Caffeine - whether in coffee, cola or tea - is a stimulant that a lot of people love. I mean loooove! It gives our day a natural boost and can even improve our mood for a bit. Far be it from me to make caffeine sounds like a torrid enemy in our diets, but it can have an impact on our bodies. Let me explain how caffeine can cause weight gain, and even increase belly fat.
In this article, I'll explain why some people may want to consider cutting back on caffeine, including how caffeine consumption relates to diabetes, stress, sleep...and of course, belly fat.
How Caffeine Causes Weight Gain
Coffee and tea are often touted a health food of sorts, largely because of some very real nutrition they possess.
For the time being, I'm just going to focus on coffee as 64% of Americans drink at least a cup a day. I'm going to get to tea later in the post because I know a lot of you might be wondering about the benefits of green tea, especially matcha.
Coffee is rich in antioxidants or plant-based nutrients. Coffee may also may protect your brain and can give a boost to a workout. It can also give you a kick in the morning and improve your mood, but that's largely with inconsistent use (or drinking coffee once every couple of days).
There is a lot of literature that talks about how coffee actually stimulates metabolism and burns fat. While that may be true for some people, it's certainly not true for everyone. In fact, caffeine can have the exact opposite effect, wreaking havoc on our body and forcing fact to be stored through the belly area.
The downside to coffee and caffeine consumption, especially if you've recently experienced weight gain, have belly fat or even have problems managing your blood sugar levels is very real, so read on to stay informed.
Caffeine, Diabetes and Belly Fat
As I mentioned above, coffee is a stimulant. And stimulants respond to people differently - depending on your gender, age, lifestyle, health status and ability to deal with stress.
When you can't manage blood sugar levels, or if you feel like your hungry all the time, but just don't know why, your hormone, insulin, is trying to tell you something.
Many diabetics and people with chronically high blood sugar levels have an apple shape body type. There's a reason for that!
When insulin is constantly on the loose because you're eating foods that stimulate it, you're probably adding on belly fat slowly but surely. Insulin's job is to make sure that glucose (sugar) gets removed from your blood efficiently. Its job is also to store fat and block the release of fat. Ouch!
Compound that with coffee and you're setting your waistline up for disaster. Even in healthy individuals, research has shown that caffeine may decrease insulin sensitivity, or our body's ability to keep insulin in check.
Even in people with otherwise healthy blood sugar levels, introducing caffeine along with food has been shown to impair blood glucose levels.
If you are someone who has diabetes, high A1C levels or has a problem balancing blood sugar levels - think about this. The connection between belly fat and diabetes/pre-diabetes is strong.
Caffeine, Stress and Belly Fat
Stress and belly fat often go hand in hand, thanks to cortisol levels elevated far too long throughout the day. But when we add caffeine to the mix, it only exacerbates the problem.
First, understand that cortisol is a stress hormone. Normal amounts of cortisol are very good! Cortisol helps to maintain our immune system and even manage inflammation.
It also helps us when we need a fight or flight response. Like when a bear is chasing us. Cortisol manages to shunt blood to the parts of our body, like legs and arms, so we can run like the wind and get away. Make sense?
But when we artificially inflate cortisol - we get all messed up.
Despite the fact that a black cup of coffee or tea has no calories to speak of, it can whack on the fat. If your choice of caffeine is a sugary energy drink of a diet soda filled with artificial sweeteners, you're only making things worse.
How it Works
When you wake up in the morning, your natural cortisol levels should be at their peak. This is normal and as the day goes on, our cortisol levels start to drop. At bedtime and throughout the night they should be at their lowest levels.
Should you need to run from a bear, don't worry! Cortisol will be there for you.
Caffeine artificially inflates cortisol.
Our body interprets all stress as stress. It does not distinguish physiological stress from physical stress. It responds to stress, anxiety, and fear with some level of fight or flight. When this happens we store belly fat.
If you're dealing with ongoing stress or anxiety in your personal life, at work or really anytime, your cortisol levels are inflated more. Your body is already perceiving some level of "fight or flight" and probably responding by storing a little belly fat already.
When you add caffeine, you're adding fuel to the cortisol fire, inflating it even more.
Adding caffeine to a life that is already coping with stress, anxiety or fear will add belly fat.
I'm sensitive to this subject, so if you're dealing with chronic stress or anxiety please don't interpret this as some sort of lecture that you've done something wrong, or that you're deliberately trying to sabotage your body. That's not at all what I'm saying.
Rather. cutting out caffeine can help tremendously. It may not resolve stress or anxiety entirely, but it certainly will help.
