Coffee: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

by Mark Whalen

What does coffee have to do with the classic Spaghetti Western named in the title of this post?  Not much really, except that I like coffee, I like westerns and I found this title to be appropriate for a discussion about the health issues surrounding coffee.

Coffee is my favorite vice.  I love it.  I love the taste and the smell of a fresh brewed cup or even the smell of the coffee aisle in the

supermarket.  As an acupuncturist and certified nutrition and wellness counselor, I am often providing advice to patients on ways to improve their eating/drinking habits.  Coffee is one subject that provided me with useless guilt every time I drank it.

I used to sneak out of the office to get a coffee and hope that no patients would see me.  Gasp-the horror of an acupuncturist drinking coffee!  Silly me.  Over the years I have gone back and forth on whether or not I should be drinking coffee.  To paraphrase Mark Twain, quitting coffee is easy; I’ve done it dozens of times.

Research on coffee has been conflicting over the years.  Coffee used to be negatively linked to heart disease, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure.  Now coffee has been touted for its ability to prevent Type 2 Diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Why the conflicting reports?  It turns out coffee is an extremely complex beverage, with hundreds of compounds, which makes it difficult to study and declare it 100% healthy or unhealthy.  All of these different compounds can impact the health outcomes associated with drinking coffee.

The most recent study showed promise that coffee may have a positive influence on our health as coffee drinkers tend to live a ‘little longer’ than non coffee drinkers.  I don't know what defines a 'little longer', but it's definitely better than a 'little shorter'.

NIH and AARP Study

In this study, conducted by the National Institute of Health and the AARP, over 400,000 people were asked about their coffee habits at the beginning of the study in 1995 and then their health outcomes were examined in 2008.

As with most nutrition/health studies, this is based on participant’s self-reporting so it is an observational study, rather than a study that determines cause and effect.  Given that coffee drinking is often linked to other habits that can detrimental to health like smoking, drinking more and exercising less than non-coffee drinkers, the study holds promise for the benefits of coffee.

For more details on the study: NIH AARP STUDY  1

So should you or shouldn’t you?  Let’s break this down Clint Eastwood style: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.


  • Coffee is the biggest source of antioxidants in most American’s diets2. Antioxidants protect our bodies against free radical damage and are an important part of a healthy diet (antioxidants are found in fruits and vegetables as well).
  • Coffee may be beneficial in the prevention of Type 2 Diabetes.  A review of showed a 7% reduction in Type 2 Diabetes for each cup of coffee consumed.
  • Research shows coffee drinking linked to lower levels of inflammatory markers and blood sugar levels.
  • Individuals who drank 3-4 cups per day had a 25% lower risk of diabetes compared to those who drank 0-2 cups per day. 3 The data also indicated the results held true for decaf coffee and tea drinkers.
  • According to a June 2010 study review, drinking 2-3 cups of coffee per day may reduce the likelihood of Parkinson’s by 25%.4 Interestingly, a later study in September 2010 showed that about 25% of the population carry a genetic variant that accounts for the protective benefit of caffeine on Parkinson’s disease risk5.  (Pharmaceutical research is using this genetic information to create more effective drugs for the treatment of Parkinson’s.)



  • Coffee contains a compound known as cafestol, which has been linked to an increase in LDL (bad cholesterol).   Cafestol is mainly found in unfiltered coffee- French Press, Turkish Coffee.6   This becomes an issue at the level of 3-4 servings per day.
  • Coffee is heavily sprayed with pesticides.  It’s best to drink organic if you can.
  • Coffee is a drug- it’s addictive and it’s filtered out by the Liver to be eliminated.  As such, too much can have a negative metabolic impact on the body.  In an effort to periodically reset my system, I will do a nutritional detox where I eliminate coffee and all negative aspects of my diet.  The result is usually better energy levels, more mental clarity, and weight loss.
  • Coffee is a stimulant to the Central Nervous system.  Coffee stimulates the release of adrenaline from the adrenal glands-this is what causes the ‘energizing effect of coffee’.  When we are under daily stress, our adrenals are already working hard, so excess caffeine will add a further burden on the system and may lead to adrenal fatigue.



The big ugly with coffee is how we drink it.  Lattes, cappucinnos, mochacinos, frappucinos.   Sure they taste good, but you’re drinking several hundred very expensive calories.   A medium Caffe Mocha has 260 calories and 8g of unhealthy fat.

If you want to drink coffee, try to keep your coffee on the healthier side:

  • Drink Americanos instead of Cappuccinos (substitutes water for milk)
  • use skim milk instead of whole milk
  • Avoid sweeteners and artificial flavor shots –they are loaded with sugar and chemicals
  • Avoid powdered creamers or artificial flavor packets –they are nothing but chemicals
  • add cinnamon- can lower the short term blood sugar impact.
  • Mix your coffee with coconut milk, almond milk, full fat cream or just drink it black


If you have any of the following issues it may benefit you to avoid drinking coffee:

  • Sleep issues:   The idea of not consuming coffee after 3pm is kind of a myth.  Everyone has different sensitivity levels so drinking coffee early in the morning could still impact someone later in the evening as they try to go to sleep.  Caffeine can stay in your system for up to 12 hours7
  • Low energy levels – if you ‘need’ your coffee to get going, it may be a sign of adrenal fatigue.  Coffee will act as a temporary stimulant, later causing you to crash and repeating the vicious cycle.  Quitting coffee will be difficult for about 2 weeks, then your energy levels will become more normalized.
  • High Blood Pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease: consult your physician regarding coffee intake
  •  Anxiety- since coffee is a stimulant, it may make you jittery, or cause you to have palpitations, which may only further increase your anxiety.



The best news to come out of this is that I can now drink my coffee guilt free! (And you can too!)

Most studies show that coffee in the range of 1-2 cups per day may be beneficial and not detrimental to health.  Find out what works for you.  If you find yourself feeling ramped up, jittery or agitated, cut back on the amount you are drinking.  There is no reason you shouldn't be able to enjoy your daily cup of joe.

As always, if you have a pre-existing condition such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, please consult with your physician about what is right for you.


This article is not intended to diagnose, treat or cure any condition.








  1.  Marchione, Marilyn
  2. Joe A. Vinson, Ph.D., a professor of chemistry at the University of Scranton who led a 2005 study and has studied coffee extensively. 3
  3. Data analyzed by Rachel Huxley and her colleagues from the George Institute for International Health in Sydney, Australia.

             5.  idUSTRE68S4ZC20100929. Article by Maggie Fox  Study conducted by Haydeh Payami of the New York       State Department of Health

             6. Mol Endocrinol. 2007 Jul;21(7):1603-16. Epub 2007 Apr 24. The cholesterol-raising factor from coffee beans, cafestol, as an agonist ligand for the farnesoid and pregnane X receptors.Ricketts ML, Boekschoten MV, Kreeft AJ, Hooiveld GJ, Moen CJ, Müller M, Frants RR, Kasanmoentalib S, Post SM, Princen HM, Porter JG, Katan MB, Hofker MH, Moore DDDepartment of Molecular and Cellular Biology, Baylor College of Medicine, BCM 130, One Baylor Plaza, Houston, Texas 77030, USA.


Mark Whalen is a Licensed Acupuncturist and Board Certified Herbalist and the founder of Five Points Acupuncture & Wellness in Reading, MA.

Mark Whalen – who has written posts on Acupuncture Reading MA - Five Points Acupuncture & Wellness.


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