Studies have identified a risk of coffee raising a person’s serum cholesterol levels, although it may depend on the brewing method. Unfiltered coffee and French press coffee may raise cholesterol levels, while instant coffee and filter coffee are less likely to affect them.

The risk of heightened serum cholesterol levels also depends on how much coffee a person drinks and how sensitive they are to caffeine.

Keep reading to learn more about how coffee can affect serum cholesterol levels, the risks and benefits associated with drinking coffee, and tips on lowering cholesterol levels.

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According to a study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, the results on the association between coffee drinking and higher levels of serum cholesterol are mixed.

However, according to a 1997 study, it is not the amount of caffeine in coffee that may affect cholesterol levels but rather the oils that naturally occur in the coffee bean. These natural oils, also known as diterpenes, are cafestol and kahweol.

The Institute for Scientific Information on Coffee (ISIC) also concur that both oils can raise cholesterol levels, although the amount of diterpenes in coffee varies with the brewing method.

For example, if a person makes a coffee using paper filters, then most of the diterpenes remain in the filter. However, in unfiltered coffee, more of the diterpenes pass through into the coffee.

Also, Scandinavian boiled coffee, Turkish coffee, and French press coffee can increase cholesterol, according to another study. Scandinavian and Turkish coffee are unfiltered, while coffee made with a French press passes through a metal filter that allows more of the diterpenes to pass into the brew than paper filters.

According to ISIC, other types of brewed coffee contain different levels of diterpenes and therefore have various effects on cholesterol levels:

  • Espresso: This type of coffee has about half the amount of the diterpenes found in unfiltered coffee. Because people generally drink small servings of espresso, it will likely have little effect on cholesterol.
  • Filtered coffee: It likely has little effect on cholesterol. However, research on this type of coffee is not consistent.
  • Instant coffee: This coffee type contains very little diterpenes, so it should not raise cholesterol.

In addition to potentially raising a person’s cholesterol levels, coffee may carry some other health risks. The content of caffeine, which is a psychoactive substance naturally occurring in coffee, may interact with a person’s medications.

While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) report that 400 milligrams of caffeine per day is typically safe for health, caffeine may cause various clinically significant pharmacokinetic interactions with many drugs.

Other beverages, such as energy drinks, also have high levels of caffeine.

Risks from drug interactions

A 2020 study found that coffee can interact with many drugs due to its caffeine content. A person may wish to consult their doctor to see whether any of their medications are in that category.

In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warn against mixing a caffeinated beverage, such as coffee, with alcohol. The combination may result in a person drinking more alcohol than they realize and thus experiencing more of its harmful effects.

Risks from caffeine

The amount of caffeine considered safe by the FDA is equivalent to four or five cups of coffee. However, some individuals are more sensitive to the effect of caffeine and may experience some of the following:

Other sources of caffeine

Other beverages containing caffeine include tea, sodas, and energy drinks. Tea and sodas generally have less caffeine than coffee, while some energy drink brands may have two to three times the amount of caffeine in a coffee drink, according to the FDA.

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), coffee has several benefits, including:

In addition, the AHA note that caffeine may also:

  • increase energy
  • help with weight loss
  • improve mental focus
  • elevate mood
  • improve exercise performance

Although cafestol and kahweol can have a negative effect on cholesterol, they may also provide some health benefits. Research suggests they may have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties.

Cholesterol is a fat-like substance that promotes health when its levels in the body are healthy. When cholesterol levels are too high, the fat builds up in the arteries. Once the fat accumulates enough to obstruct blood flow, it is dangerous, as it can cause a heart attack or stroke.

Types of fats in the blood include:

  • low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad” cholesterol, which plays a key role in fat buildup in the arteries
  • high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or “good” cholesterol, which helps remove cholesterol from the body

While coffee does not contain cholesterol, it can affect cholesterol levels. The diterpenes in coffee suppress the body’s production of substances involved in cholesterol breakdown, which causes cholesterol to increase. Specifically, coffee diterpenes may cause an increase in total cholesterol and LDL levels.

Heart-healthy lifestyle changes may help lower cholesterol. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) advise the following:

  • Eat a heart-healthy diet: This diet includes eating fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, along with nuts, olive oil, and fish containing omega-3 fatty acids. The diet also involves limiting intake of saturated and trans fat, such as fatty cuts of meat and packaged snacks.
  • Get regular exercise: Studies show regular exercise raises HDL and lowers LDL.
  • Quit smoking: This habit is a major risk factor for heart disease.
  • Maintain a moderate weight: If a person carries more body weight or has obesity, then losing 3–5% of their overall weight can increase HDL and lower their LDL.
  • Try to manage stress: Research suggests stress has a harmful effect on cholesterol.

People with high cholesterol should consult their doctor to check whether they need medication, as various drugs can lower cholesterol levels.

However, some people may take a medication or have a condition that is causing the cholesterol problem. In those cases, a person’s doctor may change the prescription drug or suggest a different treatment.

The relationship between coffee and cholesterol may depend on how a person brews the beverage. Paper filters may help minimize the amount of natural oils and result in a coffee drink with less effect on cholesterol.

People who have high cholesterol may wish to avoid drinking unfiltered brews, such as Turkish coffee. Without a paper filter, more of the cholesterol-raising oils end up in the coffee.