Coffee is very much a "love it" or "hate it" beverage. Some people love the bitter, astringent taste. Some people love the smell but don't really like the bitterness, so they cut it down with creamers and sweeteners. Others claim to love coffee, but when pressed, reveal that what they love are the Unicorn Frappes and Pumpkin Spice Lattes from Starbucks, with barely any coffee in them at all.
Coffee can be a great boost to a weight-loss routine, but you have to use it properly. Among the many questions you might have is this: should you go with regular coffee, or is instant coffee acceptable?
Let's dig in!
How Coffee Affects Weight Loss
First, let's start by talking about how coffee can help with your weight loss journey. Coffee can help or it can hurt, and it's all about how you drink it.
Coffee on its own is a zero-calorie beverage. It's essentially tea, using a roasted bean instead of leaves to steep. Coffee is full of nutrients and caffeine, and it's that caffeine that you're most concerned about.
Now, coffee can only benefit weight loss if you're drinking it black. Adding anything to it – whether it's a creamer, sugar, butter, MCT oil, or all those fancy additives you get at the local café – makes it much less effective. The energy boost of caffeine only gives you a few extra calories burned on its own, so if you're consuming a few hundred calories in creams, sugars, chocolate, and sprinkles, well, you're just putting yourself further behind.
Black coffee, though, now there's a beneficial beverage. You know, if you can stomach it. It's a bitter, difficult drink and some people simply can't handle the taste. On the plus side, the effect isn't so strong that you should force yourself to drink coffee if you don't like it. But what is it about coffee that helps you lose weight?
There are a bunch of nutrients in coffee that can help your overall health, but the caffeine is what gives you the punch from coffee. It gives you energy, and it's thermogenic – which means it boosts your metabolism and stimulates your body into converting fat into energy. Boom: instant fat loss.
Now, coffee on its own isn't going to do a ton. The passive calories burned by caffeine is something like 9 calories for a cup of coffee. That's nothing to write home about (a pound of fat is something like 3,500 calories, so you can imagine how much coffee you'd need to drink to passively lose a single pound), but that's not the point.
The point is, even a mild amount of coffee assists with weight loss by encouraging fat burning when you exercise. An experiment showed that coffee can lead to additional calories burned during exercise, by around 11%.
How does coffee work for weight loss, anyways? Caffeine is the key, but there are some other nutrients in coffee that can help.
Caffeine works by stimulating the production of epinephrine, or adrenaline, in the bloodstream. This adrenaline acts as a solicitor, knocking on the doors of the cells it passes, asking for contributions to the energy stores. Cells give up stored fat, converting it into fatty acids in the blood. This gives you a burst of energy.
Now, you need to use that energy! Some, your body will passively use just to keep your heart pumping, your limbs moving, and your brain functioning. Most of it, though, will be re-absorbed and converted back to fat if it isn't used.
When you exercise, you have more energy to draw on right away, and can convert that extra fat-energy into work. This lets you exercise with more vigor, faster and harder, ready to achieve new heights. This essentially makes the exercise you do more effective.
The other ingredients in coffee can also help you lose weight in their small ways.
- Theobromine is a stimulant similar to caffeine, found primarily in cocoa, but in small amounts in coffee as well. It does the same thing caffeine does.
- Theophylline is another similar stimulant and has the same effects.
- Chlorogenic acid is a biologically active compound found in coffee, and it binds to the chemicals that would otherwise bind to and absorb carbs in your digestive process, thus blocking some carbs from being absorbed. This helps prevent weight gain.
There's one other potential effect, but it's hard to tell if it's real. Some studies have shown that, in men but not women, coffee has an appetite suppressant effect. The less you eat, the fewer calories you take in, and the more weight you lose from a caloric deficit. However, other studies have failed to find the same effect, so it might not exist, and if it does, it might not work for everyone.
How Instant Coffee is Made
Now let's talk about the different kinds of coffee you can get. The two most common are ground coffee and instant coffee.
Ground coffee is coffee beans, which have been harvested and roasted, then ground up into a coarse grain. You can then use these to brew coffee in a wide range of different ways, from cold brew to French press to standard brewing. There's a wide range of differences in flavor profiles and strengths depending on how you brew it, how the beans are roasted, and how fresh they are, but the end result is always basically the same; steeped water with coffee nutrients in it.
Instant coffee takes this process one step further. They do all of the above, including brewing the coffee itself. Then they take the brewed coffee and dehydrate it down into crystals, which contain the coffee nutrients but no water. When you want to make it, you just dissolve these crystals in hot water for an instant cup.
So are these two different kinds of coffee different? Not really.
