Is coffee unhealthy?

Posted on 13 November 2012

By Carine Visagie and Andrew Duncan
(This article appeared in Mediclinic Family magazine, Issue 8)

While the exact origin of coffee is unknown, evidence shows enjoying it as a beverage dates back to at least the thirteenth century. It is said to have originated in Ethiopia, then to have spread to Egypt and Yemen, taking another three centuries to reach the rest of the world. The wonderful taste, aroma and stimulating effect of coffee has made it one of the most widely consumed beverages around the world.

Recent research has uncovered additional stimulating effects and health benefits of coffee, some of which we discuss in this article.

How much is too much coffee?
This varies from person to person. The fact is that some people can tolerate higher caffeine levels than others. A good rule of thumb, according to the US National Institutes of Health, is to have no more than four cups of coffee a day. If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, it’s best to have as little caffeine as possible.

Is filter coffee from freshly ground beans healthier than chicory or instant coffee?
Definitely, says dietician Talia Den Dulk from Mediclinic Stellenbosch. In most instances, less processed foods are more nutritious. But instant coffee is also an option (it’s more affordable and convenient, after all) and it contains the nutrients found in filter coffee. Plus, if it contains chicory, it has another benefit: the soluble fibre in this plant acts as a prebiotic in the gut, turning into a food source for the good bacteria, or probiotics, that reside there. These bacteria, in turn, play an important role in immunity.

Is it healthier to drink coffee without milk?
Not necessarily. If you don’t already consume more than two to three portions of dairy per day (one portion = a cup of milk or yoghurt), a dash of milk in your coffee is a good way of getting your daily dose of calcium. In fact, most people consume a substantial amount of their daily calcium and milk with their coffee, which is good. It’s best to go for fat-free or low-fat milk instead of the full-cream variety, as milk is a source of animal (saturated) fat and cholesterol. Interestingly, the Italians believe no milk should be taken with coffee after noon, but there’s no scientific reason why you should stick to this custom.

How can drinking too much coffee damage my health?
Coffee definitely isn’t as bad as we once thought it was, but you still need to be cautious: too much coffee can make you restless, irritable and anxious. It may also interfere with your sleep patterns and cause heart-rhythm abnormalities in severe cases. And coffee can aggravate migraines, ulcers and osteoporosis in people affected by these conditions, says dietician Annaret Brand from Mediclinic Milnerton. If you’re unsure of how coffee will affect you, check with your doctor. But rest assured: moderate coffee intake of four servings per day will not cause health problems in healthy adults.

Can drinking water offset the damaging effects of coffee?
The good news is that a few cups of coffee a day shouldn’t cause dehydration if you’re a regular coffee drinker. This myth was busted in 2002, when a major review by Loughborough University showed that large doses of caffeine could up your urine output – but only if you haven’t been drinking tea or coffee for several days. However, it’s still best to alternate coffee with water and caffeine-free beverages such as rooibos tea throughout the day, and to keep tabs on your coffee and caffeine intake.

What does coffee do to me physically?
All of us know that coffee is an instant pick-me-upper. But a literature review by American nutritionist Dr Michael Glade perfectly summed up caffeine’s immediate effects on the body: it increases your energy levels, decreases fatigue, enhances physical performance, makes you more alert, quickens your actions,helps you to concentrate and enhances your short-term memory. Research now also shows that coffee may have long-term health benefits. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, the antioxidants in coffee may protect against cancer, type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, liver disease, heart disease and stroke. Espresso anyone?

How addictive is coffee?
Again, this depends on the individual – some can handle many cups a day, while for others one is their limit. Regular coffee drinkers are usually familiar with the withdrawal symptoms experienced the moment they cut out coffee for a few days – so yes, coffee is addictive. An interesting bit if trivia is that the way we drink caffeine isn’t just random. Recent research funded by the US National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute shows that genetics play a significant role: if you carry the right kind of gene, you’re likely to consume 40mg more caffeine than someone who doesn’t.

The ‘coffee break’ in the American workplace came about during World War II. Employers found that their employees would work longer and harder if they were supplied with a coffee break during their shifts. Fortunately for coffee-lovers, this is still very much an institution in our work day.


The information provided in this article was correct at the time of publishing. At Mediclinic we endeavour to provide our patients and readers with accurate and reliable information, which is why we continually review and update our content. However, due to the dynamic nature of clinical information and medicine, some information may from time to time become outdated prior to revision.

Published in Nutrition

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