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The Research continued...

They also measured blood vessel wall abnormalities -- wall stiffness, the inability to expand and contract and a sign of unhealthy blood vessels.

Compared with people who did not drink coffee, people who drank two or more cups of coffee a day showed more abnormalities in blood vessel function. Blood vessel stiffness is an indictor of heart disease risk. The association remained strong even after taking into account other heart disease risk factors like smoking, obesity, and age.

But nutrition researcher Alice Lichtenstein, DSc, says the lifestyle differences between the coffee drinkers and non-coffee drinkers were so great that it would be difficult for the researchers to take these into account.

Lichtenstein is a senior scientist and director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at Boston's Tufts University. She is also a spokeswoman for the American Heart Association.

In the study, people who drank two or more cups of coffee a day were almost nine times more likely than non-coffee drinkers to smoke cigarettes. They were also 2.5 times as likely to be obese. In general, people who drank no coffee also tended to be younger than those who drank coffee.

Age, cigarette smoking and obesity are three risk factors for heart disease. "It is more likely that heart disease risk is determined by a number of dietary and lifestyle components together, rather than individual foods," she tells WebMD.

Moderation Is Key

Lichtenstein agrees that as a whole, the research on coffee and health remains inconclusive. She adds that java junkies can probably relax if they drink coffee in moderation and reserve the cream and sugar-laden specialty coffees for special occasions.

While coffee itself has no calories, the "tall" version of, say, a double-mocha latte with whipped cream can contain more calories, fat, and sugar than a typical fast-food meal.

Vlachopoulos says it is increasingly clear that coffee consumption is an important risk factor for heart disease when combined with smoking.

"The message to smokers would be to stop, and if they can't stop they shouldn't drink coffee," he says.

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