What Is the Optimal Amount of Coffee to Drink?

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Paul Sullivan)

It seems like every week there’s a new report telling us how much coffee we should or shouldn’t drink, which leaves most coffee drinkers wondering: What is the optimal amount we should be consuming?

Recent recommendations from the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee cited the various health benefits of drinking a few cups of coffee per day, which left a lot of people citing three to five cups per day as an acceptable amount. That’s good news for coffee-lovers, but as it turns out, it’s not quite so simple. Why? Because not all cups of coffee are created equal.

Consider the Amount of Caffeine

Is there an exact number of coffee cups we should feel good about drinking per day? Probably not. “I do not think you will find anyone who can convincingly or compellingly tell you what this number is,” says Christopher Gardner, nutrition scientist at Stanford University.

One of the main considerations most people have in terms of coffee (and whether or not we are drinking too much of it) is caffeine. For adults, up to about 400 milligrams per day is considered safe (pregnant women are suggested to cap it at 200 milligrams per day), which is the equivalent of four brewed cups of coffee. Although, even if you’re an avid coffee drinker, it would be difficult to overdose; you’d need about 75 cups of coffee to get to toxic levels of caffeine.

Let us also remember that effects of caffeine, and in turn, the effects of drinking coffee, can vary from individual to individual, as our bodies process it differently. Some people feel more affected by caffeine than others, and there’s no denying that if you are using coffee as a crutch to diminish the negative effects of, let’s say, not sleeping enough, you’re simply addressing the symptoms and not the actual problem (sleep deprivation, in this case).

Consider the Type of Coffee Drink

But when we ask ourselves how much coffee is the optimal amount to drink, there is more than caffeine to take into consideration. “What is it people are drinking when they say they are drinking coffee?” asks Gardner. “Is black coffee the same as a mocha-frappa-crap-accino? Very unlikely.”

Gardner is reminding us that three cups of black coffee per day isn’t the same thing as three cups of coffee with cream and sugar, or worse, oversized coffee drinks that, with all of their additives, barely pass for “coffee.”

For example, an eight-ounce cup of coffee has about two calories. A latte of the same size? About 100 calories. This means that when it comes to the overall health impacts, a coffee addiction that involves a few cups of black brewed coffee every day is very different from the addiction to caffeinated milky drinks.

What Does This Mean?

The takeaway? As the great Julia Child once said, “Everything in moderation … including moderation.” A few cups of black coffee a day? You’re probably fine. A few sugary, cream-laden drinks? Keep those for once in a while treats.