Coffee: drink it or ditch it?

If you live in Cape Town, you’ll quickly discover that next to wine, coffee is one of the most popularly consumed social beverages.

The coffee culture permeates every nook and cranny of the beloved Mother City – from street corner cafés in trendy CBD areas, to beachfront coffee shops and artisanal roasteries located in scenic settings.

Retailers have also jumped on the bandwagon, and SA shelves are lined with gourmet beans from across the world. The fact is that many people can’t imagine their day without one (or a few) good cups of coffee, yet the question remains – is it actually good for us?

What are the benefits of drinking coffee?

Coffee proponents are quick to pull out a long list of health benefits commonly associated with coffee consumption:

decreased risk of certain cancers;

enhanced mood and cognitive function;

increased ability to burn fat;

decreased risk of Alzheimer’s; and enhanced energy and physical performance, to name a few.

A 2012 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that coffee consumption could lead to a longer life.

The reason for this is not clear, as the researchers pointed out that coffee contains over 1 000 different compounds that can have a potential positive affect on health.

One of these compounds is a high level of antioxidants, which help fight off free radicals in the body that are responsible for various diseases, including cancer.

While research does back an impressive number of these coffee-related health claims, it is important to consider both sides of the story.

The dark side of caffeine

Caffeine, one of the main stimulants in coffee, is the reason why coffee is often villainised in health circles.

Research has shown that excessive caffeine consumption can lead to increased anxiety levels and sleep impairments (especially in people that have been diagnosed with anxiety disorders), heart palpitations, headaches, and raised blood pressure.

The research also indicates that the extent to which coffee affects people depends greatly on the individual – some people simply are more sensitive to caffeine than others. Caffeine sensitivity is likely due to a genetic predisposition based on how the body metabolises caffeine.

This explains why, for example, some people can drink coffee right before bedtime and sleep soundly, whereas others could consume a cup a few hours before bedtime and struggle to fall asleep.

Regardless of personal genetics, excess caffeine consumption is not desirable. An acceptable caffeine limit for healthy adults is a maximum of 400mg of caffeine a day, which is roughly equivalent to 3 to 4 cups of filtered coffee.

As mentioned earlier, this limit also depends on individual caffeine tolerance, and a trial and error process will help you to assess what your personal limit is. You can still easily enjoy the benefits of coffee by consuming 1 to 2 cups a day, and I would argue that caffeine sensitive individuals should best avoid coffee altogether (or switch to high quality decaffeinated beans).

Getting the most out of your coffee

You will experience the most health benefits from drinking coffee when it is prepared correctly, and consumed in moderation.

See it as a powerful medicine to promote health, rather than a staple beverage.

Once you make this mind set shift, it becomes easier to understand that how you drink your coffee is just as important as why you drink it.

Here are a few tips that will help you to get the most out of your coffee:

Buy organic: coffee crops are often heavily sprayed with pesticides, so make sure that you source organic coffee whenever possible.

Grind your own beans: coffee beans naturally contain oils, and can go rancid fairly quickly if ground and stored for later use. Rather grind your beans as you need them, to make sure that you get the freshest (and tastiest) cup of coffee every time.

Drink it black

To maximise the health benefits, do not add any sugar, milk, or cream to your coffee. Once you train your taste buds to enjoy the taste of black coffee, you’ll soon wonder why you were so hesitant to switch in the first place (naturally this is dependent on buying fresh, good quality coffee).

Once you start making these simple shifts in your coffee drinking habits, you set yourself up to experience all the benefits of good quality coffee, without the potential health risks associated with pesticide use, processed foods, and sugar and dairy (for the dairy sensitive) consumption. Let’s drink to that!

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