People who rely on coffee for refreshment may also see an increase in their cholesterol levels, especially if they sip on an unfiltered variety, a new study suggests.
The researchers found that among more than 21,000 Norwegian adults, those who indulged in several cups of coffee a day generally had slightly higher cholesterol than non-drinkers. The magnitude of the difference, however, depended on the production method.
People who drank the “least filtered” types of coffee, such as made with a French press, showed the greatest effects on cholesterol: on average, those who drank six or more cups a day had total cholesterol levels of 8 to 12 points higher, against non-drinkers.
Espresso lovers were next, followed by women who drank filtered coffee (no effects on cholesterol seen among their male colleagues).
The findings are in line with previous studies suggesting unfiltered coffee may have a particular effect on cholesterol levels, according to researcher Dr. Maja-Lisa Løchen.
Unfiltered beers include coffee boiled or brewed using a French press or “plunger”. Espresso also falls into this category, but is relatively more filtered than other varieties, said Løchen, a professor at UiT The Arctic University of Norway.
Preparation methods are important because coffee contains natural oils that can raise blood cholesterol. Researchers have long known that unfiltered coffees contain more of these oils by exposing the grounds to hot water for an extended time.
Indeed, Løchen said, it was the Tromsø study from Norway that first proved, in the 1980s, that “it’s all about brewing”.
In those days, he noted, boiled coffee was the unfiltered variety of choice. But now espresso and plunger coffee are all the rage, so Løchen and his colleagues used more recent data from the Tromsø study to examine the relationship between these blends and blood cholesterol.
“Norwegians love coffee,” Løchen said, “and Norway has the second highest coffee consumption in the world.”
The findings, published online May 10 in Open Heart magazine, are based on more than 21,000 adults aged 40 and over who reported on their coffee drinking habits, exercise levels and alcohol consumption.
On average, study participants drank four to five cups of coffee per day. Those who indulged in boiled or French-style coffee – six or more cups a day – showed the greatest increases in cholesterol, compared with non-drinkers, they showed the results.
Then came the people who said they drank three to five cups of espresso a day. Their total cholesterol was about 4-6 mg / dL higher, compared to people who didn’t drink espresso. Finally, women who drank at least six cups of filtered coffee each day had an average of 4 mg / dl higher cholesterol levels than women who had never drank filtered coffee.
However, a registered dietitian who wasn’t involved in the study had a few caveats.
For one thing, there was no information on the participants’ overall diet, said Connie Diekman, food and nutrition consultant and former president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Nor is it clear whether people regularly sprinkled their favorite coffee with sugar and cream, Diekman pointed out.
So, he said, the question remains, was it the coffee, the cream or the foods that people consumed with all those cups of coffee?
“Coffee, in and of itself, is probably a very small factor in elevating cholesterol,” Diekman said. “So rather than worrying about how coffee might impact cholesterol, look at your entire diet and establish other healthy lifestyle behaviors.”
Løchen also pointed to the bigger picture, noting that moderate coffee intake (up to five cups per day) has been linked to a lower risk of heart disease and a longer life.
Angel Planells is a Seattle-based registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. He said filtered or instant coffees might be the best choice for people watching their cholesterol. But again, the overall diet and lifestyle are key.
If you really like that latte or mocha, Planells said, there may be other ways to eliminate some “bad” fats from your diet, such as cutting down on processed meats or fried foods.
That said, some people should be especially careful about the caffeine in coffee, Planells said, including pregnant women and anyone with potential caffeine side effects, such as sleep disturbances or “tremors.”