There’s nothing like that first sip of coffee in the morning and two new large studies confirm a few daily cups of the intense brew can be part of a healthy lifestyle.
Drinking coffee — either caffeinated or decaf — was associated with a reduced risk of death when researchers followed thousands of people of different races and people living in different countries in the separate studies, published Monday in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
It’s “premature” to recommend that people drink coffee to live longer or prevent disease, cautioned an editorial in the journal.
Still, it's increasingly evident moderate daily coffee intake — defined as three to five cups or no more than 400 mg of caffeine — "is not associated with adverse health effects in adults and can be incorporated into a healthy diet,” the editorial notes.
“The key message is that people can drink coffee,” Veronica Setiawan, an associate professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, told TODAY. “It seems there’s no long-term harm."
"We are always recommending people to avoid doing things... so I think it is very refreshing that we can tell people: If you drink coffee, don't worry about it — it's OK," added Dr. Eliseo Guallar, one of the authors of the editorial and professor of epidemiology and medicine at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
But most studies focused on Caucasians, so one of the new papers specifically looked at the effect of coffee on other populations, following more than 185,000 African Americans, Japanese Americans, Native Hawaiians, Latinos and whites for 16 years. Non-white populations have different lifestyles and risks, so it’s important to study them and see if researchers can see similar patterns, said Setiawan, one of the study co-authors.
Once again, higher consumption of coffee was associated with lower risk for death in all these groups except one: the association was not statistically significant in Native Hawaiians.
Overall, people who drank two to three cups of coffee a day had an 18 percent lower risk of dying of all causes than people who skipped coffee. In particular, coffee drinkers had a reduced risk of death from heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke, kidney and respiratory disease.
The study defined a cup as 8 ounces of coffee, but didn’t look at whether people added cream or sugar, or how strong the coffee was.
The findings don’t necessarily mean coffee abstainers should head to their local café, Setiawan said. The observational study can’t prove a cause-and-effect. Besides, “some people don’t even like the taste. Some people drink coffee and they don’t feel good, so it really depends on the individuals,” she noted.
Meanwhile, a study of coffee consumption in 10 European countries also suggested drinking more coffee was associated with lower risk for death, specifically from digestive and circulatory diseases, researchers said.
That analysis included more than 520,000 people — from Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom — taking part in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition. They were also followed for 16 years.
The beneficial effect of coffee didn’t vary by country, which is important since people in different regions tend to prepare coffee in different ways. The study showed the effect was consistent no matter the brew.
The amount of caffeine in the coffee didn’t seem to matter in either study. There are thousands of biologically active compounds in coffee, including antioxidants, and nobody really knows which ones explain the protective association, Setiawan said. Still, the amount of caffeine matters for overall health. Drinking more than four to five cups of coffee daily or consuming more than 400 mg of caffeine per day can have long-term adverse health effects, Guallar warned.
Drinking coffee is a “complex behavior,” the editorial notes. People who drink the brew also tend to smoke, and the link between coffee and lower risk of death showed up only after researchers in both studies adjusted for smoking.
And watch out for those extras you put in coffee, including cream and sugar, which can add calories and unhealthy fats. Coffee intake is safe, but it has to be kept in the context of healthy eating habits, Guallar said.