We asked experts what the hell is up with coffee

Depending on which study you read, it's either going to kill us or make us live forever.

Illustrated by Lais Borges/Getty Images
Healthy or Hype?
Originally Published: 

I love coffee, but I honestly have no idea whether it’s good for me or not. It seems like there's a new study about coffee every month, and the results are often contradictory. A new study published this week, for example, suggests that people who drink coffee are at a lower risk of dying young — but past studies have shown that coffee can contribute to anxiety. I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure if living longer sounds that fun if it means all those extra years will be accompanied by a ton of anxiety. So, how can we possibly interpret all the conflicting advice about whether coffee is good for us?

The first thing you should consider when you’re trying to suss out the legitimacy of the various coffee drinking advice— or advice about anything, actually — is the money behind the information. Studies funded by the coffee industry itself deserve your scrutiny, says Dana Ellis Hunnes PhD, a registered dietitian in Los Angeles, assistant professor at UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, and author of Recipe for Survival: What You Can Do to Live a Healthier and More Environmentally Friendly Life. Instead, Hunnes says, look for advice based on studies funded by independent research entities, such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

With that in mind, what is the coffee advice we can trust? “Most independent studies show [positive] health effects of coffee,” Hunnes says. “Black coffee in particular is full of phytonutrients (healthy plant nutrients), antioxidants, and healthy naturally occurring chemicals like polyphenols. When taken without the addition of sweeteners or creams, it’s beneficial for health.”

Recent, independently funded research indicates that a little sugar won’t negate the positive health benefits of coffee, but that may not be true for everyone — like people with diabetes or who may be prone to high blood pressure. If you want to be safe, Hunne says, stick with plain old joe. “Black coffee is best from a health standpoint so you’re not adding extra (and inflammatory) calories,” she explains.

Most experts agree that it’s wise to err on the side of caution. “Previous studies have suggested that coffee can reduce the risk of stroke, and the recent study out of China found a correlation between coffee consumption and a reduced likelihood of early death,” says David Culpepper, an internal medicine physician in NYC and Clinical Director of LifeMD, a direct-to-patient telehealth company. “Though these studies are certainly promising, I would still advise my patients to be cautious about overdoing it with coffee.”

Okay, but what is the right, or “cautious,” amount of coffee? Some studies suggest that up to 25 cups a day won’t hurt you, but even I — an avowed coffee lover — think that’s a lot. “Most reputable studies recommend no more than two to three (8oz) coffee drinks per day,” Hunnes says. She and Culpepper both agree that it’s also important not to drink coffee too late, though, if you want to sleep well. 3 p.m. is a good cut off point to ensure the java won’t impact your rest, says Culpepper.

It feels important to say that even the best studies can’t tell you how coffee will make you feel. You have to check in with your own body. “Patients who suffer from anxiety can experience severe symptoms, and even panic attacks, from consuming too much coffee,” Culpepper says. If you start feeling anxious, he says, it’s time to put the latte down.