Well-informed coffee drinkers won’t miss a beat

coffee-2By Jess Scott Wright, RDN

This week, there’s a media buzz due to an article in the latest issue of the Journal of the American Heart Association: New evidence challenges former beliefs that caffeine causes heart palpitations. But before concluding your coffee habit is healthy, there is more to consider.

Over the years, numerous studies have emerged to highlight extraordinary health benefits of moderate coffee consumption to lower risk of diabetes and cancer and protect against neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. However, many of these findings are based on observational research, not controlled experiments. Often, a generalized observation is misrepresented as an absolute when it is shared with the public through mass media.

What is moderate coffee consumption? How much coffee is good for you? This advice will change from study to study so it’s important to consult your doctor if you aren’t sure.

The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, for instance, attributes 4–5 cups per day to a reduced risk of colorectal cancer, while the aforementioned study in the Journal of the American Heart Association does not specify absolute amounts, noting that observations are based on the specific group reported on, not for everyone.

“We [health professionals] may be unnecessarily discouraging consumption of substances like chocolate, coffee and tea that might actually have cardiovascular benefits,” said lead researcher Dr. Gregory Marcus, a cardiologist at the University of California San Diego.

While this study does say that regardless of the amount of caffeine consumed by the 1,388 people observed, there was no sign of irregularities in heart rhythms, it does not dismiss the fact that in excess amounts, caffeine can still be lethal.

“We are only able to conclude that in general, consuming caffeinated products every day is not associated with having increased ectopy or arrhythmia but cannot specify a particular amount per day,” Marcus and colleagues wrote.

Many mainstream news platforms are sharing this evidence under broad titles like, “Study: Caffeine doesn’t cause heart palpitations,” and “Coffee vindicated: Caffeine doesn’t worsen heartbeat irregularities, study finds.”

While these statements are true as they pertain to the study, they don’t apply to every individual. For instance, if you have severe anxiety and are sensitive to stimulants, coffee may still cause adverse side effects that mimic heart palpitations and would likely not be beneficial to you.

When it comes to coffee specifically, generalizations are tricky because caffeine content and potential health properties vary drastically by the cup. Everything from the degree of bean roasting to the brew method, where you get your coffee and, especially, what you put in your coffee, ultimately determines how healthy or unhealthy a cup of Joe might be for you.

A 2009 study in Diabetologia found that a total consumption of at least three cups per day of coffee or tea may lower the risk of type 2 diabetes.

However, if someone loosely interprets this evidence and orders three grande white chocolate mochas from Starbucks every day, they might be drinking three cups of coffee, but they are also consuming the equivalent of about 34 packets of sugar. This would ultimately increase their risk for developing diabetes, and undermine any potential health benefits from the coffee itself.

Another exception to the caffeine rule: pregnant and nursing women should limit their intake according to their doctor’s recommendations, as should those who have any sleep disturbances, anxiety issues or any other condition adversely affected by caffeine consumption.

Although exciting, breaking news regarding advancements in health and wellness can be tricky; science is constantly evolving and there is almost always a contradictory claim or exception to any study. Generalized findings are not absolutes, and it is important to maintain that distinction when interpreting headlines.

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