Bread, Beer, and Coffee Are Healthier Than You Know

What if the secret to health wasn’t in the medicine cabinet but at the bar and the bakery?

Photo: Anze Buh/EyeEm/Getty Images

ToTo be healthy, people are led to believe, they must consume a Spartan diet, drink health elixirs that look like witches’ potions, and exercise with the intensity of an Olympic athlete.

But what if there’s an easier way to be healthy? And it’s as simple as embracing some of the things you already enjoy doing in a more mindful and moderate manner?

For the past five years we’ve been studying the potential health effects of many so-called “vices,” including beer, bread, and coffee, for our book The Good Vices. By poring over the existing medical literature and drawing on our combined 50 years of experience in medicine and health journalism, we’ve found that in many cases these foods can not only be part of a healthy lifestyle, but when consumed in moderation, they can help power a healthier way of being.

The Case for Bread

It’s true that bread, made from gluten (what is today considered the most unholy of holies), is unhealthy for people with celiac disease or other wheat sensitivity. But for the vast majority of people, whole grain breads are a healthy food. Whole-grain bread is filling and provides nutrients like vitamins E and B and minerals like iron, magnesium, selenium, and others. It is also a very rich source of dietary fiber, which can lower people’s bad cholesterol or LDL, improving their heart health in the process.

A 2017 Harvard Medical School study looking at 64,714 women and 45,303 men found that people who consumed the lowest levels of gluten were 15% more likely to develop heart disease. In another 2016 report published in BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal), researchers looked at 45 previous studies and concluded that compared to people who ate no wheat, people who consumed 90 grams of whole grains a day reduced their risk for all-cause mortality by 17%.

Another 2016 analysis looked at 14 studies with 786,076 people and found that compared to those who ate the least whole-grain foods, people who ate the most had a 16% decreased risk of all-cause mortality and an 18% decreased chance of dying from cardiovascular problems. The study also found that with each 16-gram increase in whole grains people ate, their risk of early death dropped by 7%.

The Case for Coffee

Coffee is a beloved beverage with a mixed reputation. But according to most available research, the evidence suggesting that coffee is unhealthy is unfounded. A series of studies published in the 1970s and 1980s tied coffee to higher rates of cancer and heart disease. But these studies failed to adjust for people’s cigarette habits or other unhealthy lifestyle choices. Despite its frequent blacklisting, a slew of modern studies have reported that moderate coffee drinking — three to five cups a day — could improve cardiovascular health, lower a person’s risk of developing stroke, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, and type 2 diabetes, and even reduce the chance of dying early from all causes.

In a paper published by the American Heart Association in 2014, researchers conducted a systematic review of 36 studies with a combined sample size of more than 1,270,000 people. The study looked at people’s long-term consumption of coffee and its association with cardiovascular disease. The researchers found that moderate coffee drinkers were at the lowest risk for heart-related problems. Previous studies found similar results and suggested coffee also decreases the likelihood of experiencing a stroke. (This doesn’t mean you need to drink coffee to prevent stroke, but that the idea that it causes heart problems doesn’t seem to be accurate at all).

Though not recommended, even excessive coffee guzzling (often defined as more than five cups a day) has been shown to have little or no adverse health side effects.

Enjoyment may be an important, and all too often forgotten, part of the healthy living equation.

The Case for (the Occasional) Beer

We’ll take a taproom over a yoga studio any day (though admittedly that preference is not entirely motivated by health concerns). “More than 100 prospective studies show an inverse association between moderate drinking and risk of heart attack, ischemic (clot-caused) stroke, peripheral vascular disease, sudden cardiac death, and death from all cardiovascular causes. The effect is fairly consistent, corresponding to a 25 percent to 40 percent reduction in risk,” according to an online analysis from the Harvard School of Public Health.

There are, of course, studies that dispute this. For example, a recent major study published in the journal The Lancet came to the sobering conclusion that drinking any alcohol, even moderate amounts, is detrimental to health. The study focused more on relative, not absolute, risk and seemingly contradicted many studies before it, including one published just a few months before in the same journal. As David Spiegelhalter, the Winton Professor for the Public Understanding of Risk at the University of Cambridge, noted, one figure in the appendix of the earlier study showed that “compared to moderate drinkers, ‘never-drinkers’ experience 30% more heart disease and strokes, and 20% higher overall death rate. But this does not mean that this is because they don’t drink.” Another question the new study leaves unanswered is why people living in certain European countries have a higher life expectancy even though they drink more than people in the United States.

While doctors are unlikely to recommend that people increase their drinking for any perceived health benefits, the idea that beer should be blacklisted is unfounded. Moderate drinking is part of many healthy diet patterns around the world.

The Bottom Line

In addition to their possible health benefits, bread, coffee, and beer have something else in common. Eating bread or drinking beer and coffee is something many people enjoy doing. Enjoyment may be an important, and all too often forgotten, part of the healthy living equation.

A 2007 study led by Harvard professor of social and behavioral sciences Laura Kubzansky followed more than 6,000 men and women aged 25 to 74 for 20 years and found that emotional vitality — a sense enthusiasm, hopefulness, engagement, and so on — appeared to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. The link between health and happiness is far from clear, and many questions still remain. However, you don’t need a body of scientific research to realize that joy is something worth pursuing. Meeting a friend for a coffee or a beer, or biting into a freshly baked baguette are all small joys that can make the daily grind better. There’s also a great deal of research suggesting that drinking beer or coffee and eating bread in moderation can be part of a healthy diet. At the very least these activities are fun, and fun might be just what the doctor ordered.

From THE GOOD VICES by Dr. Harry Ofgang and Erik Ofgang, published by TarcherPerigee, an imprint of The Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Harry Ofgang and Erik Ofgang.

Dr. Ofgang has specialized in naturopathic medicine for over 35 years. Erik is senior writer at Connecticut Magazine. They are co-authors of “The Good Vices.”

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