From Sneaky Sugar Cravings to Speedy Sprinting – How Caffeine Affects Performance, Weight Loss and Mood

by Charlotte on May 15, 2012 · 18 comments

Photo Credit: Fail Blog

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. (Not to be confused with the Valtrex dancers – that kind of party is a straight shot to the Jerry Springer Show.) And yet they sell. So who’s buying? We are, apparently.

I hate the diet pill ads and yet I’m mesmerized by them. The first time through a mag, I read it for the articles but the second time – I’m all about the advertising and I admit, these hold my attention long enough to get hemorrhoids. What is so compelling about them? The lure of quick, easy weight loss. The obvious and marked change in the before-and-after shots. The (fake, probably) testimonials. The stupid doctor. And yet, it’s our modern day fairy tale. These Cinderellas went from rags to riches – beauty is the new money, honey – all with one little magic pill. That’s even easier than a glass slipper! Cheaper too.

I remember one day in the supplement store staring at the pretty displays of diet pills when a salesman sidled up to me, “Would you pay $80 a month to be thin the rest of your life?” Honestly? I absolutely would. In fact, most people would probably pay much more than that – it’s become that important to us. The trick, of course, is if they actually work. When I pointed out to him that they are just glorified caffeine pills, he huffed, “everybody knows that caffeine is the best weight loss drug.” 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 appetite 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. Also, be careful with your dosage. I once puked my way through a 10-miler thanks to an ill-advised caffeine pill.) 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 afterward. So while you may reap some performance gains, they probably won’t translate to weight loss.

But not only does caffeine use not correlate with weight loss, it is actually linked to weight gain. Donna Sundblad of the Love To Know blog writes:

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 resistance, 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. Even amongst the Gym Buddies, there are large discrepencies. I am super sensitive to caffeine and feel like I’m having a heart attack, a panic attack and diarrhea all at once from just a diet Coke but Gym Buddy Allison loves her caffeine pills to help her power through her workouts. Gym Buddy Krista seems to have built her tolerance up so high with Mountain Dew that even when she took 3 of Allison’s pills, it didn’t faze her a bit. 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 supplement salespeople to know anything.

What are your experiences with caffeine? Hate the stuff? Can’t live without it? And what’s your preferred form of delivery?

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Naomi/Dragonmamma May 16, 2012 at 6:34 am

Slurp, slurp…drinking my morning cup right now, purely for enjoyment. I don’t think it affects my performance one way or the other, but I’d definitely be grumpier without it.


Sarah May 16, 2012 at 7:24 am

I’m a certified caffeine addict. If I don’t have coffee in the morning, I get cranky and by about 1pm I start to get a horrible headache. And if I don’t take the time to have a cup of coffee before a workout, I feel like I have lead for legs. I think the effect could totally be a placebo, but whatever. I notice a difference. Gotta have my coffee!


Erin May 16, 2012 at 7:42 am

The only caffeine I drink is tea. And I usually only have one cup every few days. My system, like yours, is very sensitive to caffeine so if I have too much it’s not pretty!


Joshua May 16, 2012 at 8:47 am

Wait…if I have a baby, I can lose 25 pounds?


Dr. J May 16, 2012 at 9:24 am

When I first started working I found myself drinking six cups of coffee a day! I took notice, realized it was likely due to boredom, and just stopped! Now I have a demitasse in the AM before running and that’s basically it.


Alyssa (azusmom) May 16, 2012 at 10:17 am

I love my morning cuppa, but if I have to go without I’m OK. I do try to limit my intake, however.
The sad thing is that all those celebrities use coffee as a food substitute. They drink A LOT of coffee so that they won’t eat beyond their low daily calorie allotment. Marginally better than cigarettes, I suppose, but still not not one would call a healthy habit. (Of course, “celebrity” and “healthy” very rarely go together…)


Alyssa (azusmom) May 16, 2012 at 10:19 am

Oh! And there’s a guy on YouTube who demonstrates how to do “before & after” pix. I wish I could remember his name. He takes the “after” pic first, after working out and slathering himself in baby oil. Then he eats a bunch of salty junk food so he’ll bloat up, pushes out his stomach, and takes the “before” photo. It’s pretty amazing!


