Ask the Dietitian: Is Coffee Good or Bad for You?

Sidney Fry, MS, RD
by Sidney Fry, MS, RD
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Ask the Dietitian: Is Coffee Good or Bad for You?

“I enjoy my coffee in the morning and don’t really want to give it up. I was using coffee creamer and sugar. I have switched to milk instead of creamer but still use sugar. How can I make my coffee healthy?” ~ Danielle Halcomb

Coffee has been among the most heavily studied foods over the past few decades, with overwhelmingly positive findings. That’s good news for the can’t-open-both-eyes-without-it population.


The aroma alone is reason enough for some of us to get out of bed. A recent study from the European Society of Cardiology tracked close to 20,000 individuals over 10 years and found people who drank at least two cups of coffee per day were 22% more likely to have a longer lifespan; those who drank at least four cups were 64% more likely, particularly people age 45 and older. Another study funded by the National Cancer Institute found similar results; coffee drinkers tended to live longer, regardless of caffeine content. That’s impressive!

And the benefits don’t stop there. The long-running Harvard Nurses’ Health Study has found coffee may also protect against Type 2 diabetes. Other studies have shown coffee to reduce the risk of other diseases, including cardiovascular disease, Parkinson’s, liver disease, colorectal cancer and even Alzheimer’s. Coffee beans are loaded with antioxidants (particularly chlorogenic acid), which may exert protective, anti-inflammatory benefits on the body and brain.


Here’s the catch, though: Those benefits are singular to black coffee — not the mostly milk- and sugar-based specialty brews now found at every street corner and drive-thru. Some of these drinks contain upwards of 400 calories and 50 grams of sugar (see McDonald’s large vanilla latte), which is about as many calories as a double cheeseburger, and more sugar than two vanilla ice cream cones.


For many of us, coffee is habitual, so even simple changes like skipping sugar can throw a wrench in your routine. Trading in the creamer for milk is a great start — creamer is highly processed and often contains hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated fats (a source of trans fats), sugar, artificial sweeteners, artificial colors and preservatives. Black coffee can be bitter but cutting out the sugar is less abrupt if you add a splash of whole milk or even half-and-half — a half tablespoon has just 10 calories — and the fat helps cut the edge, adds body and creates a velvety smooth finish.  Chances are you may not even miss the sweetness and eventually you’ll prefer the way unsweetened coffee allows for the true essence and flavor of the bean to shine. Prefer an unexpected twist? Try a dash of cinnamon. Still can’t handle the bite? Try cold brew, which has a deeper, less acidic, smoother taste than a regular hot brew.


A final word: Try drinking your coffee mid-morning. Your body produces high levels of cortisol in the morning — a naturally energizing hormone — that continues to flow until about 10 a.m.  Caffeine inhibits its production, a counterproductive effect that can be avoided by simply holding off on the coffee for a few hours. As cortisol levels begin to drop, that cold brew will have a bigger impact on a much-needed energy boost than it would at, say, 7 a.m.


> 5 Nutrition Tips for Picky Eaters
> Is Sugar Really Addictive?
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About the Author

Sidney Fry, MS, RD
Sidney Fry, MS, RD

Sidney is a James Beard Award-winning food and nutrition consultant, writer and editor based out of Birmingham, Alabama. She’s a registered dietitian with an extensive understanding of how to make healthy food both attractive and delicious. Sidney is the former nutrition editor at Cooking Light magazine, where she developed a slew of recipes, health-related content and crafted the nutrition-themed packages for the magazine’s various print and digital platforms. She loves to eat, write, run and create beautiful food by utilizing a more plant-based approach in the everyday kitchen. Find out more from her website, Instagram or Twitter.