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Health Sentinel: Coffee gives a jolt to health

Monday, February 3, 2014 - 7:55 am

I've always enjoyed a cup of coffee in the morning, and in this bitter arctic winter I find myself drinking two or three cups a day, with a cup of tea now and then in between. Just holding a cup of the steaming hot liquid in my hands, sipping it slowly, feeling the warmth pass through my mouth to my stomach make me feel better. I'm guessing coffee consumption this year is on the rise.

In 2013, we Americans were already drinking 587 million cups a day, according to a National Coffee Association survey. That translates to 4.7 billion ounces of coffee. Figuring a cup at 8 ounces — though many coffee mugs are much larger — and a gallon equals 128 ounces, we are consuming more than 36 million gallons of coffee daily. That's a lotta java!

If your coffee consumption is up this winter, be encouraged that a growing body of evidence is showing it's not so bad for us after all.

The main thing with coffee is the antioxidants, said Jennifer Harrison, a Lutheran Hospital registered dietitian. The antioxidants help protect our cells from potential destruction. Antioxidants are shown to play a role in preventing cellular changes that cause cancer, heart disease, stroke and other diseases.

Most fruits and vegetables are rich in antioxidants, but according to a study at the University of Scranton, coffee is the leading source for antioxidants among Americans. The study analyzed USDA data on American food consumption. Tea came in second as the most common way we get our antioxidants. Both green and black tea are good sources of antioxidants, Harrison says.

This does not mean we should ditch the fruits and vegetables, which provide a greater spectrum of nutrients. The Scranton researchers point out that coffee provides a certain kind of antioxidant, and one to two cups of coffee a day is all that is needed for maximum benefit.

Other benefits of coffee:

•It may prolong your life. According to a findings from a 2012 National Cancer Institute study, men who drank two to three cups of coffee had a 10 percent greater likelihood of outliving men who were non-coffee drinkers; women coffee drinkers had a 13 percent increase in outliving their non-coffee drinking counterparts.

•Coffee is low calorie — only 2 calories per 8 ounces, Harrison said.

•It may also stave off type 2 diabetes. Coffee increases blood plasma levels of a sex hormone-binding protein that plays a role in development of type 2 diabetes. One study found risk of type 2 diabetes was reduced by 50 percent in subjects who drank four or more cups of coffee a day.

Harrison cautions adding sugar and creamers with sweetened flavorings can add calories and undo any benefits for avoiding type 2 diabetes. If you can't drink it black, use skim milk, she said, noting the growing array of flavored creamers in the dairy section is tempting. Always read the labels. Fat free does not necessarily mean sugar free or vice versa.

•Coffee has been shown in several studies to be linked to decreased risk of developing Parkinson's disease. Research at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, published in the medical journal Neurology in 2012, showed coffee may also improve mobility and reduce stiffness in people who already have Parkinson's. Patients who drank three cups a day showed those benefits compared to a placebo group. Daytime sleepiness, which is common with Parkinson's, was slightly improved in patients though not statistically significant.

•Recent research has linked coffee, or more specifically, caffeine, to improving memory. A study by Johns Hopkins University, published in January in Nature Neuroscience, showed people who consumed 200 milligrams of caffeine, whether in coffee, tea, or soda, had better discriminating memory than subjects given a placebo. The subjects were shown images and asked to recall them the next day. Some images were very similar but not exactly the same. Those who took caffeine could better recall the similar but not identical items, which requires a deeper level of memory in the brain. Several amounts of caffeine were compared with 200 milligrams — the equivalent of one up of strong coffee

•Psychological benefits are also associated with coffee, including lowered risk of depression and suicide. Harvard School of Public Health researchers found those who drank four or more cups of coffee a day had about a 50 percent reduced risk of depression compared to those who had never drank coffee.

One might wonder if it is the coffee or if, with today's coffee shop atmosphere, the effect is socialization, bringing coffee drinkers together to talk, listen to music and relax.

Coffee is not a perfect food by any means, Harrison said. If you are not a coffee drinker, you don't need to start. But if you like your java, then all things in moderation. Let's cap it at two to three 8-ounce cups a day. For a pregnant woman, 300 milligrams, or one to two cups, is the recommended maximum.

Certain people, such as those with irregular heartbeats, acid reflux, ulcers or insomnia, should avoid coffee or caffeine, in general. Doctors may also advise against coffee when other conditions are present.

I'm glad the bad rap this drink has had is diminishing. And with my new single-serve coffeemaker, I'll have that cup in just one minute.

Jennifer L. Boen is a freelance writer in Fort Wayne who writes frequently about health and medicine. This column is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of The News-Sentinel.