
  • Heart disease–is not true for coffee. 1 or 2 cups in the morning will not affect your cardiovascular condition according to this study, which builds from other studies.

There are also some possible benefits to drinking coffee.

  • Coffee has been shown to improve performances such as running, cross-country skiing, and cycling. Studies suggest this effect occurs at doses of 2–9 mg of caffeine per 2.2 pounds of body weight. This is about the amount of caffeine found in 2–5 cups of coffee.
  • Research involving older men and women participating in the Rancho Bernardo Study found that lifetime coffee intake is associated with better performance by women (but not men) on several cognitive tests. No relationship was found between cognitive function and decaffeinated coffee consumption.
  • Several studies have found a reduced risk of colon cancer in people who drink 4 or more cups of coffee per day, compared with those who rarely or never drink coffee. In 2003, German researchers reported that they identified an antioxidant in coffee called methylpyridinium, which boosts the activity of enzymes that may discourage the development of colon cancer. The compound is found in both regular (caffeine-containing) and decaffeinated coffee.
  • Risk of developing type 2 diabetes is lower in coffee drinkers.
  • Risk of developing gallstones is significantly lower.
  • A strong association with drinking coffee and reduced risk of liver damage and liver disease.
  • Several large studies show that a strong reduced risk of Parkinsons disease (the degenerative disorder of the central nervous system, affecting motor skills) exists in coffee drinkers.

It seems that, particularly for older people, drinking coffee is actually beneficial to their health. There are some mild cardiovascular risks and bone loss. But this mildly stimulating drink has been the target of criticism ever since it was introduced to the West from Ethiopia. Many leaders tried to quash enthusiasm for the drink. But the latest research discounts the notion that moderate coffee consumption — which we interpret to be about 2–4 cups per day — causes significant or lasting harm. Indeed, some studies suggest that coffee and caffeine may offer some real health benefits.