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caffeine

Last updated 24 June 2020.

This week's question from a listener is to do with decaf and instant coffee.

We also have a follow-up question from other listeners on caffeine and weight gain through caffeine's ability to raise the stress hormone cortisol.

Luckily, caffeine has been studied for a long time. That means I was able to look up published meta-analyses.

I like meta-analyses because these are considered the “gold standard” when it comes to research. This is because meta-analyses take already published studies and then perform an additional, separate analysis on all of them at the same time.


Listen to Dr. Neal address this topic on Episode 1022 and Episode 1043 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.


Benefits of Meta-Analyses

When they are performed correctly, they are a really nice way to summarize the current data and help assess trends. I always say that one study doesn’t tell us much, but if study after study find similar results, well…now we’re on to something.

Meta-analyses buffer against some of the “click-baity” headlines we may run into. If a “new” study comes out and the results of that study seem outlandish, we can always stop and ask, “How many other studies looked at this same question? And, what did those researchers find?”

Looking at published meta-analyses allow us to do this.

Do Decaf Products Reduce Disease Risk?

When it comes decaffeinated coffees and teas, the reduced risk for chronic disease isn’t as “strong”…get it? We’re talking about coffee and tea and I said, “strong”? Alright, I’ll stop.

But, basically, the research is mixed – some researchers have found that decaf products may reduce disease risk, others have found that these may not be helpful at all. I’ll give you an example: when it comes to reducing risk for developing Type 2 diabetes: one study found that consuming decaf coffee helped reduce the likelihood of a person developing this disease. But, conclusions from a separate study found that decaf coffee wasn’t helpful at all.

Does Caffeine Reduce Disease Risk?

In contrast, the data regarding caffeinated products appear to clearer. In fact, it seems that when adults consume 3-4 cups of plain coffee or tea each day, they may experience a reduced risk of developing the aforementioned Type 2 diabetes, colon cancer, liver cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and even premature death. And, interestingly, these benefits were seen regardless of how fast or slowly the body metabolizes caffeine.

I should mention that we simply may need more, well-designed studies looking at the health benefits of decaf.

What are the Benefits of Instant Coffee?

As for instant coffee, the benefits appear to be the same as more traditionally prepared coffees.

The one exception to this is coffee made using a French Press. Brewing coffee in a French Press basically involves soaking coffee grounds in hot water and then, instead of using a paper filter, the grounds are pressed out.

Researchers have found that there may be benefits to using a paper filter during the brewing process. This is because there is a potentially harmful chemical that’s found naturally in coffee beans called cafestol.

Cafestol may raise “bad” cholesterol levels in the blood (this type of cholesterol is called “LDL” cholesterol). Higher levels of this bad, LDL cholesterol in the blood may increase a person’s risk for having a heart attack or stroke. But, brewing coffee using a more traditional drip coffee machine and a paper filter seems to remove the majority of the cafestol.

Should I Avoid Caffeine?

Now, there are some individuals that may want to stay away from consuming caffeine of any kind.

Women that are pregnant will want to consult their doctors. Those with pre-existing conditions like stomach ulcers, Inflammatory Bowel Disease (like ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease), or Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) may find that caffeine exacerbates their condition. Same goes for those with high blood pressure.

And, if you currently take any medications, it’s best to talk to your doctor to be sure that your daily cup of Joe isn’t interacting with any of those.

But, for the most part, consuming caffeine in the form of plain coffee or plain tea seems to be beneficial, but the decaf versions may not be as beneficial.

Does Caffeine Cause Weight Gain?

I've also had questions about the potential effects caffeine may have on belly fat.

The effects of caffeine, particularly when it is consumed in the form of plain coffee and tea, may actually help reduce belly fat.

For the longest time, caffeine got a bad rap in the media. This was because we learned that when we consume caffeinated products, the body experiences a slight stress response.

Think about when you’re stressed…how does your body react to this stress? Your heart beats faster, your blood pressure goes up, your breathing rate increases and so on. Ideally, we don’t want to put our bodies through this regularly. Forcing the heart to beat faster and having our blood pressure rise simply because we drank a cup of joe in the morning doesn’t sound like the best thing for our health.

Relation between Coffee and Cortisol

Now, the reason the body responds to caffeine in this way is because, when we consume caffeinated products, the body responds by releasing some hormones. One of the hormones that gets released in response to consuming caffeine is cortisol.

