Can You Caffeinate Yourself to a Lower Weight?

09/12/2012 10:39 am ET | Updated Nov 12, 2012

Does it or doesn't it? The controversy over caffeine's role in weight loss has been going on for more than a decade. So many studies have appeared, with evidence on both sides of this issue, you can toss a coin while you are waiting for your caffeinated or decaffeinated latte to be made.

What is agreed upon is that caffeine, a mild diuretic, will cause you to lose a little water, thus making the number on the scale go down. A more potent effect on weight loss is its ability to increase energy use in exercise. Athletes have used caffeine to power up their training and competitive advantage. Perhaps a cup of coffee may have the same effect on the reluctant dieter/exerciser? If caffeine makes the workout seem easier, or prolongs the jog, walk or bike ride, then more calories will be used up and a little more weight may be lost. And that early morning cup of coffee may help push us out of the door to the gym or a run. Some people wake up to the smell of coffee brewing and claim that is what gets them out of bed and into their workout clothes.

Manufacturers of weight-loss drugs want you to believe that caffeine does more than motivate your muscles to work harder. Caffeine is often the main active ingredient in over-the-counter weight-loss preparations. It is taken on this role ever since the FDA banned the sale of ephedra, an amphetamine-like compound that was linked to many deaths. Ephedra decreased appetite and seemed to increase metabolism, thus producing rapid weight loss. Presumably the non-prescription diet pill folk are hoping you will believe that caffeine works as well without the side effects.

Zantrex-3, Dexatrim, Hydroxycut, Twin Lab Diet Fuel, Hoodia and Lipofuze are just a few of the many over-the-counter preparations making claims that their caffeine content will increase energy and cause rapid weight loss. Are these claims to be believed? According to a report in the International Journal of Obesity two years ago, caffeine may increase metabolic rate by 4 or 5 percent. But is this enough to "melt" the pounds off? It's unlikely. Running after your new puppy for 30 minutes, or walking home from the supermarket with heavy groceries, is probably more effective in using up some extra calories.

But let us assume the caffeine really is effective as a weight-loss aid. Wouldn't this mean that every cup of coffee or tea or diet cola we drink is edging us that much closer to our ideal weight? In fact, the caffeine content of coffee and tea is higher than that in weight-loss preparations. A 16-ounce cup of coffee contains between 200 and 350 mg of caffeine; 16 ounces of brewed tea contains about 100 mg. Hydroxycut provides 300 mg; Dexatrim Max Daytime, 200 mg; and Hoodia, 75 mg. So if I drink two medium cups of coffee a day (which I do), I may be ingesting 500 mg of caffeine. I should be a size zero if caffeine really affected my weight loss.

The consensus among obesity experts is that the national epidemic of obesity is not going to be eradicated if we all drink two -- or even three -- cups of black coffee every day. But perhaps we should ask if the opposite is true. Could it be that caffeine consumption might be helping to make us fat? If the caffeine is consumed in soft drinks, chocolate frozen desserts or chocolate candy, then of course the calorie content of such beverages and foods overwhelms the miniscule effect of the caffeine on weight loss. Moreover, if that cup of coffee or tea calls for a biscotti, doughnut, muffin, cupcake or scone to accompany it, here again the calories of the companion food will compete against the putative weight-loss effects of the caffeine. Adding cream, sugar, whipped cream or chocolate, caramel or other flavored syrup to the beverage will add calories not easily erased by caffeine's effect on energy use.

Caffeinated beverages may also indirectly increase our food intake. Some people experience pseudo-hunger pains after drinking coffee or tea or caffeine-containing soft drinks. The caffeine may increase stomach acidity, thereby producing a feeling that is similar to hunger. It is so uncomfortable that people who experience it want to eat something to "neutralize" the acid. Often a sugary or creamy food is eaten because it seems to soften the sharpness of the acidity. But the eating is not out of hunger and the added calories are unnecessary. (If this happens to you, consult with a health care provider to see if it is necessary to avoid caffeinated beverages altogether to diminish stomach pain.)

So let caffeinated beverages be enjoyed for their taste, their role in social encounters, and their ability to lift our minds out of early morning dullness. Furthermore, let their role in weight loss be restricted to giving us that slight nudge of energy to walk a bit further, jog a little faster or climb the stairs with less huffing and puffing.

For more by Judith J. Wurtman, Ph.D, click here.

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