Recently I started using a french press to brew my morning coffee. The reason was simple: to get more cafestol and kahweol – two beneficial compounds that paper filters remove – into my system. My $60 drip maker has, through no fault of its own, been sidelined. Which makes me feel slightly guilty.
But not guilty enough to stop french pressing. Consuming cafestol and kahweol, I know, is lowering my systemic inflammation and reducing my risk of prostate cancer. It’s also killing any pre-cancerous cells lingering in my body. These potent compounds induce apoptosis (cell death) in, for instance, kidney cancer and mesothelioma.
The thing is, if I measured it, drinking unfiltered coffee is probably raising my cholesterol. Especially my LDL.
Wait, what? Isn’t LDL the “bad cholesterol” that increases your risk for heart disease?
Most of the internet seems to think so. A quick Google on coffee and cholesterol reveals a clear consensus: cafestol and kahweol are to be shunned. Or at least filtered from the coffee via paper filters. Reason being: these compounds have been proven to significantly increase both total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels in the blood. It’s science.
It’s science, however, that’s been misinterpreted. The truth is, when it comes to heart disease risk, high cholesterol is actually preferable to low cholesterol.
For instance, in a 10-year study of 52,087 Norwegians, lower total cholesterol levels were linked to higher risks of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and all-cause mortality (ACM) in women. And in another study, hospital patients (aged 70 and up) were twice as likely to die if they had cholesterol levels below 160 mg/dL than if they were between 160 and 199. Of course, we can’t draw hard conclusions from this observational data. But we can say that low cholesterol doesn’t mitigate heart disease and mortality risk.
So the jump in total cholesterol from unfiltered coffee isn’t something to lose sleep over. But what about the rise in LDL? First of all, let’s get clear on what’s actually rising. In the cafestol and kahweol cholesterol study, the researchers measured the change in LDL-C, or the amount of cholesterol within each LDL molecule. (LDL and HDL are not cholesterol, but lipids that carry cholesterol.) LDL-C is on the standard lipid panel, and it rises when you drink unfiltered coffee.
But when it comes to cardiac risk, smart doctors don’t look at LDL-C anymore. Instead they look at LDL-P, or the concentration of LDL particles in the blood. Chris Kresser is one of these smart doctors, and he has an analogy to keep these acronyms straight: LDL-P is the number of cars on the highway (lipids in the blood), whereas LDL-C is the number of passengers within each car (cholesterol in each lipid).
As it turns out, cars on the highway matters more than passengers in the car. In other words, high LDL-P is a much better predictor of CVD than high LDL-C. In fact, having a high LDL-C (traditionally considered “dangerous”) and a low LDL-P puts you in a fairly low risk bracket. On the other hand, a low LDL-C and high LDL-P is bad news. Bottom line: LDL-P is the crucial data point.
If researchers showed that cafestol and kahweol spiked LDL-P, I would consider switching back to filtered coffee. It would be a tradeoff: sacrifice the anti-inflammatory and anticarcinogenic benefits of unfiltered coffee to improve my cholesterol numbers. Tough choice.
But as it stands, there is no trade-off. Raising my LDL-C isn’t hurting my heart. In fact, it’s probably helping it.
And oh yeah, one more thing. I’ve done a lousy job selling it, but shoot me an email if you’re in the market for a drip coffee maker. Me, I’m sticking with my french press*
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