People who rely on coffee for a pick-me-up may also see an increase in their cholesterol levels — especially if they drink an unfiltered variety, a new study suggests.
The researchers found that among more than 21,000 Norwegian adults, those who drank several cups of coffee a day generally had slightly higher cholesterol levels than non-drinkers. However, the magnitude of the difference depended on the brewing method.
People who drank the “least filtered” types of coffee — made with a French press, for example — showed the greatest cholesterol effects: On average, those who drank six or more cups a day had total cholesterol levels eight to 12 points higher, versus non-drinkers.
Espresso aficionados were next, followed by women drinking filter coffee (with no cholesterol effects seen in their male counterparts).
The findings are consistent with previous studies suggesting that unfiltered coffee may have some effect on cholesterol levels, said study researcher Dr. Maja Lisa Lochen.
Unfiltered brews include coffee that is boiled or made using a French press or “plunger”. Espresso also falls into that category, but it’s relatively more filtered than the other varieties, said Løchen, a professor at UiT The Arctic University of Norway.
Brewing methods are important because coffee contains natural oils that can raise blood cholesterol levels. Researchers have long known that by exposing the coffee grounds to hot water for a longer period of time, unfiltered coffee contains more of those oils.
In fact, Løchen said, it was the Tromsø study from Norway in the 1980s that first showed that “it’s all in the brewery.”
At the time, she noted, boiled coffee was the unfiltered variety of choice. But now espresso and plunger coffee are all the rage, so Løchen and her colleagues used more recent data from the Tromsø study to look at the relationship between those brews and blood cholesterol levels.
“Norway loves coffee,” Løchen said, “and Norway has the second highest coffee consumption in the world.”
The findings, published online May 10 in the journal Open Heart, are based on more than 21,000 adults ages 40 and older who reported on their coffee drinking habits, exercise and alcohol consumption.
On average, study participants drank four to five cups of coffee per day. Those indulging in boiled or French press coffee — six or more cups a day — showed the greatest cholesterol increases, compared with non-drinkers, the findings showed.
Then came people who said they drank three to five cups of espresso a day. Their total cholesterol was about 4 to 6 mg/dL higher, compared to people who didn’t drink espresso. Finally, women who drank at least six cups of filtered coffee every day had an average of 4 mg/dL higher cholesterol than women who never drank filtered coffee.
However, a registered dietitian who was not involved in the study had some reservations.
For starters, there was no information about the participants’ overall diet, said Connie Diekman, a nutrition and nutrition consultant and past president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
It is also not clear whether people regularly topped their favorite coffee with sugar and cream, says Diekman.
So, she said, the question remains, was it the coffee, the cream, or the food that people consumed with all those cups of coffee?
“Coffee on its own is probably a very small player in raising cholesterol,” Diekman said. “So instead of worrying about coffee’s impact on cholesterol, look at your entire diet and identify other healthy lifestyle behaviors.”
Løchen also pointed to the bigger picture, noting that moderate coffee intake (up to five cups a day) is linked to a lower risk of heart disease and longer life.
Angel Planells is a Seattle-based registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. He said filtered or instant coffee may be the best choice for people watching their cholesterol. But again, overall diet and lifestyle are key.
If you really like that latte or mocha, Planells said, there may be other ways to cut some “bad” fat from your diet — such as less processed meats or fried foods.
That said, some people should pay particular attention to the caffeine in coffee, Planells said — including pregnant women and anyone with potential side effects of caffeine, such as trouble sleeping or the “jitters.”