Are coffee and binge eating linked? Coffee and caffeine are considered appetite suppressants. In spite of this, or perhaps because of this, do coffee and caffeine cause overeating? After digging through clinical research, there seem to be several reasons to be mindful of your coffee and caffeine intake.
Before strictly saying, “Yes, coffee and binge eating are linked and you should be careful,” it’s important to get all the facts. Heightening anxiety around any particular food (or beverage, in this case) can worsen disordered eating patterns like fear foods.
Fear foods are items that stir up intense anxiety, so much so that we avoid them completely or feel extremely uneasy in their presence. Common examples of fear foods are carbs and sugar, especially in an era where low-carb diets are popular. However, it is possible for coffee and caffeine to become a fear food after learning the connection between caffeine, coffee and binge eating.
Therefore, as you read through the following information, try to stay curious and compassionate. Be curious about your own relationship with coffee and caffeine while also remaining compassionate about your own patterns of behavior.
Also, never be afraid to ask for help. If you struggle with an eating disorder, the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) has helpful resources to find the right treatment for your needs. ED specialists know how to provide support with non-judgment.
5 Links Between Caffeine, Coffee and Binge Eating
In case you decide that coffee should be foregone, it’s important to know that restriction is one of the biggest psychological reasons for overeating. When we make a food ‘off-limits,’ it heightens our psychological preoccupation it. In other words, we give that food more psychological ‘airtime.’
As a result, many people tend to binge on the exact foods that they restrict. People following strict low-carb diets often binge on pizza and pasta because they are ‘forbidden.’ When you’re always thinking about food, it is likely exacerbated by restriction.
To avoid falling into the restrict-binge cycle, it’s important to read the following information while treating yourself with kindness. Even if you decide that coffee and caffeine are not helpful on your journey, it’s important to stay relaxed around them to avoid the creation of anxiety and fear of specific foods.
With that said, here are the top five reasons why caffeine, coffee and binge eating are linked:
1. Appetite Suppression: Caffeine’s Hidden Effect
Caffeine is known for its ability to suppress appetite, making it popular among those who are looking to lose weight or control their food intake. However, this can be particularly concerning in cases of eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and binge eating disorder.
Research has found that individuals with anorexia nervosa or binge eating disorder are more likely to use caffeine to control hunger by suppressing the body’s natural hunger signals. This can create an unhealthy relationship with food, where eating is no longer driven by physiological need but by the desire to control body size.
If you are using coffee or caffeine to suppress your appetite, reach out to someone that specializes in eating disorder treatment to find effective ways to heal your relationship with food.
2. Emotional Coping Mechanism: Caffeine as a Stimulant
What if you don’t drink caffeine for its effect on appetite? What if you just like the taste of coffee or need/want it for energy?
Caffeine is a stimulant and can therefore be used to temporarily elevate mood and provide an energy boost. This can be particularly appealing to individuals who are dealing with stress, anxiety, emotional stress, or overly demanding jobs.
By providing a temporary “lift,” caffeine may be used to avoid confronting challenging emotions. However, this can exacerbate patterns of emotional eating, as the underlying feelings remain unaddressed. Over time, caffeine consumption can become a maladaptive coping mechanism, potentially triggering overeating when the effects of the stimulant wear off.
Keep in mind that as we continue to dive deeper into the link between coffee and binge eating, it’s important to look at it from both sides. Many individuals use caffeine to start their day, especially for those who have high-stress jobs or demanding lives.
Just because you drink coffee every day does not necessarily mean you have an eating disorder or that you are using coffee to suppress your emotions. It is possible to drink coffee for enjoyment, pleasure, and energy just as it is possible to drink coffee in patterns linked to disordered eating.
3. Insulin Sensitivity: Exploring the Short- and Long-Term Effects of Coffee
Consumption of caffeine can have a significant impact on insulin sensitivity. Insulin is a hormone that helps regulate blood sugar levels, and it plays a crucial role in hunger and satiety. Caffeine can interfere with the body’s response to insulin, leading to periods of high and low blood sugar.
