Up Close & Edible: Coffee

The latest buzz on coffee suggests that a cup of joe may have benefits beyond that early-morning boost. Whether you're drinking regular or decaf, dieticians are now saying that a cup or two a day is not going to cause any damage. It may even help a little; recent research has shown that coffee has the potential to lower risk for a wide range of diseases from Parkinson's to type 2 diabetes.

Coffee is a pretty bland beverage, nutritionally speaking—no carbs, no fat, no protein. But its caffeine content of 200 milligrams per cup has often earned coffee a bad reputation, one that American Dietetic Association spokesperson Christine Gerbstadt says is largely unwarranted if you drink in moderation. "People have all these crazy notions that either it's really, really good or really, really bad," says Gerbstadt. "Putting it in perspective, it doesn't have any vitamins or minerals to speak of. It has a few compounds that may promote antioxidant activity. There have been some population studies that have shown its benefits, but it's no reason for a non-coffee drinker to start."

Some of those benefits have surfaced in Robert van Dam's research. An assistant professor of medicine at Harvard University, van Dam has found a lower risk of type 2 diabetes among coffee drinkers; his research has been replicated in many countries. Other researchers have found links between coffee consumers and lower risks for breast cancer and Parkinson's. These findings, van Dam says, show coffee's often-underappreciated healthy side.

"Years ago everyone thought it was detrimental, and if people wanted to improve they would switch to decaf or stop drinking coffee altogether," says van Dam. "Now the evidence suggests that there are several beneficial effects of coffee."

Coffee is also calorie-free, making it a caffeinated alternative to sugar-laden soft drinks. This, however, does not apply to a jumbo caramel mocha latte with extra whipped cream. "Coffee beverages can get ugly," cautions Gerbstadt. "If you get a 20-ounce beverage with syrup, cream and sugar you can add up to 50 grams of fat in one of those big cups. You're all the way around adding nothing except for making it less healthy."

The key to coffee is moderation, in both consumption and the addition of calories. Gerbstadt recommends a two-cup-a-day limit, along with a small amount of sugar and skim milk. And if you just can't say no to that Frappuccino, treat the coffee like a dessert rather than a drink and consider getting a small size. "It's basically like eating a piece of cheesecake," Gerbstadt says. "If you look at it like: 'I've been to the gym, I've already eaten healthy today, I know this is high fat,' that's appropriate."

As for the caffeine, Gerbstadt says it's all about your sensitivity. For most people, 200-400 milligrams will not cause any problems. For those who are more sensitive, it may cause a jittery feeling or difficulty sleeping. The serious risks are for anyone who has high blood pressure or has had a heart attack because caffeine can cause blood pressure to rise to a risky level. Those with acid reflux or who are prone to heartburn, however, can probably sip without worry: a 2006 study conducted by researchers at Stanford University found that there was little evidence for coffee upsetting sensitive stomachs. The bottom line, says Gerbstadt, is that, for most, there is no inherent harm to moderate caffeine intake, but if it makes you restless or jumpy, order the decaf instead.