You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that diet pills don’t work. If they did, we’d all look like Carmen Electra and spend our nights partying away with the Zantrex dancers. And yet they sell. So who’s buying? Women apparently.
The other day I went to GNC to buy some Vitamin D3 pills to help with my SAD (no change there, by the way, and I’ve been taking the pills for three weeks now). As usual the store was void of customers but there were two salespeople chatting behind the counter. They descended like vultures as soon as I met their gaze. (Side note: do they get paid on commission? They must.) The big burly dude got to me first.
BBD: Welcome to GNC today!
Me (looking at vitamins): Um, hi.
BBD: We’re here to help you meet all your health goals! (looking me up and down) So what’s your health goal today?
Before I could even begin to answer, BBD finished, incredibly with: Well, I mean, obviously it’s to lose weight.
Steam started to spout from my ears, cartoon-character style, and I glared at him while deliberately picking up the bottle of vitamin D. “Excuse me?”
Realizing he’d made a grave error, he tried to back peddle, “You know, that’s what all women want, right? heh, heh.”
I looked over at his coworker – an older woman with a hairdo so structured that White Rain cried abuse – for help. Or at least an empathetic we-usually-keep-him-locked-in-the-supply-closet eye roll. But instead Crazy Hair Lady nodded, adding, “Oh yes, we have an amazing new line of weight loss products.”
The wicked part of me that I usually try and tamp down around strangers flared up and I decided to play Devil’s advocate. “Oh really? How much weight could I lose?”
“As much as you want!” Ignoring the fact that I don’t need to lose any weight, BBD took my arm and guided me to the wall-o-weight-loss horror. Picking up a box of Hydroxycut, he added, “It’s perfectly safe so you can take this stuff forever!” At $80 a bottle, I can certainly see why they’d want me to!
“How does it work? Is there a ton of caffeine?” (True story: I am so caffeine sensitive that the one time I slammed a Red Bull, I got heart palpitations so badly I thought I was having a heart attack.)
“Oh, no,” CHL chimed in, “It’s stimulant free!”
I showed her the box where it says that one dose delivers over 300 mg of caffeine – and you are supposed to take 3 doses a day. “Well,” BBD huffed, “everybody knows that caffeine is the best legal weight loss supplement. I suppose he was deferring to cocaine on principle.
But is it?
Judging by the sheer number of photos of celebrities carrying coffee cups, it seems like there must be some truth to it. After all, when was the last time you saw an Olsen twin (or Lindsey or Britney) photographed without a Starbucks cup molded into her twee little hand? And caffeine in some form or another is the number one ingredient in almost every single weight-loss supplement on the market, often in heart-fibrillatingly massive doses. Even Biggest Loser trainer Jillian Michaels recommends a caffeine/white willow bark/aspirin cocktail in her book Making the Cut. Hollywood’s opinion is clear.
What the Research Says
There are many studies that show that caffeine does increase metabolism by upping your heart rate causing a thermogenic effect (as is often touted in screaming letters on diet pill packaging) and increased calorie burn. Research has also indicated that it is a mild appetite suppressant. In addition, it has also been found that a dose of caffeine before your workout can help you work up to 30% harder without upping your rate of perceived exertion thereby allowing you to burn more calories.
The problem is that none of these effects have translated into weight loss. The Mayo Clinic debunks the first two points by saying that while caffeine does suppress the apetitite and up metabolism, it doesn’t do it to a significant degree and the effects don’t last long enough to make a difference in a person’s weight. Although they add the caveat that caffeine will produce a temporary decrease in weight due to its diuretic properties.
As for the last point regarding your workout, this is a documented effect. But here’s the kicker: it only works if your body is not already used to caffeine. If you never have the stuff and then slam an energy drink before a big race it can definitely increase your performance. In fact, I know many a runner who swears by this. (Be careful if you try this one out though as caffeine often has the added bonus of loosening one’s bowels.) But the effect is lost if your body is already acclimated to that level of caffeine. In addition, the extra work exerted during your race causes increased hunger afterwards. So while you may reap some performance gains, they probably won’t translate to weight loss.
Caffeine affects cravings for food because it raises the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol raises heart rate, blood pressure and tells your body to increase its energy stores. This results in the body craving sweets. So if you’re wondering why you snacked on cookies in the afternoon, it could have something to do with that coffee you drank with breakfast.
In addition to increasing cravings for sweets, raised cortisol levels have been linked to increased storage of abdominal fat, a lower immune system and higher blood pressure among other things. Caffeine has also been linked to increased insulin resistence, the scary precursor to diabetes, not to mention the lesser side effects of jitteriness, anxiety, heart palpitations and fragmented thinking.
Not everyone reacts to caffeine the same way. It all depends on your level of sensitivity to caffeine, what dose you take and how often, and for what purpose you are taking it. If you just like your cup of joe in the morning or use it as your secret weapon in that sprint triathlon you are competing in, then more power to you. Just don’t count on it to help you lose weight. And, also, don’t count on the GNC salespeople to know anything.
What are your experiences with caffeine? Hate the stuff? Can’t live without it? And what’s your preffered form of delivery: coffee, tea, pills or energy drinks?