Are coffee and diabetes compatible? And what about other caffeinated beverages? Here’s how much of the ingredient is safe to consume, as well as the best and worst caffeinated drinks for diabetes.
Navigating what you can and cannot eat and drink when you have type 2 diabetes can be tricky. Of course, there’s the obvious stuff you know is good to cut out or limit in your diet, like processed sweets and other refined carbohydrates, which can cause blood sugar levels to soar when eaten in excess. But what about those murkier diet staples, which seem to straddle the line between healthy and indulgent, but are ingrained in so many of our everyday rituals?
For millions of people in various cultures around the world, caffeinated drinks are likely the sort of thing that comes to mind when we talk about food or drinks in a healthy diabetes diet that aren’t so cut-and-dried. If you’ve recently been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes or have been living with the disease for a while and are seeking better blood sugar control, the subject of caffeine in a diabetes diet is a fair concern.
Caffeinated Drinks for Diabetes: Are They Safe?
“For people already diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, studies have shown caffeine consumption decreases insulin sensitivity and raises blood sugar levels,” says Toby Smithson, RDN, CDE, who is based in Hilton Head, South Carolina. According to a review published in April 2017 in Diabetes & Metabolic Syndrome: Clinical Research & Reviews, five out of seven trials studied found that caffeine increases blood glucose and keeps levels higher longer.
That doesn’t sound good, but if you’re accustomed to having your morning java, don’t skip out on the drink just yet. Some studies suggest that other components of caffeinated coffee may offer some benefits for people with diabetes. In a study published in March 2016 in the International Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, researchers looked at coffee consumption in adults with and without diabetes. They found that among coffee drinkers in both groups, uric acid levels were lower than they were in people who did not drink coffee.
That’s a positive thing because high uric acid levels may be linked to diabetes, and may also be associated with a greater risk of heart disease and end-stage renal disorder, they point out. It may be the chlorogenic acids, which are powerful antioxidants, within the java that increase insulin sensitivity and offer this protection, researchers hypothesized.
And if you haven’t been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, sipping caffeinated drinks may be one habit you want to keep. Research published in February 2014 in the European Journal of Nutrition found that for every two cups consumed per day, participants’ risk for type 2 diabetes decreased by 12 and 11 percent, when drinking caffeinated and decaf coffee, respectively. This suggests there are other good-for-you substances in coffee at play, not just caffeine.
The same goes for many types of tea, which is another good choice for people with diabetes. “Both coffee and tea have some extra benefits because they contain antioxidants, which act like soldiers to protect our body by increasing our immune system defense and repairing damage,” Smithson says.
Green tea in particular may also help lower type 2 diabetes risk, likely because it’s rich in a substance called EGCG, according to a study published in June 2013 in the journal Diabetes & Metabolism. Meanwhile, a review published in the International Journal of Obesity suggested swigging the green variety may help trim your waistline — another plus for diabetes, considering losing just 5 to 7 percent of your body weight can help prevent prediabetes from progressing to full-blown type 2 diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In terms of this weight-loss perk, “green tea can be a beneficial beverage, but you have to be cautious about using sugar or honey in the tea. Remember to account for the added carbohydrates,” Smithson says.
The Best and Worst of These Drinks for Diabetes
But not all sources of caffeine are created equal. Regular soda, for instance, isn’t ideal in a diabetes diet. Relatively speaking, the drink doesn’t have a lot of caffeine — 33 milligrams (mg) per can — but it does have about 37 grams (g) of sugar, which is roughly equivalent to 9 teaspoons of added sweet stuff. For people with diabetes, this added sugar and regular soda’s refined carbs can easily destabilize blood sugar levels.
Also important, a study published in November 2013 in the American Journal of Public Health credits soft drinks like soda to rising obesity rates worldwide, an effect that is linked with insulin resistance, the hallmark of type 2 diabetes.
Diet soda might not be all that innocent either. Smithson points out that while these beverages are a better choice than regular soda, they don’t contain the natural health benefits that coffee and tea do. Plus, some research links regular consumption of artificially sweetened drinks to a greater risk for metabolic disease and type 2 diabetes. Nonetheless, diet soda contains zero added sugars, so in moderation, it can fit into the diet of someone who has diabetes, Smithson notes.
Perhaps the worst caffeinated drink for people with diabetes? That would be energy drinks, which are essentially glorified sodas with added vitamins. An 8-ounce can has 27 g of sugar and 28 g of carbs, suggesting that virtually all of the carbs come from sugar and making it a poor choice for diabetes, says Smithson. “Energy drinks that contain carbohydrate and calories will affect blood sugar levels and may increase body weight, making controlling blood sugar readings more difficult,” she says.
And while these drinks often contain large amounts of vitamins, “it’s best to get vitamins and minerals from food, as nutrients are better absorbed through food,” she says. Not to mention, energy drinks can also contain twice the caffeine as a cup of coffee.
How Much Caffeine Is Okay to Drink for Blood Sugar Control?
When it comes to reaping the potential health benefits of safe sources of caffeine, it’s not a one-size-fits-all recommendation for people with diabetes. Because blood sugar responses vary from person to person — and caffeine doesn’t raise everyone’s blood sugar levels to the same degree — Smithson advises her patients to do some “investigative reporting” to find out how the caffeine in their drink of choice impacts them.
To do this, check your blood sugar reading before and after consuming a cup of coffee, tea, or diet soda. “Try to keep consistent with what you’re eating along with the beverage, to rule out the rise in blood sugar level from a food source,” she says.
Also know that “it takes about 200 mg of caffeine, or two cups of coffee, to affect blood sugar,” Smithson says. If your blood sugar rises too high after consuming caffeine, you may need to scale back. For example, have one cup of coffee instead of two, or go for a half-caffeinated variety, and see if your body is better able to tolerate it. After all, research published in May 2012 in the New England Journal of Medicine links regular coffee drinking, regardless of whether the java is caffeinated, to a longer life.
Also important to note is that if you also have high blood pressure, as two-thirds of people with diabetes do, says Smithson, you may also have to check your blood sugar reading before and after consuming caffeine to make sure the ingredient is not causing blood pressure to spike.
One more consideration: If you like coffee and have high cholesterol, Smithson explains that the oils in French press coffee may raise LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol levels in some people who drink more than two cups a day. Indeed, some research supports the idea that French pressed, or unfiltered coffee, may have this effect. In this case, drip coffee can be a smarter option.
Bottom line: “Learn how your body reacts to caffeine by monitoring your blood sugar and blood pressure before and after drinking the beverage,” she says. That’s going to be the best way to find out what your body can safely handle.