Coffee and Dieting

NOTE: The intended audience for this article is the average coffee drinker who happens to be overweight. This is not intended as medical advice. This article is not geared toward athletes who are already lean and are trying to further reduce bodyfat levels. The author is a fitness-conscious coffee drinker — not a doctor, nutritionist or dietary expert. Specific dieting questions should be directed at health professionals, not the author.

When it comes to losing fat there are many diets to choose from. There are thousands of diets that combine food choices in such a way to reduce caloric intake and cause fat loss. Most diets work, however not every diet works for every person. One of the goals of dieting is to find a diet that you can follow. Hopefully, you’ll find a lifestyle diet that will be easy to stick to once the excess fat is gone. Picking a diet that restricts you too much will be difficult to follow and will increase your chances of failure.

Here at INeedCoffee we believe that any diet without coffee is going to be a miserable disaster. I’d rather be 20 pounds overweight sipping on a hot mug of freshly roasted coffee than lean with only memories of coffees consumed long ago. With that said, I decided to seek out a diet that puts coffee first. To my knowledge none exist. It is then our duty to create a diet or modify an existing diet so we coffee drinkers can lose the fat and not abandon our favorite beverage. Although we strive to drink coffee in our diets, coffee by itself shouldn’t be the basis of that diet. Most of our energy should still come from food.

Caffeine as a Fat-Loss Supplement

In addition to coffee’s role in the most popular diets, let’s briefly address how caffeine by itself can be used to lose fat. There are many fat loss supplements at the nutrition store where the primary ingredient is caffeine. Supplements with names such as Metabolife, Ripped Fuel, and Beta Lean HP all use a combination of caffeine and ephedra (Ma Huang). This combination has been effective at promoting fat loss while preserving muscle. Although there are some critics of ephedra-based supplements regarding safety, this article isn’t going to go into that debate. For more information on this topic read Muscle Growth and Fat Loss by Stimulating the B-Agonist System – The Role of Ephedrine, Caffeine, and Aspirin by Michael C. Prevost Ph.D.

latte art coffee
Depending upon your diet, this latte may or may not be OK to consume.

The Role of Coffee in Other Diets

Before we build or modify our own diet let’s divide the major diets into 3 groups and examine how they feel about coffee. There are other diets. This overview is not meant to be complete and is only intended to serve as a starting point to building a coffee-friendly diet.

  1. Low-Fat/High-Carb Diet
  2. Isocaloric Diet
  3. Low-Carb Diet

The low-fat/high-carb diet includes the Pritkin Diet, Dean Orish’s diet, and countless others. Because coffee is fat-free, this diet is the most coffee friendly. However one of the reasons fat-free diets sometimes fail is the belief that removing the fat makes one immune to excess calories. A mocha made with fat-free milk may be without fat, but it is loaded with sugars and is calorically dense. If you like the sweeter coffee choices, be aware that although the drink may be fat-free you can jeopardize your diet with too many empty calories.

By far the most popular isocaloric diet is The Zone. An isocaloric diet is one where the calories from fat, protein and carbs are equal or close to equal. In the case of The Zone that ratio is 40-30-30 (40% carbs, 30% protein, and 30% fat). Isocaloric diets pay very close attention to the quality of carbohydrates. One of the key elements of this diet to avoid sugars. A simplistic overview is that by avoiding sugars the body can become more effective at burning stored body fat. But does Dr. Sears like coffee? No. Caffeine even in absense of calories can affect blood sugar. More on this later.

The low-carb diet made famous by Dr. Atkins restricts carbohydrate intake to the point where the body goes into a state known as ketosis. In the absense of carbs the body becomes very efficent at burning fat. Like the Zone diet, this diet is concerned with blood sugar and insulin levels; therefore, coffee is forbidden.

Coffee and Insulin

Both The Zone and Dr. Atkins frown on coffee because it can negatively affect blood sugar, which will affect the body’s ability to burn fat. How can a zero calorie beverage affect blood sugar? According to the Canadian Diabetes Association:

Drinking caffeine in large amounts as coffee over a short period of time has been shown to raise blood sugar. Caffeine does this by enhancing the effect of two hormones (adrenaline and glucagon). These two hormones release stored sugar from the liver resulting in high blood sugar.

And what happens when blood sugar levels are increased?

From the Running Planet article The Glycemic Index – How to use it to Increase Your Energy And Lose Weight:

This results in large amounts of insulin being dumped into your blood stream. Remember that the job of insulin is to regulate your blood sugar. It needs to do something with the excess glucose (sugar). The easiest thing for insulin to do with it is to store it in your body as fat.

Simply put: coffee can affect your blood sugar which could interfere with the body’s ability to burn fat.

These fears of coffee may be over-stated. Even though the authors of these 2 diets do not favor coffee, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that either of these diets can be successful despite the continued consumption of coffee. And there is some non-ancedotal research, which indicates that exercise helps stabilize blood sugar after ingesting caffeine. Our goal, as defined above, is to get lean while continuing to enjoy coffee. So let’s address the problems coffee could pose to a diet, and find a solution.

