Move over green tea and make room for coffee as the next healthy hot beverage. Not only is coffee not as bad rumor had it, it actually has some impressive health benefits. Over the past several years, researchers have shown that coffee does not increase the risk of heart disease, hypertension or ulcers. Still other researchers have shown that coffee may help reduce the risk of diabetes and Parkinson's disease. Add to that the potential reductions in headaches and a boost to endurance exercise, and coffee takes on the aura of genuine health drink.

Coffee contains a lot of caffeine and much of the new research shows that it's the caffeine that may be providing some of the health benefits. But coffee also contains high amounts of antioxidants - those health boosters found in fruits and vegetables - and these could also be responsible for coffee's new healthy image.

Diabetes       Several studies have shown a relationship between drinking coffee and a lower risk of type II diabetes. Researchers think this risk reduction may have something to do with substances known as quinides in coffee that make the body's cells more responsive to insulin - the hormone that helps keep blood sugar low. But much more research is needed to find out exactly how coffee may affect diabetes.

Parkinson's & Alzheimer's Disease      Researchers think the caffeine in coffee and other caffeinated beverages may help lower the risk of Parkinson's Disease, a progressive neurological disease that causes sufferers to have tremors, slow movement, and loss of balance. The evidence supporting caffeine's role in reducing risk is so strong, that researchers are currently developing Parkinson's medications that contain caffeine! The regular consumption of coffee may also have a protective effect against Alzheimer's disease. Again, researchers think this protective link is due to the caffeine.

Performance Booster       Caffeine may also help boost performance in endurance activities - especially in well-trained athletes. Caffeine may help athletes ignore fatigue and help muscles work harder for longer. Since coffee is a more concentrated source of caffeine than sodas, a cup or two can possibly improve performance.

Cancer Prevention:  Coffee is chock full of antioxidants that may help lower the risk of some types of cancers.

While some of the evidence, particularly in the diabetes studies, seems to show that the more coffee the better, excessive coffee and caffeine intake is not risk free. Not only can the caffeine in coffee keep you up at night and cause the jitters, it can also increase calcium losses through the urine and may reduce a woman's chance of getting pregnant.  But it does appear that the benefits of drinking coffee outweigh the risks - good news for coffee lovers.

Should some people limit coffee & caffeine? Women who are trying to get pregnant and those who are pregnant should limit coffee because excessive caffeine may make it hard to get pregnant and may increase the risk of miscarriage. But moderation is the key - two small cups of coffee are probably safe but women should check with their doctors. Also, if you are a heavy coffee drinker, be sure to get plenty of calcium as too much caffeine can rob the body of calcium.

Women who are trying to get pregnant or are pregnant, should limit caffeine to no more than 200 mg a day.

Here are the numbers:

1 cup of coffee (8 ounces): 130 mg
1 cup of hot tea (6 ounces): 40 mg
12 ounce Coke (diet or regular): 46 mg
12 ounce Mountain Dew:  54 mg
1.55 ounce chocolate bar: 10 mg

For more information on coffee, visit the Vanderbilt Institute for Coffee Studies at www.mc.vanderbilt.edu/coffee and also the Coffee Science source at www.coffeescience.org

Beth Kitchin, Ph.D., RD
Assistant Professor
UAB Department of Nutrition Sciences