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The Worst Coffee Habit If You Have High Cholesterol, Says Dietitian

Don't let your cuppa ruin your cholesterol levels.
FACT CHECKED BY Olivia Tarantino

You love your cuppa. But if you have high cholesterol—or are simply trying to safeguard your health—your coffee habit could be bad news.

"For many, coffee is the first thing we consume (food- or beverage-wise) every day. Coffee can have many benefits, for instance offering antioxidants, however, it is often abused with additives at the hand of the consumer," says Eleana Kaidanian, RD, CDN, CPT-WFS, dietitian, and owner of Long Island Nutritionist, a private virtual practice based in New York.

Kaidanian specifically highlights that using one coffee additive—dairy creamer—is a coffee habit you may want to take a second look at if you have high cholesterol.

"Saturated fats in the form of creamers, half-and-half, and whole milk added to one's coffee regimen daily (in most cases, multiple times a day), can have an impact on one's cholesterol levels," she continues, noting that high cholesterol is a silent condition that is diagnosed based on lab results of total cholesterol levels 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) or more.

But first, what is high cholesterol?

pouring milk into coffee
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So what exactly does high cholesterol mean?

"The numbers indicate that there is excess cholesterol in the blood, which can cause health problems, mostly in the form of cardiovascular disease. Cholesterol travels through the bloodstream with helpers or carriers. The two most talked about by your healthcare provider or that are tested for most commonly are LDL (low-density lipoproteins often known as the 'bad/unhealthy kind') and HDL (high-density lipoproteins also known as 'healthy/good kind' of cholesterol)," explains Kaidanian.

"Your LDL and HDL percentages are taken into account to get your total cholesterol numbers. LDL and HDL can be significantly impacted by the type of fat you choose to consume in your dietary regimen."

READ MORESurefire Ways to Lower Your Cholesterol, Say Dietitians

Certain foods, like unhealthy fats and even sugar, have a negative impact on cholesterol levels.

As Kaidanian emphasizes, not all fats are equal and both quality and type are very important. "An example of a food that can impact LDL cholesterol could be butter for instance, whereas a heart-healthy type of fat option that would boost your HDL is avocados," she adds.

Riffing on Kaidanian, Silvia Carli MS, RD, CSCS with 1AND1 LIFE, highlights that high cholesterol can be hereditary and in other instances caused by lifestyle and nutrition choices. "However, it is easy to reverse to a healthy range. Some causes of high cholesterol are high consumption of saturated and/or trans fats such as full-fat dairy products, high-fat meats, processed meats, fried foods, and most fast food options," she further notes.

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Coffee, too, can be a perhaps unsuspecting source of sugar and fat in your diet. "Coffee comes in different brews, sizes, and most importantly different ranges of sugar, fat, and calorie content due to the addition of creamers, whipped cream, and syrups. And it can turn out to be almost a meal's worth of calories, empty ones at that," says Carli.

Why those with high cholesterol should reconsider their daily habit of using coffee creamer.

pouring coffee
Shutterstock

Of course, simply changing the way you take your coffee isn't going to overhaul your cholesterol numbers, but for regular coffee drinkers, and especially if you drink multiple cups a day, altering how you drink your coffee can make a meaningful difference.

That's why Kaidanian says the best thing you can do to your coffee preparation if you have elevated cholesterol is swap out your additives in your coffee routine. "If you can switch to black coffee, that is ideal. If that is not an option for you, consider unsweetened plant-based milk alternatives such as oat milk, almond milk, pea-milk, or soy milk just to name a few," she says.

Kaidanian says in addition to eliminating sugar and sweetened creamers while adding a plant-based unsweetened milk alternative, you can also add cinnamon or antioxidant-rich unsweetened cacao powder for a flavor boost.

Carli, too, is all about cutting back on sugar-laden creamers and sugar in your java. "If you have high cholesterol, you will want to limit both sugar and saturated fat intake," echoes Carli. "Although we may think, 'what does sugar have to do with fat?' recent research shows that high sugar intake negatively impacts HDL (the good cholesterol) and triglyceride levels."

As always, consult with a doctor regarding any important health metrics like cholesterol. "Although lifestyle and nutrition play a huge role in reducing cholesterol, there may be cases in which you will still need to take medications for it," cautions Carli. "This is why it is important to always refer to a doctor to better understand your personal needs."

Changing your coffee creamer habit is a small, but impactful, way to impact your cholesterol levels.

Key takeaway: Taking the little step to health-ify your coffee routine is a great move, and can ricochet into more positive changes in your diet, and accordingly, your health.

"Having the ability to change the trajectory of your health is very empowering. I have seen first hand how my clients can literally change their quality of life by choosing lifestyle and dietary modification over taking medicine at the first sight of an unanticipated health issue," says Kaidanian.

"Everyone's situation is different and medication is necessary at times to support one's health; however, taking your health into your own hands and making slow and steady changes with your food choices can result in atomic changes over time that can take you places you never thought possible, even reversing a diagnosis such as high cholesterol."

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Perri O. Blumberg
Perri O. Blumberg is a freelance food, health, and lifestyle writer. Read more