Helene @healthyfrenchie May 16, 2012 at 1:57 pm

I saw that video too, I thought it was pretty amazing!
Charlotte, I’m like you, I don’t tolerate caffeine very well. It gives me migraines and makes me all shaky :(


Hal May 16, 2012 at 11:55 am

Caffeine makes me sweat. Even one cup of coffee gives me pit stains you can spot from miles away. I switched to exclusively decaf coffee (which, yes, has some caffeine but only minimal amounts) and I’ve finally stopped ruining my shirts.


MassachusEATS May 16, 2012 at 12:44 pm

I react pretty much the same way you do. I don’t drink soda or coffee – and so, I’m super sensitive to any caffeine. Even Excedrin migraine pills get me jumpy!


CourtStar May 16, 2012 at 3:26 pm

I only like to use caffeine when I feel I am not able to go workout and I know I need too. It does give me that extra energy boost to get through a workout after a long day. It is interesting to me that the Mayo Clinic says different when as you said and I agree everyone and there skinny mothers is walking around with caffeine pills and coffees. What works best for me and so I can sleep at night I just take advantage when needed otherwise I try to avoid it all together and sip green tea now and again.


Revecka Jallad May 16, 2012 at 3:38 pm

I drink espresso in the morning. I found that it has way less side effects of a cup of drip coffee. Espresso also has antioxidants and magnesium. The bad part is the sugar I put in, but I try to limit that and use raw unrefined sugar.
I do notice when I drink coffee before a workout I have less energy half way through because I get dehydrated easier. BUT if I make sure to drink a lot of water I am good and can get through my training just fine, which is in Muay Thai.
I do, however, crave sweets all the time. Maybe I will have to look into how caffeine is effecting my sugar intake.


Jody - Fit at 54 May 16, 2012 at 8:02 pm

I like my coffee & it certainly does sometimes “wake me up”. I need a larger dosage to feel it even though I water down my coffee! Who knows. I do have to take something before the gym since I work out at such a crazy early hour!!!! It seems to help most days but on super tired days – not so much! ;-)


SeeAlliRun May 16, 2012 at 8:54 pm

I never got how caffeine is an appetite suppressant. Coffee makes me gut rumbling hungry!


Gildey May 16, 2012 at 9:41 pm

If I drink I full cup from my fav coffee shop across the street from my job its extremely hard for me to fall asleep even if I drink it in the morning. Love your “I feel like I’m having a heart attack, panic attack, and diarrhea all at from from just a diet coke.” hahaha. I can relate to that. Coffee definitely gives me the jitters and i get that “pit in the stomach” feeling, and my heart races like crazy, which depresses me rather than boosts my mood. I do love the taste so I’ll have maybe a half a cup once a week as a treat and my body I good to me. Moderation makes everything taste so much better also.


Suziee May 25, 2012 at 2:56 pm

“feel like I’m having a heart attack, a panic attack and diarrhea all at once from just a diet Coke”

Hahahaha!! I can always count on you for a good laugh! =]

I personally like that my performance and endurance levels peak when I intake some form of caffeine prior to my workouts, but I hate relying on it and growing dependent on it. And like you mentioned, your tolerance levels go up and you just feel groggy the rest of the day. In my opinion, not worth it to make it a part of your daily workout routine.


zaini May 28, 2012 at 2:08 pm

i like coffee and tea .they contain caffeine but when i have too much work load and i am tired , i take one cup of tea or coffee then i feel fresh. experts say caffeine is the best solution for burning calories .it is one of the best tip to burn extra calories , but you are then become addict of caffeine.


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