Is Your Coffee Making You Fat?
Many of us drink coffee for social and personal reasons. Scientifically, it is considered a functional beverage. This means that coffee is considered a beverage that has the ability to enhance the quality of life, along with the physical and mental performance of its regular consumers.
The positive effects of coffee include psychoactive responses — that is, alertness and the ability to modify a persons’ mood, neurological protection such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and modify metabolic disorders such as diabetes, gallstones, and liver cirrhosis.
It is a rich source of antioxidants of the hydroxycinnamic acids family and is part of our work culture. Caffeine from coffee also reduces early morning driver sleepiness in about 30 minutes and its impact lasting approximately 2 hours.
In a Dutch study of over 17,000 people, coffee consumption was associated with a substantially lower risk of clinical type 2 diabetes. The antioxidants in coffee also act as an anti-inflammatory and anti-allergic compound .
It is the liquid that is universally accepted, slightly addictive, and highly lauded as a necessity of life. It is also a billion-dollar business. Brazil, for example, made $4.6 billion in 2019 from coffee exports and accounts for 15.1% of total global coffee exports . The United States alone imported $1.14 billion dollar’s worth of coffee from Columbia .
Coffee ranks second as the most important food commodity worldwide and sits in second place, after crude oil, when placed on the commodities leaderboard.
Coffee is big business — but is it making you fat?
According to research, there’s no doubt that coffee is good for you — to a certain degree.
Coffee-drinking is associated with a reduced risk of alcohol-associated pancreatitis . It also has the ability to reduce the aging effects caused by time and/or smoking. Freeze-dried instant coffee also leads to higher gastrin stimulation, meaning that it encourages you to let out the waste from your colon. This increase in colonic motility, decreasing carcinogens, and prevents your poo from hardening up inside you. As a result of frequent motility, it is hypothesized that coffee may decrease the risk of colon cancer .
While all this may seem fantastic, the studies do not accurately reflect how many of us tend to drink our coffee — with milk, sugar, and for some people, in vast quantities of it.
According to a study through Harvard School of Public Health, worldwide consumption of caloric sweeteners such as glucose, fructose, sucrose, honey, and high-fructose corn syrup has increased by approximately 30% from 1962 to 2000. Consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages has been positively associated with weight gain, obesity, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes. In effect, high amounts of sugar in your coffee cancels out the hypothesis that drinking coffee decreases the risk of colon cancer, resulting in a null effect .
Sugar, sugar, sugar!
A Korean study by the National Cancer Center and Yongin University reveled that instant coffee mixes that contain sugar and non-dairy creamer account for 80–90% of the total coffee market in Korea. They also found that women who consumed coffee more than 3 times per day exhibited significantly greater BMI and waist circumference values than women who were not coffee drinkers. These results were also adjusted for age, education level, occupation, alcohol intake, smoking status, regular exercise, total energy intake, and use of sugar and creamer additives .
The odds of obesity increases significantly for instant coffee drinkers who used sugar and creamer, with their BMI being over 23. However, those who drank filtered coffee did not show a significant increase in being overweight or abdominal obesity.
A similar study in Finland found that Swedish women who consumed more than 6 cups of coffee daily tend to have higher BMI than the group who consumed less than 2 cups daily .
While these studies don’t explicitly measure the sugar content, we can assume that there is a correlation between what we put in our coffee and our waistline.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, or USDA, 100 grams of sugar equates to 387 calories. For reference, the recommended daily calorie intake is 2000 calories for females, and 2500 for males .
A grande iced pumpkin spice latte from Starbucks contains approximately 46 grams of sugar — or 178 calories . Or if you grab a chocolate cookie crumble creme frappuccino, you almost have a full meal consumed with 450 calories for the entire drink, 185 calories from that coming from just sugar .
But not all coffee is bad. Iced coffee comes in at around 80 calories, with most of it coming from the two spoons of sugar you’ve put in .
Caffeine high and low, but sugar is forever
The caffeine content and its positive implications can also vary from brew to brew. According to the British Journal of Nutrition, variability is so high that the caffeine content of caffeinated coffee can range from 68 mg to 259 mg. A study of caffeine concentration obtained from the same outlet over six consecutive days was varied between 259 mg to 564 mg per cup .
The sugar content, however, is something that remains mostly stable.
While a study in Germany showed that coffee consumption prevented weight gain and improved glucose tolerance, the study itself was done in a controlled lab and on mice. This means that the diet is highly regulated and isolated based on coffee consumption .
While the mice showed increased physical activity, induced by the controlled intake of caffeine, a study by The Journal of Pediatrics on adolescent girls found that physical activity has declined in general and replaced with increased sedentary activities. The Internet has displaced sleep and with the help of caffeine’s wakefulness factor, the extended screen time contributes to the general increase in BMI within the same year through a general loss of total energy expenditure .
