Can’t kick the sugar cravings? Blame coffee!

Clients often ask me whether they should give up coffee. It’s not always an easy question to give a straightforward answer to, because coffee consumption seems to have both upsides and downsides. But according to new research, if you’re struggling to kick sugar cravings, you may just need to break up with coffee.

A lot of people are surprised to hear that research has found some apparent benefits of coffee-drinking. But in multiple observational studies (which recruit large numbers of people and follow them up for many years) coffee consumption is associated with a lower risk of all-cause mortality (dying from any cause) and dying from heart disease, cancer, respiratory disease, stroke, diabetes, and kidney disease – although it’s important to point out that this type of study can’t prove that coffee drinking actually caused longer life, only that it was associated with it. There are many potential confounding factors – other longevity-promoting lifestyle factors that may be more common in coffee drinkers than non-drinkers – that observational studies can’t control for.

Those who drink more coffee also appear to have a reduced risk of developing liver cancer and dying of chronic liver disease, as well as a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes, and dementia, although once again, there may be confounding factors at play, and not all studies show benefit.

What about the downside of drinking coffee? Coffee can trigger anxiety through interfering with the action of GABA, the brain’s ‘chill-out’ neurotransmitter, and it badly disrupts sleep even when drunk 6 hours before bedtime. Coffee drinking is also associated with depression, although once again, confounding factors may be operating here, since depressed people may drink more coffee to try to lift their mood.

And coffee can also worsen gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), or heartburn.

Furthermore, if you carry a common gene variant that makes you a slow metaboliser of caffeine, drinking 2 or more cups of coffee a day will significantly raise your risk of developing high blood pressure and having a heart attack.

For years, I’ve also been cautioning clients that coffee consumption seems to make people crave sweets, which can wreak havoc on even the best-laid healthy eating plans. This was something I’d observed over many years in practice, and I didn’t understand exactly how coffee caused this effect, until I read this study.

Researchers recruited 107 participants and randomly divided them into 2 groups. Both groups were given decaffeinated coffee to drink, but in one group, 200 mg of caffeine was added back in to the coffee, equating to the amount of caffeine naturally occurring in a strong cup of coffee. In the other group, the decaff coffee was spiked with quinine, a compound which is just as bitter as coffee but does not have a stimulant effect. Tests showed that the participants couldn’t taste the difference between the coffee containing caffeine, and the coffee containing quinine.

After drinking their coffee, participants were given 10 basic taste solutions, representing high and low concentrations of each of the 5 basic tastes – sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami – and asked to evaluate them. On the next day, the caffeine and quinine groups swapped over and repeated the taste tests.

There was no difference in how the 2 test groups perceived the sour, bitter, umami, or salty taste solutions, but when it came to perceiving sweetness, it was a very different story.

Not only did the coffee itself (which had coffee creamer containing a small amount of sugar added to it) taste less sweet when it contained caffeine, the sweet taste solutions were perceived as being less sweet after participants consumed caffeine.

The researchers concluded:

“Our results suggest that we may be altering our perception of the foods we consume through our consumption of caffeinated foods and beverages.”

The implications of this research are thought-provoking. If caffeine blunts our ability to perceive sweetness, then anything that we eat after drinking a cup of coffee – or a Coke, or caffeine-containing ‘energy drink’ for that matter – will taste less sweet and therefore be less satisfying, leaving us with a craving for more sweetness.

This explains why the natural companion of a cup of coffee is a sugary cake or biscuit, not an apple! It also explains why restaurants are so keen to serve you coffee at the end of the meal: it increases the likelihood of you ordering dessert.

Also, I’ve had many clients tell me that they don’t enjoy fruit. Practically all of them have been coffee drinkers – and now I understand why fruit is so unappealing to them. It just doesn’t taste sweet. In order to satisfy their natural human desire for the sweetness that, in our evolutionary past, we found in ripe fruit, they’re driven to eat calorie-dense, unnaturally sweet processed foods that sabotage their healthy eating and weight loss goals and leave them feeling helpless to control their cravings.

But will quitting coffee affect your ability to concentrate and perform at work? Another interesting finding in this study was that:

“Panelists were also unable to discern whether they had consumed the caffeinated or noncaffeinated coffee, with ratings of alertness increased equally, but no significant improvement in reaction times, highlighting coffee’s powerful placebo effect.”

In other words, the mind-sharpening effect of coffee – which is one of the major reasons why people say they drink it – may be all in your head.

The bottom line is that if you just can’t get your cravings for sweet foods under control, ditching coffee would be the obvious next step to take. Fortunately, all the health benefits that have been associated with coffee consumption can also be obtained by just eating a wholefood plant-based diet and getting regular exercise… and the bonus is, these lifestyle measures also reduce anxiety, depression and reflux, and improve sleep. All the upside of coffee, with none of the downside!

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