Cortisol is not something we want floating around in our bloodstream for too long. A little bit of cortisol is fine, but too much of this hormone can lead to some not-so-good side effects.

Researchers have discovered that too much cortisol in the bloodstream can lead to more plaque in the arteries which can then lead to a heart attack or stroke, it can decrease the body’s ability to fight infections, and can lead to more fat storage around the abdomen. Or, put more simply, long-term exposure to cortisol can lead to more belly fat.

This is why concerns about consuming caffeine and it potentially increasing belly fat is logical. If we regularly consume caffeine, then we are potentially dumping more cortisol into the blood and increasing our risk of storing fat as belly fat.

Does Decaf Release Less Cortisol?

And, if we were to consume decaf, wouldn’t we then release less cortisol into the bloodstream, reducing our chances of having more fat around the abdomen?

Again, this is very logical, but isn’t the reality. And, here’s why…

When we consume black coffee or plain tea, for example, we do get a slight bump in cortisol. But, it’s very slight. We do find that our heart rate and blood pressure also go up, but this is very minor (in most people) and very brief.

If we were to compare our stress response to the body’s response after consuming caffeine, we find that when we’re stressed, there are these other nasty things that happen to the body besides the release of cortisol. The arteries become more stiff, for example.

When we’re under chronic stress, stress that lasts for weeks, and months, and years, we are constantly dumping more cortisol into the bloodstream. This long-term exposure to cortisol is what seems to do the most damage. This is what contributes to more belly fat.

So, those slight bumps in cortisol we experience when we consume caffeine don’t seem to be the issue. Even if we consume 3-4 cups of coffee or tea each day – this doesn’t seem to produce enough cortisol to lead to negative health effects in most people, including more belly fat. Even the increased heart rate and blood pressure we might experience when consuming caffeine is so minor and quickly goes away, so these effects don’t seem to be harmful to most people. Instead, caffeine may reduce our risk for developing belly fat as well as our risk for developing Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers, and even Parkinson’s disease.

Is Coffee Good for Belly Fat?

Here’s why 3-4 cups of coffee or tea might reduce belly fat.

Researchers have found that caffeine increases the body’s ability to release fat from our fat cells. In fact, it works along with some of the stress hormones that get released to specifically increase the amount of fat released from our cells. Now, just because fat gets released from our fat cells, doesn’t automatically mean it’s now banished from the body forever. Instead, finding a way to use that fat in the bloodstream for energy, can banish that fat for good.

So, how do we use that fat for energy? Get moving. An hour or so after having that cup of caffeinated coffee or tea, go for a walk, a swim, a bike ride, a jog, a row.

These activities will make it more likely that you burn that fat in your bloodstream for energy. Weight-lifting or resistance training may not have the same fat burning effect as cardio would.

Now, I have to mention: consuming caffeinated products isn’t right for everyone and it’s not a miracle cure for getting rid of belly fat. I’ve mentioned this earlier in this post: those with pre-existing conditions want to speak to their doctors, first.

The reason caffeine is not a miracle cure for getting rid of belly fat is because, as I said earlier, you still need to move in order to get your body to burn that fat.

If you’re given the OK from your healthcare provider to consume caffeine and choose to do so, then enjoy and don’t forget to get moving an hour or so after your cup of joe to really maximize caffeine’s benefits.


References:

1. Dr. Weil: Does Coffee Raise Cholesterol?

2. The Telegraph: Tea and coffee reduce heart disease risk, study suggests

3. Food and Chemical Toxicology: Analysis of the content of the diterpenes cafestol and kahweol in coffee brews

4. Caffeine Stimulation of Cortisol Secretion Across the Waking Hours in Relation to Caffeine Intake Levels

5. Stress Can Increase Your Risk for Heart Disease

6. Coffee and Fat Metabolism


Listen to Dr. Neal address this topic on Episode 1022 and Episode 1043 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.


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Neal Malik

Dr. Neal Malik ("Dr. Neal") is currently a professor at California State University, San Bernardino. Before this, he served as Department Chair at Bastyr University California. Dr. Neal has also published peer-reviewed scientific research and presented at national conferences. Send in your health related question and Dr. Neal will answer it on the Optimal Health Daily show!
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