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Q. Does coffee increase cardiovascular risk—or not? I keep getting conflicting reports.

A. After years of hearing that coffee might be hazardous to our hearts, we learned that drinking java might not be so bad for us after all. Growing research, in fact, was (and is) starting to suggest that coffee might offer health benefits, such as improved memory and reduced risk for diabetes. But a recent study (in Epidemiology, September 2006), which suggested that an occasional cup of coffee could trigger a first heart attack in sedentary people, or those at high risk for cardiovascular disease, reignited the great coffee debate. Does drinking coffee harm—or help—health?

There’s just no hard evidence either way, says Alice Lichtenstein, D.Sc., director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University and an EatingWell advisor. “We’re not telling people that they shouldn’t drink coffee, but it’s premature to recommend that they start drinking coffee to decrease their risk of anything.” Much of the research on coffee’s health impact is observational in nature, says Lichtenstein. Observational research—which generally refers to surveys that ask people about their lifestyle habits—can suggest relationships between behaviors (such as drinking coffee) and disease risk; it can’t, however, prove that a behavior is the cause of the observed effect, says Lichtenstein.

In the face of uncertain science, what’s a java lover to do? Enjoy your morning cup (or two) of coffee—watching the cream and sugar, of course. Focus on bigger-picture heart-healthy behaviors, such as eating a healthy diet—rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains and lean proteins—and getting plenty of exercise. Doing so can help you maintain a healthy weight and keep your cholesterol level and blood pressure within healthy ranges—all factors that go a long way in reducing your risk for cardiovascular disease.

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