Don’t feel guilty over craving a caffeine buzz. Drinking coffee can benefit your health; it may lower your risk of cardiovascular disease and might offer some protection against Parkinson’s disease, according to the Harvard Gazette. Unsweetened coffee is also low in carbohydrates – even if you add a small amount of dairy – so it can work as part of your low-carb diet. If you’re eating low-carb to help reduce your cholesterol, though, some types of coffee might counteract the benefits of your diet.
While there’s no standardized definition of a “low-carb” diet – some diets call for an extremely restrictive 20 grams of carbs daily, while others might allow 100 grams or more – black coffee can almost certainly fit into any low-carb plan. An ounce of espresso has just half a gram of total carbohydrates, while a cup of brewed coffee is completely carb-free. Even adding some dairy to your brew likely won’t break many low-carb diets. A 2-tablespoon serving of half-and-half, for example, only has about 1 gram of carbohydrates.
However, if you’re adding sugar to your coffee, your carbs can add up quickly. Each teaspoon of sugar contains 4 grams of carbohydrates, and if you’re adding a couple of teaspoons to your coffee – or drinking a few sweetened coffees each day – you could easily use up a significant part of your carb “allowance” from nutritionally devoid sugar.
While regular coffee is likely OK on a low-carb diet, you’ll want to steer clear of sugary coffee-based drinks, like frappes and lattes. A 16-ounce vanilla latte at a national coffee chain, for example, contains 37 grams of carbohydrates, while a 16-ounce caffe mocha or white chocolate mocha has 42 and 60 grams of carbs, respectively. Sugar-laden iced frappe drinks can pack in even more carbs; a 16-ounce cinnamon-flavored frappe at a leading coffee chain contains a whopping 64 grams of carbohydrates.
Even if you’re following a relatively liberal low-carb diet that allows for several grams of carbs daily, a single sugar beverage will take up a large portion of your carb allowance for the day. That leaves less room in your diet for healthy carbohydrates, like fruits, veggies and whole grains, which offer nutritional value in addition to carbs.
If you’re following a low-carb diet for the cardiovascular benefits, certain types of coffee might counteract those benefits. Low-carb diets help lower your levels of LDL cholesterol, which is the “bad” cholesterol that clogs your arteries. However, some unfiltered coffees – such as coffee made with a French press, or Turkish coffee – contain two chemicals, called kahweol and cafestol, that increase your total cholesterol levels, including your LDL cholesterol.
Make your coffee more low-carb friendly by brewing with paper filters. Filters remove the cholesterol-boosting compounds in coffee, so you’ll still enjoy all the cardiovascular benefits of your low-carb diet.
Make coffee part of your low-carb diet by keeping your mix-ins as low in carbohydrates and sugar as possible. If you can’t drink coffee black but you want to avoid even the modest amount of carbs in cream, consider using unsweetened soy milk; even 1/4 cup of unsweetened soy milk only adds 1 gram of carbohydrate to your brew. Avoid sweetening your coffee with sugar, and, instead, opt for a low-calorie and sugar-free natural sweetener, like stevia.
Consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet, and consult a professional before restricting your carbohydrate too much. While low-carb diets have certain benefits – as long as you follow them under proper professional supervision – restricting your carb intake too much can actually slow your metabolism and trigger muscle loss, according to Jennifer Ventrelle, MS, RD, in an interview with Rush University Medical Center. A professional can help you figure out a carb intake level that’s right for you.