I Don’t Drink Coffee. Should I Start?


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Credit David Maurice Smith for The New York Times

As someone who doesn’t drink coffee, I’m sometimes forced to ponder whether I’ve escaped an unhealthy addiction or if I’ve just been asleep my whole life.

Counting yourself out from the 64 percent of Americans who drink at least one cup a day can invite bewildered responses from dedicated coffee drinkers. To them, the benefits are clear, the drawbacks minimal.

Being in the minority, it’s easy to wonder: Have I been making a mistake? Should I and other coffee abstainers start now?

“There aren’t any guidelines to help guide you on this,” said Dr. Donald Hensrud, director of the Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program. “This is kind of an individual decision.”

Darn.

While it would be nice if medical experts just took a side, it’s not that simple.

We do know that coffee has been linked to a variety of health benefits. A recent review of studies found that greater coffee intake was linked to a decrease in liver cirrhosis risk.

Add it to the pile of headlines. Coffee has been linked to, among other things, reducing tinnitus risk, increasing driver safety, cutting melanoma risk, galvanizing workouts, surviving colon cancer, living a longer life and avoiding death.

The medical consensus seems clear: Coffee is not unhealthy.

But experts tend to stop short of suggesting the uncaffeinated among us add it to our diets.

“It’s one thing to say it’s safe,” said Dr. Rob van Dam, an adjunct associate professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard University. “It’s another thing to recommend it as a medical choice even though people don’t like it and they’d have to make an effort to adopt it. We’d need a different level of evidence to recommend it to people.”

Health benefits tend not to be on coffee drinkers’ minds when they drag themselves out of bed or hit a midafternoon slump. They just want to feel human again, I’m told.

“How do you even function in the morning?” a friend said when I asked about coffee’s pros and cons on Facebook. “How did you even have the energy to type this status? Cannot compute.”

Part of the energy boost comes from simply addressing the withdrawal symptoms coffee drinkers have created, Dr. van Dam said. If you never create that addiction, then there is no need to raise your caffeine level to soothe it.

There are objective measures, however, that indicate increased mental performance after a cup of joe, Dr. Hensrud said. Processing speed and cognitive speed have been shown to improve. It has also been linked to decreased risk of depression.

But there are also potential downsides. Coffee is associated with side effects like insomnia, jitters or heartburn, and because people metabolize caffeine at different rates, it can be intolerable to some. If you have trouble falling asleep after a can of soda, coffee might not be for you.

You should not feel as though you’re missing out on potential health benefits, Dr. Hensrud said, especially if you don’t enjoy the taste. He said he himself didn’t start drinking coffee until he was about 30.

“I just looked at it as unnecessary,” he said, adding, “If you don’t like it, my goodness, it’s not worth it.”

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