Is your coffee a dietary demon?

How you prepare or drink your coffee is key to reap its perks

While your cup of java, besides providing you with pleasure and likely giving you a kick start to your day, does indeed offer an assortment of health benefits.

There are, however, some potential downsides of coffee.

iStock photo Does your coffee boost your blood cholesterol?

iStock photo
Does your coffee boost your blood cholesterol?

The beverage made headlines a number of  years ago as a potent booster of blood cholesterol levels.  The fuss, though, died down quickly as it was pointed out that the research showed that the offending coffee was boiled and not prepared in the same way as most imbibe their joe these days.

Coffee, filtered by means of paper, does not boost blood cholesterol. The paper traps the two offending compounds, cafestol and kahweol, thereby halting their blood-cholesterol raising action.

But before you breathe a sigh of relief, think about just how your coffee is made.  If you brew filtered coffee but use one of the environmentally friendly gold filters instead of paper, you’re still taking in the blood cholesterol-raising substances.  It may be time to switch to unbleached paper.

Or if you’re a fan of French pressed coffee, your java may not be so heart healthy as no papers filters are used either.

Another possible negative for some coffee drinkers- its effect on their digestive tracts can be a real irritant. Its acids are the culprit so even decaffeinated brews can lead to heartburn and gas. But coffee lovers who suffer can take heart: there are low acid coffees which can bring a pleasing taste without any pain.

As for the ingredient coffee is known for, caffeine, it is linked to adverse effects in some people with the amounts varying by circumstances being looked at. For example, for those who are planning to become pregnant or those who already are,  keeping caffeine to a minimum is recommended as research is pointing to a higher risk of miscarriage with greater caffeine consumption.

In fact, Health Canada recommends that women of reproductive age consume no more than 300 mg of caffeine per day – the amount in two 6-oz cups of filtered coffee. Keep in mind that’s a small at Starbucks nowadays.

In excess, caffeine can also boost blood pressure readings so if you’re a coffee lover, moderating your regular coffee intake is a wise idea.

If you don’t like decaf, why not go for half decaf and half caffeine containing coffee. It’s easy to do both at home when you brew your java or at a coffee shop, simply ask for the combo.

If you are caffeine sensitive, be aware that decaffeinated does not mean caffeine-free. While the amounts may be small, if you drink a number of cups, it can add up.  Tests done of decaf brews have shown that some samples contained as much as 13 milligrams of caffeine per cup, enough to produce adverse symptoms in caffeine sensitive individuals.

Caffeine sensitivity can vary from person to person, and can depend on their weight and age. And it’s also good to be aware that your sensitivity can change over time and boost caffeine’s effects.

Another bit of food for thought when looking at coffee and health is how you drink your cup of java. While coffee itself is calorie free, the variations now available can send your calorie totals skyrocketing.  Even just one medium double-double (double cream and sugar) coffee at Tim Hortons a day can provide a whopping 76,600 calories a year. And then there are the specialty blended coffee offerings, with plenty of  calories in cup sizes you could swim in.

To reap coffee’s health perks and avoid its  drawbacks, you might want to assess your java habits.


Have you changed any of your coffee practices recently (less sugar etc.)? How long did it take you to adapt? Please share in the comment section below.

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Categories: Research Roundup

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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2 Comments on “Is your coffee a dietary demon?”

  1. October 2, 2013 at 10:09 am #

    We must both have coffee on our minds, Rosie! I just published a post today – not on coffee’s effect on cholesterol, but on HOW we choose to make that coffee – “How to Make Mediocre Coffee That’s Expensive and Wasteful” –

    As a heart patient (and a coffee lover!), I’ve been following conflicting research reports about coffee’s impact on cardiovascular health for years. It changes with the wind: coffee is good for heart health, coffee’s bad for heart health. A huge study published in Circulation, for example, based on the Nurses Health Study (following over 10,000 women over a 24-year period) found that women who had never smoked and who drank four or more cups of coffee a day had a 43% lower risk of stroke than women who drank no coffee or less than one coffee a month.

    And an Australian study published last June in the RSC journal Food & Function found: “Long term moderate intake of coffee is not associated with detrimental effects in healthy individuals and may even protect against the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.”

    By comparison, the Scandinavian study on using paper filters focused on 100 study subjects over a 5-day period who drank a very specific kind of coffee like that served in Turkish coffee, coffee brewed in a French press, and the boiled coffee of Scandinavia.

    So, hard to make any sweeping conclusions based on that one study. Meanwhile, last year a Harvard University report observed that, overall, health research is neutral on coffee, which they described as: “Good news for coffee drinkers. They can relax and enjoy their habit.”

    But setting aside conflicting research reports (as we say, “For every PhD, there’s an equal and opposite PhD”), the other issue that’s important for heart patients like me is this: we’ve already been told to make sudden and sweeping lifestyle changes: exercise every day, overhaul our entire kitchen pantry and all cooking methods, take a fistful of cardiac meds, do more of this and never do that. We now feel guilty every time we eat a morsel of birthday cake – so I refuse to worry about drinking my beautiful coffee every morning, one of the few treasured remnants of my old life that I still cling to.

  2. October 2, 2013 at 2:02 pm #

    Thanks for your comments, Carolyn! You make some very good points. Your post about the waste in using coffee pods is definitely food for thought!
    I do agree that there are many health benefits to coffee (as I wrote in my last post) but I did think it was important to bring up the blood cholesterol issue. Many people thought that it was only boiled coffee that could have an impact but didn’t consider other methods. I am certainly not proposing cutting out coffee but just considering how it’s made, if blood cholesterol is a concern.

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