A cup of coffee a day keeps the doctor away

For years coffee has endured a bad rap, but experts now say the caffeine content can actually do you some good.

By Paul Benedetti

A cup a day

Every morning Lesli Boldt starts her day with a serious cup of coffee -- a two-shot espresso with hot water. “I have one coffee a day and I want it to be a good one,” says Lesli, 35, a manager of marketing and communications for the Vancouver Public Library.

Not only does Lesli's coffee taste good, but new research suggests that it may also be good for her. Recent studies have found that drinking coffee can actually be a healthy habit, enhancing athletic performance, increasing mental alertness and protecting against serious diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and even liver and colon cancers. “Coffee consumption fits into a very healthy diet and, if anything, may have a beneficial effect,” Dr. Eileen Madden, a toxicologist and food-safety expert, told a symposium on coffee and health last fall at the New York Academy of Sciences.

That's surprising news for most Canadians who love coffee but treat it as something of a guilty pleasure. Canadians have mixed feelings about the beverage they love to drink, says Massimo Marcone, a food scientist and adjunct professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario who has studied coffee production and consumption all over the world. “People have a preconceived idea about coffee -- they think it's bad for you,” he says.

And no wonder. Almost every day media reports tell us that consuming coffee may be associated with serious health problems, such as osteoporosis, elevated cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart disease, infertility, fibrocystic breast disease (FBD), breast cancer and even miscarriage. But, say the experts, many of those findings were based on poorly designed research and were not supported by further studies.

The benefits of coffee
If you love coffee, here's some of the latest good news.
• A study of 90,000 Japanese by the National Cancer Center in Tokyo found that people who drank one to four cups of coffee daily had half the liver cancer risk of those who never drank coffee. Researchers aren't sure why, but they speculate that antioxidants may play a role.

• A study by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health that followed more than 125,000 men and women for more than a decade found that regular coffee drinkers had a significantly lower risk of developing type 2 (or late-onset) diabetes. Studies in Sweden and Finland also concluded that coffee consumption offers protection from type 2 diabetes. Again, researchers aren't sure why.

• A half-dozen recent international studies showed a positive relationship between drinking caffeinated beverages -- including coffee -- and lower rates of Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease.

• Other research links coffee consumption with reduced risk of cirrhosis of the liver, colon cancer and asthma.

• A cup or two of coffee can improve endurance in activities such as running, cycling and swimming, according to other research. Coffee has a strong ergogenic effect, meaning it helps people work harder and longer, explains Lawrence Spriet, an exercise physiologist at the University of Guelph who has researched the effects of caffeine on athletic performance for more than a decade. "Even small amounts of caffeine can be quite powerful,” he says.

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