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The many health perks of coffee

The Kansas City Star, Mo.

01-31-12

Jan. 28--James O'Keefe is a cardiologist who specializes in heart disease prevention, a positive guy who often must deliver a downer message.

Stop smoking. Careful with the alcohol. Cut back on sugar and starches. Lose weight.

Yep, lots of things you like aren't good for you. So O'Keefe is starting to enjoy this new message: You like coffee? Great. Drink up!

For years, doctors worried about coffee's stimulant effect, a seemingly bad deal for blood pressure and pulse rate. Logical, right? But the science is concluding otherwise.

"It's fun to say, 'You can drink coffee, and probably more is better,'" says O'Keefe, with St. Luke's Health System.

O'Keefe and colleagues reviewed some of the latest and largest studies on the health effects of coffee, "one of the most widely consumed pharmacologically active beverages across the world." They reported their findings in a recent issue of Missouri Medicine, the journal of the Missouri State Medical Association.

Uh-oh. Here we go again. More medical studies that jerk us from one conclusion to its opposite, right?

That yo-yo feeling prompted Robert J. Davis, editor of everwell.com and author of "The Healthy Skeptic," to write a book, released this month, about food health claims.

Coffee is the first topic in the first chapter, and his analysis provided the book's title, "Coffee Is Good for You."

"Often we only hear about the latest study, or somebody takes one study out of context," says Davis, who looked at more than 60 claims. "I wanted to analyze all the evidence."

Davis says the science now shows that coffee is not bad for you, and in fact it's associated with a lower risk of certain diseases -- with some caveats.

"In the case of coffee, enough big studies over several decades make the healthy claims believable," he says.

Coffee starts with the beans, of course, which get roasted and ground. Once coffee is brewed, you end up with a cup of hot water -- and what?

Various oils and acids, including caffeine: These are rich sources of antioxidants, which provide a host of health benefits, O'Keefe says.

Compounds in coffee increase insulin sensitivity and reduce inflammation -- you want both of these things. And they boost metabolism while delivering no calories. (Yes, this article is about plain coffee, not coffee specialty drinks or even regular coffee loaded with cream and sugar.)

While years of research haven't completely quieted heart concerns, coffee-drinking appears to be at least neutral in relation to most issues of coronary heart disease and the risks of heart failure and stroke.

Caffeine can temporarily boost heart rate and blood pressure, but for most people that doesn't result in long-term increases. And many who feel jittery or anxious when they start drinking caffeinated beverages find that such effects decrease as they get accustomed to the caffeine.

Still, some people are very sensitive to caffeine. O'Keefe thinks he is, and so he has never been a coffee drinker. But after digesting the data about coffee, he decided to drink more green tea, which has antioxidant benefits and caffeine, although in smaller amounts.

"The more green tea I've been drinking, the more I've gotten acclimated to the caffeine myself," he says.

Lots of folks drink coffee because they enjoy it and like the caffeine boost, particularly in the morning. But many endurance athletes and those who run and bike drink coffee for the jolt it provides before they exercise. One study showed that more than two-thirds of about 20,000 Olympic athletes had caffeine in their urine, particularly cyclists and triathletes. (It's legal.)

Caffeine apparently increases fatty acids in the bloodstream, which help people run and cycle longer distances. But less was known about how caffeine affects other sports and fitness activities, such as soccer and weightlifting.

A recent study from Coventry University in England found that men performing a weight-training regimen were less tired during the routine, could complete more repetitions and were less exhausted later with caffeine before the exercise than without.

And a study reported recently in the Journal of Applied Physiology showed that participants in a workout that simulated soccer or basketball performed 16 percent better with caffeine.

To reach Edward M. Eveld, call 816-234-4442 or send email to eeveld@kcstar.com.

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(c)2012 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

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