According to Melanie McGrice, there's not much difference between a cup brewed fresh and a cup of instant coffee – at least in terms of nutrients. You may get a little less of the nutrients, but we're talking micrograms here, barely enough to be biologically active. The biggest impact is more likely going to be flavor than anything else.
Does Instant Coffee Change the Nutrient Profile of Coffee?
Surprisingly, there is very little nutritional difference between the two. The process of making instant coffee does change the nutritional profile of the coffee, but only by a little bit. Most of the nutrients are the same, maybe a tiny bit less in instant coffee, though some analysis suggests that instant coffee actually has more antioxidants than ground coffee.
The biggest difference between the two is potassium. Ground coffee has almost twice as much potassium in it as instant coffee, though different brews, different roasts, and different preservatives can all adjust these numbers. Coffee covers a wide range of possible nutritional profiles.
Does Instant Coffee Contain Less Caffeine?
Possibly, yes! Ground coffee contains, on average, around 60-120 mg of caffeine. Instant coffee, meanwhile, contains around 60-80 mg of caffeine. So on the low end, they're the same, but a ground coffee cup may contain up to 75% more caffeine (or thereabouts) than a cup of instant coffee.
This depends a lot on the kind of coffee, though. For example, if you measure out your ground coffee by volume, a light roast tends to have more caffeine in it by virtue of it being a denser pack. Conversely, if you weigh out your coffee, a darker roast – which is less dense – will have more caffeine per ounce. It's tricky, and it's close, but there's a difference of a few dozen milligrams.
Caffeine content is also variable based on the location and time of harvest of the beans, and other processing that goes on afterward. On average, we would say that instant coffee is going to have less caffeine in than ground coffee, simply on the virtue of ground coffee having more high-caffeine preparations.
Is Instant Coffee Worse for You?
No. Instant coffee is usually made with a cheap coffee bean, so the flavors aren't as robust, and the caffeine content is higher than arabica coffee, though it depends a lot on the kind of ground coffee you get; you can get the same kinds of beans in both.
Again, though, instant coffee is just coffee that has been brewed and dehydrated for packaging. You might have a few more preservatives in it than in whole beans, but if you buy pre-ground coffee rather than grinding it yourself, you'll find the difference is mostly negligible. It may also depend on the brand and the variety of both ground and instant coffee you look at. There's a lot of variation!
The Trouble with Caffeine for Weight Loss
Both instant and ground coffee varieties can be perfectly fine for your intended purpose if that intended purpose is energy levels and weight loss. The problem lies in the caffeine itself.
See, here's the thing about caffeine: your body builds up a resistance to it very quickly. That very first cup of coffee you drink is going to have a huge punch to it, but the cups you drink a week or a month later aren't going to seem nearly as strong. And that's if you're drinking it with no prior caffeine use. If you're used to drinking sodas, you'll be dialing it up a notch, but that high only lasts for so long. The average soda, by the way, has about 30-50 mg of caffeine, compared to the 60-120 in a cup of coffee. That's from a 12-ounce can, too, not a 20-ounce bottle.
Caffeine builds up a tolerance in your system. Basically, the receptors in the gut and the brain that caffeine binds to grow less sensitive to it over time. It will take more and more caffeine to achieve the same energy levels you were getting from a single cup before.
The problem here is two-fold. First, tolerance builds up. Second, you can't beat tolerance just by taking more and more caffeine. There's an upper limit to how much caffeine is considered safe for daily consumption, and that's around 400 mg per day, which is about 4-5 cups depending on the strength and size of those cups.
Eventually, caffeine will just stop giving you energy. You can take more caffeine up to a point, but that doesn't solve the problem, merely delays it.
The solution to the problem is to cut off caffeine and allow your brain chemistry to level back out and sensitivity to increase again. Cutting off caffeine can have this effect within a few weeks, so it's not a lengthy cycle, but there's just one problem; withdrawal symptoms.
Anyone who has tried to cut out coffee or soda before knows the caffeine withdrawal symptoms intimately. First and foremost, you get a headache, and that headache can be nasty. Some people report migraine-level headaches lasting days! It's very harsh.
Of course, withdrawal symptoms vary a lot from person to person. Some people can cut off caffeine cold turkey and experience nothing but maybe one low-energy day. Others get knocked out with hangover-like symptoms for nearly a week. If you're part of the latter group, this is really not a cycle that is going to motivate you to keep exercising.
All in all, this makes caffeine a less than ideal solution to weight loss. There are generally better solutions, like focusing more on exercise and a balanced, low-carb diet.
Then again, caffeine can work just fine if you take it sporadically. Drinking a cup of coffee before a workout once or twice a week might not build up a tolerance as fast and will help you keep going longer before you need to cut it off and restore your sensitivity. It's a tricky line to walk, though.
What have your experiences been with caffeine? Tell us your caffeine-related weight loss story below!