Caffeine, Belly Fat and Sleep
We should get about five sleep cycles every night. Each of those cycles lasts about 90 minutes and puts us through an entire cycle of REM. At the very beginning of each cycle, our pituitary gland releases a bunch of human growth hormone (HGH), which helps us to repair our muscles, improve our skin, and burn fat.
Did you read that?
A gland in our body releases a hormone that helps us burn fat as when we sleep!
If you want to take advantage of this great benefit, cut back or cut out caffeine - especially after the morning hours.
The effects of caffeine stay in our system for about six hours. This varies depending on size, lifestyle, stress levels, etc. If you're drinking caffeine in the afternoon for a pick-me-up, you'll still have some caffeine in your system right around the time you should be getting ready for bed.
Some research suggests that caffeine moves around your body's internal clock, or circadian rhythm - so much so that you could lose an hour of sleep purely because of caffeine consumption.
That means you're cutting into one of the precious cycles of sleep you need to get a full dose of human growth hormone.
Here Come the Fat Storage Hormones
When we get less sleep, our bodies produce more ghrelin, or the hormone that stimulates appetite and stores belly fat. A lack of sleep also tells our body to produce less leptin - which is the hormone that tells us to stop eating.
You may feel like you're sleeping fine, but if you drink caffeine, especially past the AM hours, it's highly likely you're cutting out precious sleep that's resulting in additional belly fat.
Just a quick reality check here. I am the mother of 3 kids, the youngest of whom did not sleep through the night until he was 22 months. He's 4 now, so I know that a full night of sleep is not always possible. And as much as I thought I needed coffee through the day - especially in the afternoon - I curbed it and it actually helped my sleep.
Caffeine, Women and Belly Fat
Not all women are affected in the same way, but for many women, even a moderate amount of caffeine consumption can increase circulating estrogen levels.
Two very important hormones, estrogen, and progesterone, should sit in balance with one another. When we increase our circulating estrogen level beyond normal, we throw off the balance creating a disproportionately greater amount of estrogen to progesterone. This is what's referred to as estrogen dominance.
A hallmarks of an estrogen dominant body is the pear shaped body type. This is a woman who has a smaller waist, but stores more fat through the hips, thighs, and lower belly (usually below the belly button).
Belly bloating, premenstrual headaches, lumpy breasts, and trouble sleeping - in addition to unwanted fat storage - are a few other signs your may be dealing with estrogen dominance.
Usually our body does a pretty good job detoxifying caffeine from our body via our liver. But the pathway that's used to detoxify caffeine is also the same pathway that is needed to detoxify caffeine. This creates congestion or a chemical traffic jam in our liver, which forces our body to hold on to an excessive amount of estrogen.
This is one of the ways we create the imbalance of estrogen to progesterone followed by a cascade of hormonal problems leading to weight gain and belly fat.
Healthier Caffeine Options
First of all, if you fall into any of these categories and you're thinking, "Holy cow! This is happening to me," bypass the healthier caffeine options for now and stick to a caffeine-free diet.
I've mentioned that some people are not quite as sensitive to caffeine as others. I still don't think drinking coffee or black tea 24/7 is good for anyone, and I'm fairly certain the court of public (or researched) opinion agrees. But if you don't have problem with belly fat, can manage your stress reasonably well, sleep like a baby and don't have an apple shape body type or a pear shape body type (estrogen dominance) - then this may be a good option for you.
Matcha Green Tea
I know it's super popular right now, but I've always been a big fan of matcha green tea. It's a true green tea with unique properties that make it significantly more nutrient-dense than regular old green tea, and it doesn't contain nearly as much caffeine as coffee. Winning!
One cup of matcha tea:
- has nearly 140 times the amount of antioxidants of a cup of green tea
- is a great source of the amino acid L-theanine, which produce a calm sense of alertness versus the jitters of coffee or black tea
- has 35mg of caffeine per serving versus the 200mg per cup of coffee
- has some fairly strong cardiovascular benefits, including helping to lower LDL (bad) cholesterol
There are a bunch of matcha green teas out there. I only buy ceremonial blend, which is the highest quality. It's not cheap, but one container of matcha lasts a long time as one serving is 1/2 teaspoon.
So there you have it. I feel pretty strong about caffeine consumption. I can't say that I never drink a cup of coffee, but I'm careful about how much and how often I have it. I sometimes go caffeine-free for long periods of time, especially at times in my life when I'm dealing with more stress than normal.
This is 100% your choice, but if you're dealing with anything I've mentioned above, try giving up caffeine for a few weeks to see what happens.
If there is no way you could ever go cold turkey, then step off your caffeine routine by drinking a cup of matcha green tea a day. Then curb it from there.