When blood sugar becomes unstable, it can can create intense food cravings, often for sugary or high-carbohydrate foods. This can lead to overeating or binge eating, thus perpetuating the link between coffee and binge eating.
Once again, though, it’s important to look at both sides. While coffee can impact insulin and therefore blood sugar levels, some studies have found that long-term consumption of coffee positively influences adiponectin levels.
Adiponectin is a hormone that helps regulate glucose levels and fatty acid breakdown. Researchers found that this hormone was positively influenced by long-term coffee drinking, therefore assisting in the maintenance of normal glucose tolerance, not the other way around.
This goes to show that, when you really look, you can sometimes find evidence to support both sides of an argument. Ultimately, what matters most is your own relationship with coffee and caffeine. Do you feel better or worse when you drink it? Are you drinking it to suppress your appetite or for enjoyment and energy? You are the expert on your body. Learn to trust what your body is telling you.
4. Disruption of Sleep
Caffeine is well known for its ability to interfere with sleep. Not only can it make it more difficult to fall asleep, but it can also affect quality of sleep — or lack thereof.
Poor sleep has been linked to increased ghrelin (the ‘hunger hormone’) and decreased leptin (the ‘satiety hormone’). In other words, when you don’t get adequate or quality sleep, you feel hungrier and are more prone to eat past fullness. When poor sleep is caused by coffee or caffeine consumption, it can contribute to the link between caffeine, coffee and binge eating.
5. Increased Stress: A Vicious Cycle
Last but certainly not least, caffeine and coffee have a direct impact on stress. Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system, prompting the body’s stress response and triggering the release of stress hormones like cortisol. While this can provide a temporary boost in alertness and energy, it can also exacerbate feelings of stress and anxiety over time.
For some people, caffeine and coffee make them feel ‘jittery’ and anxious. This added stress can trigger emotional eating, creating a vicious cycle of consuming caffeine to cope with stress, leading to increased stress, and resulting in overeating.
Should You Give Up Coffee in Order to Stop Overeating?
Now that you’re aware of the link between coffee and binge eating, what can you do about it? Should you forego it altogether, drink it in moderation, or keep things as they are?
The answer is, it depends. On one end, individuals that use caffeine and coffee for their appetite suppressing qualities are best supported by eating disorder specialists. Seeking help from a registered dietitian or therapist who specializes in ED is incredibly helpful.
On the other end, there are many people who cannot find the energy to get up in the morning and/or get to work without coffee. These people might be using coffee for necessary energy to be productively involved in their own lives.
Finally, there are also many people who just enjoy coffee! There is no need to forgo it, especially if you are not using it to suppress your appetite. (Side note: if you are obsessively consuming coffee for pleasure, it could be a sign of hedonic eating.)
No matter which camp you are in, though, it all can lead to the same question: is caffeine and coffee a good idea when you’re trying to give up dieting and listen to your body to inform what and when you eat?
When you’re trying to listen to your body instead of your brain to inform how you fuel and nourish your body, is there a place for coffee and caffeine?
When Coffee Leads to Undereating and Therefore Overeating
I’d like to answer these questions by sharing a typical pattern I’ve seen both in myself and my coaching clients. Here’s how the vicious cycle of coffee and binge eating might play out:
Let’s say you ate a large amount of food last night and therefore aren’t hungry for breakfast this morning. You skip breakfast and instead, find energy in a simple cup of coffee. Innocent enough, right? But because coffee suppresses your appetite, you roll through your morning until lunch time, where you have half a sandwich and another cup of coffee.
As the afternoon rolls on, you might start to feel ‘wired’ on cortisol — though you may not realize it’s from cortisol. The stress response can come from many places, including those cups of coffee and the stress of undereating. Although cortisol is a stress hormone, it can provide an alert feeling which some people enjoy while they’re working. It’s very important to realize this is not a kind thing to do to your body. Running on stress, even if it is helpful, is still stress.
