The Facts About Coffee and Cholesterol

Coffee and Cholesterol
Dr. Lindsey Mcilvena, MD

In her day job, treating patients living with chronic disease, nutrition and lifestyle are not after-thoughts, they’re central to helping her patients get well. She’s also our go-to expert on plant-based diets.

There’s been a lot of buzz about coffee and health in the last few years. In more recent history, there has been some question over whether coffee increases levels of blood cholesterol.

Those of you who are well informed might be thinking, “But wait! Coffee is a plant; it cannot affect cholesterol levels because only animal products contain cholesterol!”  The truth is that plants contain a plant-based form of cholesterol called phytosterols. These plant-derived cholesterol compounds are poorly absorbed by humans, and they actually help decrease cholesterol levels. Good news, right? Yes, but the phytosterols found in coffee are different. Cafestol and kahweol, coffee’s cholesterol-like compounds, are oily substances that you may see floating on the surface of a freshly brewed cup of coffee. These phytosterols are absorbed by the body, and do tend to affect blood cholesterol levels.

A large study out of John’s Hopkins, which scrutinized the results of 18 previous studies on coffee’s association with cholesterol found that coffee does indeed raise the levels of both total cholesterol and bad cholesterol (or LDL) in the bloodstream. They observed that the more coffee consumed, the higher the increases in cholesterol.

Those of you who drink decaf, or coffee brewed through a paper filter are pretty much in the clear, the effect of cholesterol here was little if any. Unfiltered coffee (calling all drinkers of French press, Scandinavian drip, espresso, Turkish, Cowboy, and Greek,) was the culprit when it came to increasing cholesterol.

If you love your unfiltered coffee and can’t stand the thought of giving it up, talk with your doctor. Moderate amounts of unfiltered coffee may still be okay, depending on how your body handles the cafestol. If you have a healthy lifestyle and your cholesterol panels look pretty good to start with then your doc may say it’s okay to continue. Conversely, if you’re at higher risk for heart disease and stroke, a switch to decaf or filtered coffee may be warranted.

Sources: American Journal of Epidemiology, American Heart Association, Harvard Medical School

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