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.
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?