From what we generally know, insufficient sleep contributes to daytime fatigue, which fuels further reduced physical activity and increased consumption of coffee.
How to drink your calories without fizzy drinks 101
As a society, coffee is what keeps us going. And what do we put in every cup we consume, in addition to coffee?
Sugar is considered a natural addiction. In part, it is because sugar has the ability to control your metabolism and general physiobehavioral system. Sugar addiction is often identifiable through the act of binging .
If you haven’t consumed sugar after some time, a withdrawal effect can take place, signaling your body that you are experiencing food deprivation, motivating you to go and seek out sugar-based foods. The feelings associated with withdrawals such as cravings, hunger pangs, and sometimes physical pain for a particular type of food is your sugar addiction pushing you into a vicious cycle that can lead to excess consumption .
You might end up eating an entire cake, or a packet of cookies. Or if you’re feeling conscious, short on time, and in need of quick energy — another cup of coffee.
According to the Journal of Addiction Medicine, sugar has the ability to suppress pain and discomfort. When you become addicted, your brain associates your sugared-up coffee with dopamine, relieving your internal pain, and struggle every time you consume the beverage. Repeated and excessive sugar intake can lead to changes in brain and behavior that are similar to the effects of drug abuse.
So if you drink your coffee like clock-work, those withdrawal systems might not be because of the mildly addictive nature of coffee itself, but a sugar withdrawal because your body is expecting a certain amount of sugar-based caloric hit before you get to the office.
So is your coffee making you fat?
It really depends on how you’re drinking.
The statistical results of human coffee consumption and its correlation with BMI and waistline tend to vary due to the cultural and personal preferences of how coffee is brewed and consumed.
In Finland, for example, hot coffee is poured over chunks of cheese curds. Turkish coffee involves drinking some of the coffee grounds. Espressos are the go-to for Italians while Vietnam tends to have their coffees iced and with a good amount of condensed milk at the bottom .
The coffee — your plain, black coffee — is not bad. For many of us, it is the other stuff that we drink with it that negates the positive impacts of the beverage. Sugar is the major culprit in creating a strong addiction and increasing your empty caloric intake. If the sugar content is high enough, there’s a chance that whatever the benefits that coffee itself offers gets canceled, if not deducted over to the negative territory.
You can still have your morning Starbucks or instant coffee scoops. Just go easy on the sweetness. It might taste a bit bitter than usual — but that’s how coffee is supposed to taste. If you’re drinking coffee for its sweetness, then you might have a sugar problem — which is the thing that’s probably contributing to your waistline.
Thank you for reading.
note to the reader: I’m not a scientist but I do have a few unanswered curiosities. This is week one of my Making Dots project. Below is a list of resources I used for this story. I hope you enjoyed reading my interpretation of what I’ve uncovered.
, , ,  Is coffee a functional food?, Jose´ G. Do´rea† and Teresa Helena M, British Journal of Nutrition (2005), https://www.cambridge.org/core/services/aop-cambridge-core/content/view/39FE079F27F648E7C93EB35077B30B2A/S0007114505001200a.pdf/is_coffee_a_functional_food.pdf
,  Risk of Colon Cancer and Coffee, Tea, and Sugar-Sweetened Soft Drink Intake: Pooled Analysis of Prospective Cohort Studies, Department of Nutrition, Department of Epidemiology, Harvard School of Public Health, Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 2010 Jun 2;102(11):771–83. https://doi.org/10.1093/jnci/djq107
,  Coffee Consumption and the Risk of Obesity in Korean Women, Jeonghee Lee, Hye Young Kim, and Jeongseon Kim, Nutrients — volume 9, issue 12, https://doi.org/10.3390/nu9121340
 Effect of chronic coffee consumption on weight gain and glycaemia in a mouse model of obesity and type 2 diabetes, Nutrition & Diabetes volume 4, page 123 (2014), https://doi.org/10.1038/nutd.2014.19
 Weight Gain in Older Adolescent Females: The Internet, Sleep, Coffee, and Alcohol**, Catherine S. Berkey, ScD, Helaine R.H. Rockett, MS, RD, and Graham A. Colditz, MD, DrPH, The Journal of Pediatrics, VOLUME 153, ISSUE 5, P635–639.E1, NOVEMBER 01, 2008, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpeds.2008.04.072
,  A Behavioral and Circuit Model Based on Sugar Addiction in Rats, Bartley G. Hoebel, PhD, Nicole M. Avena, PhD, Miriam E. Bocarsly, BA, and Pedro Rada, MD, Journal of Addiction Medicine, 2009 Mar; 3(1): 33–41. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4361030/