Step 1 – Clean Up Your Coffee

Coffee by itself is perfect. It has zero calories, zero carbs, and zero fat. It even has properties that assist with fat loss. Coffee by itself isn’t the problem. Lattes, mochas, iced espresso blended with sugar, whipped cream, ice cream, flavored syrups, alcohol, and caramel are just a few of things we add into our coffee. Coffee is derived from the old Arabic word “qahwah” which means “gives strength”. Consuming popular coffee drinks today that are as calorically-dense as desserts has the effect of giving coffee a bad name, and changing the meaning of coffee from gives strength to gives girth.

In order to succeed on our diet, we must get back to basics. Regular coffee and straight shots of espresso are fine. As for milk, that depends upon your specific diet. An Atkins diet may allow half and half, whereas a low-fat diet would insist upon skim milk. If you must use sweeteners, at least make an effort to cut down: go from 2 packets to 1 packet.

Step 2 – Reduce Your Coffee Intake

If too much coffee can affect blood sugar then it only makes sense to reduce your caffeine intake. However, you don’t want to reduce your coffee intake at the same time you are reducing your caloric intake unless you have super willpower. Less calories and less caffeine usually means a reduction in energy which could lead to binge eating. A smarter move is to reduce your coffee intake for a week prior to the diet. Once the diet starts, you can slightly increase your coffee levels. It’s good to have a clear head when you’ve got an empty stomach.

Omron Full Body Sensor Body Fat and Body Composition Monitor
Omron Full Body Sensor Body Fat and Body Composition Monitor

Another idea is to space out your coffee intake. Instead of drinking 4 mugs of coffee back to back, consider spreading those 4 mugs throughout the day. One at 6am, 10am, 1pm, and 5pm. As long as you don’t consume too much, caffeine can be an appetite suppressant.

Reducing your coffee intake is important, but it can be painful. Cutting back on caffeine can cause headaches and constipation. A good article on reducing caffeine intake is Accelerated Detox by Rachel Elliot.

Step 3 – Avoid Eating Simple Carbs with Coffee

Now if you’re on a low-carb diet, you’ll want to avoid simple carbs completely. However, it may not be a wise idea not to eat simple carbs on any diet while drinking your coffee. You know the simple carbs I’m referring to: the bagels, croissants, and scones that you see in every coffee shop. Going back to the insulin argument: if caffeine could affect blood sugar negatively then the last thing you want to do is combine it with something that is certain to cause an insulin spike.

The insulin argument is highly debated. Many do not view lowering insulin as key to fat loss. See the article Insulin…An Undeserved Bad Reputation for that explanation.

Step 4 – Exercise

It’s common sense that exercise helps one lose fat on almost any diet. In the words of the The Illinois Department of Human Services exercise …helps the body use insulin more efficiently, and this lowers blood sugar. If exercise can help us stabilize our blood sugar then maybe we don’t have to get rid of our coffee in order to get lean. So lift some weights, do some aerobic activity, and keep drinking coffee. If you don’t have access to a gym, you can perform body-weight exercises such as the push-up and the Hindu Squat.

Body by Science: A Research Based Program for Strength Training, Body building, and Complete Fitness in 12 Minutes a Week
Body by Science: A Research Based Program for Strength Training, Body building, and Complete Fitness in 12 Minutes a Week by Doug McGuff M.D. and John Little

The 3 Diets Revisited

People are often more fanatical about their diet choice than their religion. So far be it from me to slam or endorse any particular diet. Each of the four groups mentioned restrict food selection and the result is often a caloric reduction, which translates to fat loss. What happens behind the curtains may be different, but a combination of healthy eating and exercise has always been the secret to getting lean. Using the above steps we can keep our relationship with coffee while dieting.

Everybody Is Different

It is possible to try the above steps with your chosen diet and not succeed. If you find that you must decide between coffee and getting lean, that’s a personal decision you should discuss with your doctor and roaster. In addition to weight training and power walking, this author followed a modified Zone Diet using the above 4 steps. The result was a body fat reduction from 18% to 9% in 4 months.

Michael Allen Smith

Michael Allen Smith fell in love with coffee while attending college. Shortly after graduating college, he found himself in the Tampa Bay area far away from the good coffee he had at The Ohio State University. That is when he starting home roasting coffee. Less than a year later in April 1999, he launched the coffee website has been going strong ever since with hundreds of articles and tutorials submitted by over one hundred contributors.

In 2007, Michael moved to America's coffee capitol Seattle, Washington. He has visited close to three hundred different coffee places in Seattle, Portland,Vancouver and San Francisco and met many of the top roasters and baristas in the country. Since 2009, Michael has been the Organizer of the Coffee Club of Seattle, which is a Meetup group of over 800 coffee enthusiasts. Besides the social aspect of the group, the Coffee Club of Seattle partners with local coffee professionals for educational events such as coffee cuppings, brewing demonstrations and roasting tours.

Unrelated to coffee, Michael has a personal blog at which covers several topics including fitness, cooking and economics.