Coffee has gotten a bad rap in the past, blamed for ills like heart disease, cancer, and osteoporosis. But many of the findings were based on flawed research. "The earliest studies were done when we weren't aware of certain lifestyle associations with coffee consumption, like smoking," says Peter Martin, MD, professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at Vanderbilt University. Since then, says Martin, science has shown that "coffee is an extremely healthful drink." A panel of nutrition experts at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology meeting in April addressed the recent advances in knowledge that validate not only coffee's safety but also its health perks.
A Stronger Body…
Coffee is the number one source of antioxidants in the American diet, according to a 2005 University of Scranton study, exceeding wine, chocolate, tea, fruits, and vegetables. Antioxidants may help prevent diseases such as heart disease and cancer.
Research from 2006 involving more than 27,000 women indicates that one to three cups of coffee daily can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. And a 2005 study of more than 90,000 people in Japan found that daily coffee drinkers had half the rate of liver cancer when compared with less frequent consumers.
Surprisingly, coffee contains a high level of soluble dietary fiber—more than other beverages like wine or orange juice. That may explain why a 2002 study of nearly 81,000 women found that those who drank four or more cups a day had about a 25 percent lower risk of gallstones than nondrinkers.
Something in coffee seems to help insulin do its job: Women who drank three to four cups a day had a 29 percent lower risk of diabetes, according to a study from Finland.
There's a grab bag of other preventive benefits, too: protection against chronic liver disease—such as alcohol-related cirrhosis—in people who are at high risk, for example. And food chemists have discovered a substance in coffee that may help ward off colon cancer.
You might even want to make a cup of joe your preworkout beverage: A small study published in March found that a dose of caffeine roughly equal to that in two cups of coffee reduced postexercise muscle soreness by nearly half. Caffeine blocks adenosine, the theory goes, which is a chemical linked to inflammation.
A Sharper Mind…
Memory researchers have found that coffee increases short-term recall, the ability to focus attention, and alertness. A 2002 University of Arizona study found that adults over 65 who drank a cup 30 minutes before a memory test scored higher than those drinking decaf.
Java lovers may also gain protection from Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases. A ten-year study of elderly European men found that those who drank three cups of coffee daily had 4.3 times less cognitive decline—a sign of Alzheimer's—than nondrinkers. And in a 2001 Harvard School of Public Health study, women who downed one to three cups of coffee daily cut their Parkinson's risk nearly in half.
The research makes a compelling case, but if you're sensitive to the jitteriness and sleeplessness coffee can cause, don't force yourself to drink it. You can get many of these benefits from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Those who do indulge should stick to two to four cups daily, though not all experts believe in absolute limits: "If you can sleep at night, you're not getting too much," says Martin. "If you enjoy coffee, drink it."