The Good, the Bad, and the Caffeinated

By Marc Williams

This morning, as I sat with my oversized mug, finishing off the last of what had been nearly a full pot of coffee, I came across yet another article on the effects of coffee on one’s health.  My coffee mug is an extension of my arm: when I’m emailing students, preparing a new lesson, or grading papers, my coffee is always within reach.  As a major coffee drinker (and serious snob) I’ve spent a good deal of time trying to discover if my daily dose of caffeine, size extra grande, was actually doing harm.

Happily, I’ve found much research that suggests my habit is quite healthful: coffee is linked to reduced risk of certain cancers, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, not to mention its ability to increase alertness.  However, sometimes my consumption borders on excess, and the ill effects of high coffee intake have been well-documented: increased risk of certain cancers and acid reflux, plus caffeine addiction can lead to chronic headaches, etc. etc. etc.

So is coffee good for me or bad for me?  I’m confused.

According to Christie Aschwanden of Slate.com, the confusion is widespread–and the uncertainty about coffee’s effect(s) on health is nothing new.  She mentions Mark Pendergrast, author of Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Changed the World.

According to Pendergrast’s book, coffee has stimulated intellectual and often irreverent pursuits among users throughout the ages, often sparking backlash. One governor of Mecca banned the drink after discovering satirical musings about him coming from local coffeehouses. In 1674, a group of London women grew angry with their husbands for spending so much time at coffeehouses (often in an attempt to sober up after the pub), and published a pamphlet warning that the beverage would make them impotent. The men fought back with a competing pamphlet claiming that coffee actually added a “spiritualescency to the Sperme.” In 1679, French doctors blasted coffee, because it “disaccustom[ed] people from the enjoyment of wine.”

While the debate’s historical component is fascinating, I want answers. According to Aschwanden’s article, University of Alabama physician Melissa Wellons  compiled the various medical studies and concluded that most of the physical effects of caffeinated beverages are “observational,” meaning that causality has not been adequately demonstrated.  In comparing these observational effects side-by-side, Aschwanden concludes that the positive effects outweigh the negative.

So it appears, at least for now, I can slurp away.

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3 responses to “The Good, the Bad, and the Caffeinated

  1. Julia Burns

    I understand about the coffee issue! But, in my life time I have read so many different articles about what is good and bad for the human body. I have learned that anything in excessive is bad, moderation is good, and lack of depends. But the way I look at it, if you start displaying strange behavior when doing a particular task, drinking, or eating certain selections — then stop it! 🙂

  2. gesticulator

    I read that 99% of all known human cultures have consumed caffeine regularly albeit from different types of sources.

  3. I’m about to turn 59. I’ve told my doctor that I only have two vices left (drinking coffee and drinking wine) and I’m not going to give up either one!