If you are living with high cholesterol or you have a family history of the condition, you’re probably pretty tuned in to the foods to avoid and the foods to add to your diet to help keep your levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol low. But, what about coffee? It’s one of the most commonly consumed beverages in the world and is constantly in the news for having health benefits. Here’s what you need to know about the possible connection between coffee and high cholesterol.
Most of the studies on coffee and health show that moderate amounts (4 cups or less daily) can be good for your general health, but more than 4 cups have been connected to a greater risk of death from heart disease. Though brewed coffee does not contain actual cholesterol, it does have two natural oils that contain chemical compounds -- cafestol and kahweol -- which can raise cholesterol levels. And studies have shown that older coffee drinkers have higher levels of cholesterol. But there wasn’t much research on younger folks until recently.
Filtered Coffee Is a Better Choice
A study published in 2018 tracked how much coffee people 18 to 24 drank in the course of a week and compared it to their cholesterol levels. The researchers found that the more espresso-based drinks the participants drank, the higher their cholesterol.
Espresso is brewed by having hot water shot directly into fine coffee grounds, rather than dripping slowly through a filter the way most household coffee makers do it. The result is coffee that has higher levels of the two cholesterol-raising compounds. Other similar methods where grinds and water come in direct contact include boiled coffee, coffee made from French-presses, Turkish coffee, and the increasingly popular pour-over method.
On the other hand, filters like the kind used in your local diner or your house in the morning reduce the amount of those oils in the coffee. The researchers concluded that their results are important, given how much coffee Americans enjoy, and that more research needs to be done. Commenting on the research, experts recommended that those folks who want to lower or prevent high cholesterol stick to filtered coffee.
Some research suggests that caffeinated coffee is more likely to raise cholesterol than decaf. There isn’t a proven connection, but switching to decaf or half caf/half decaf might be a good choice if you are concerned about your cholesterol levels.
Be Mindful of What You Put in Your Coffee
Though the research is mixed on whether coffee itself can raise your cholesterol levels, researchers do know that saturated fat increases your cholesterol levels. And saturated fat can be found in a lot of things we put in coffee. Here are a few to avoid or enjoy sparingly.
- Cream and half-n-half. The classic coffee lighteners made with whole-fat milk have high levels of saturated fat, which has been shown to increase levels of LDL cholesterol. More cholesterol-friendly choices include nonfat or low-fat options or plant-based milks with no saturated fat.
- Sweet coffee drinks. Those frothy, sugary coffee concoctions popping up at more and more coffee shops have more in common with a milkshake than a cup of coffee and, besides packing in a lot of sugar, may contain ingredients high in saturated fat. Ask about ingredients before you indulge.
- Bulletproof coffee. Popular with fans of the ketogenic diet, bulletproof coffee is a breakfast substitute that calls for adding butter and coconut (also sometimes called MCT) oil into your daily cup of joe. Both have high levels of saturated fat and there have been several case reports of people who regularly drink bulletproof coffee having sharp rises in their LDL cholesterol.
The bottom line for coffee and cholesterol is the same as many foods and beverages: Enjoy it in moderation, be mindful of how it is made, and know what ingredients are going into it.