However, all good things come to an end. By the time dinner rolls around, you’re famished because you simply haven’t eaten enough for the day (not nearly enough), and excessive cortisol has impacted your blood sugar in a way that increased your cravings for hyper-palatable foods (i.e. those high in fat, salt, sugar, and carbs).
Because you hardly ate all day, you end up gorging on dinner and following it up with more snacks and desserts. At first, it was physical hunger that compelled you to eat; but as the evening wears on, emotional eating sets in as you find a way to cope with the emotions of a stressful day.
To put it more generally, coffee can contribute to binge eating in the following ways:
- Coffee is used as a substitute for breakfast, and intentionally or unintentionally, it suppresses the appetite. You might not realize you’re hungry until the clock strikes noon.
- You have a small lunch because diet culture tells you to, and you move on with your day, potentially drinking more coffee and delaying the onset of physical hunger sensations.
- Dinner comes around and it is the largest meal of your day. At this point, food is not being used as fuel — your body is likely storing it as energy (in the form of body fat) in case you need it during another crazy day like this.
Furthermore, because you consumed the majority of your calories in the evening, it diminishes your appetite when you wake up the next day, and the cycle repeats itself. How can we make the cycle end?
If You Want Coffee, Think It Through
When you go for long periods of time without eating, you need to eat. I am not a dietitian or a health expert, but this is common sense. Even when you don’t feel hungry, you should still nourish your body in a reasonable way.
This means eating enough food to sustain your daily activities (which is probably more food that you’ve been trained to think). Don’t let the fear of gaining weight get in the way of making reasonable eating decisions. Otherwise, you’ll just perpetuate the restrict-binge cycle. If you go 6+ hours without eating, you should probably eat something. Your body needs nutrients and calories to function.
This advice goes against the Psycho-Spiritual Wellness Eating Guidelines. Specifically, coffee makes it hard to follow guideline #1: eat exactly what appeals to you when you’re hungry.
With coffee, you can’t really feel your hunger. Therefore, I consider coffee to be a treat that simply requires advanced self-awareness. You don’t need to stop drinking coffee by any means, but you need to acknowledge the hurdle it poses and pay excruciating attention to how you’re fueling your body throughout the day.
In a way, coffee forces you to use your intellect to inform when you eat, which makes it harder to listen to your intuition.
Coffee = Intellectual Eating
As I previously mentioned, restriction is one of the biggest psychological reasons for overeating. For many people, it is not a good idea – nor is it fun – to restrict coffee. (Side note: restricting something that brings you joy only increases the likelihood of hedonic eating.)
What it often means, though, is that if you need or want to drink coffee, you’ll need to make peace with the fact that you’re going to need to use your intellect to inform when you eat. When you cannot feel your body’s hunger cues after drinking coffee, and you find yourself going for unreasonably long periods of time without eating, you need to eat.
This takes enormous self-awareness, especially if you have not yet fully cut ties with diet culture. Many of us have been trained to think that eating small meals is “good.” While under the influence of coffee’s appetite-suppressing qualities, we may be inclined to eat small meals and feel content with it. Be excruciatingly aware of how you’re fueling your body.
While diet culture might train us to view a half sandwich as a “good” lunch because it’s “low in calories,” a more compassionate view would tell us that we aren’t fueling our body with much energy, and that’s not the kindest thing to do.
When in doubt, fall back on one of my favorite mottos: do the kind thing. Eating half a sandwich for lunch when you’ve already skipped breakfast is hardly a kind thing to do for your body.
The Decision Is Yours
You are the expert on your body. You are the best person to decide if coffee is a good fit for your body, lifestyle, and relationship with food. In fact, coffee is a necessary staple for many people — and it’s also enjoyable.
If you choose to enjoy coffee, pay excruciating attention to how you’re fueling your body throughout the day. Instead of relying on physical hunger cues to inform when you eat, keep in mind that coffee suppresses those cues and you’ll need to use some intellect to make nourishing decisions.
Ultimately, do the kindest thing possible for your body, and you will be well on your way to a healthy relationship with food.