Is coffee bad for you? Calories, nutrition and low-cal tweaks.

Black coffee is essentially zero calories and has surprising health benefits, but added sugar, milk and flavorings can turn a zero-cal drink into something bad for you. According to Statistia, 63% of Americans drink coffee regularly and 44% drink 2-3 cups per day. If you’re walking for weight loss and a coffee drinker, you may be wondering if your coffee habit is getting in the way of your daily walking routine.

If you can avoid adding a ton of sugar and fat, coffee is a great zero-cal form of hydration for people bored of plain water. Swapping just one soda for black coffee can save you as much as 130 calories of pure sugar (which might take 30-minutes of walking to burn off). Find out how many calories are in coffee, how flavorings can explore the calorie count, plus 10 tweaks for lower-calorie coffee drinks.

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How many calories are in coffee?

Cup of coffee and beans on table
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A cup of brewed coffee has somewhere between 1 and 5 calories per cup. The actual number varies depending on the source. The USDA lists 1 calorie per cup, while sources like the Mayo Clinic say less than 5. In any event, you can treat coffee as essentially zero calories per cup – black coffee with no additives that is.

Carbs, sugar and fat in coffee

Brewed black coffee has no fat or carb calories. There are a tiny amount of protein calories, but not enough to make a measurable difference in your life. Brewed coffee has zero sugar as well. Some studies actually link drinking coffee to a lower chance of developing type-2 diabetes, but it’s unclear what effect coffee has on blood sugar for people who already have diabetes.

Can coffee help with weight loss?

Man walking in the park with coffee
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The evidence is unclear, and you wouldn’t want to drink enough coffee that the caffeine content would make boost your weight loss. According to a couple of studies published on PubMed, caffeine in coffee may have a weak effect on your resting metabolic rate and suppress appetite, but there isn’t a ton of evidence.

Black coffee can help you lose weight for a different reason – because black coffee is essentially zero calories. Various sources list between 1 and 10 calories per cup. Black coffee provides hydration for people who are trying to watch their weight but don’t like plain water or diet soda. Substituting high-calorie drinks with plain coffee can cut quite a few calories out of your daily diet.

Added sugar, milk and fat – the real problem

High-calorie blended coffee beverage
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The real danger for a weight loss program is the added sugar and milk that go into many coffee drinks. Coffee cream is about 30 calories per tablespoon, while half-and-half is about 20. Making your black coffee into a latte, even without sweeteners (lattes contain milk), takes you up to about 120 calories.

The added sugar in coffee drinks can also pack on the calories. One sugar packet is about 15 calories, and many people don’t add just one. A syrup shot (found in many coffee store flavored drinks) can be around 80 calories. Large drinks can have as many as 4.

When you consider that many coffee drinks have added whipped cream, chocolate syrup, and other toppings you can see how your calorie count can go up and up. When people drink many cups of flavored coffee, full of milk and sugar, they consume a lot of calories. Because many people still think of a pumpkin spice latte with whipped cream as “coffee,” they fail to realize just how much each dollop of peppermint syrup and creamer adds to their caloric budget.

Is coffee bad for your health?

Tired woman drinking coffee in office
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According to the Mayo Clinic, there are some health risks associated with drinking coffee, though not as many as people had previously thought. There is a slight chance of raising your cholesterol levels if you drink a lot of unfiltered coffee. There is also a slightly increased risk of heart disease in people with a specific (but common) genetic mutation that affects the way caffeine is broken down by the body.

Some people are sensitive to caffeine, and drinking too much coffee can lead to health problems. There’s evidence that up to 400 mg of caffeine (about 4 cups of coffee) is safe for most people, though some people can drink more than this seemingly without side effects and some are sensitive to much less.

Is coffee good for you?

woman drinking coffee and feeling energetic

Studies have shown a variety of health benefits for people who drink coffee regularly. Coffee may help protect against liver disease, Parkinson’s disease, and type-2 diabetes. It also seems to lower the risk of depression. In fact, there was a 2005 survey of nine studies done on coffee and preventing diabetes, and they consistently found that heavy coffee drinkers were less likely to suffer from the disease. As far as heart health goes, a Kaiser Permanente study found that 1 to 3 cups of coffee a day reduces your risk of being hospitalized with abnormal heart rhythms by 20%.

That doesn’t mean that you should immediately start downing coffee. Some people are sensitive to caffeine and get jittery after one cup. These health benefits are also associations: they may have more to do with the magnesium and potassium in coffee and other factors.

How to reduce the calorie content of your coffee

Couple enjoying a city walk drinking coffee
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While black coffee is essentially zero-calories by nature, many people have difficulty drinking coffee black. There are ways to keep the calorie count of your coffee low while still adding some sweetness and flavor. Here are some simple ideas:

  1. Know your calorie counts: If you order your coffee at a coffee shop, take a few minutes to check the calorie counts of your favorite drinks. Almost every chain has easily accessible calorie information and often has tips on how to lower calorie counts. You’d be surprised how many calories certain drinks may contain.
  2. Wean yourself off sugar: If you like sugar in your coffee, lower the amount you add little by little over time. The small differences will be less noticeable than cutting sugar abruptly, until you may realize you don’t need sugar at all.
  3. Add sweeteners yourself: If you do need to add sweeteners, add them yourself instead of having a barista add them for you. You’ll almost definitely add less yourself than they would by default.
  4. Try natural zero-cal flavorings: Try adding a cinnamon stick to your coffee for a naturally sweet, zero-cal flavor. A dash of nutmeg or other flavoring can help spice things up as well.
  5. Use zero-cal sweeteners if necessary: If you find you really do need sugary sweetness, look into natural zero-calorie sweeteners like stevia. There are also artificial zero-cal sweeteners you can try. You’re better off with plain, black coffee, but if you do need to add something you might as well cut calories.
  6. Use less milk: While 2% milk sounds much better for you, it only has about 20% fewer calories than whole milk (120 cal to 150 cal). Try going for black coffee and adding milk yourself rather than ordering a latte or cappuccino to save calories.
  7. Beware the flavor shot: Most flavored coffee drinks you get at a store have several pumps of sugar syrup as flavoring. Bigger sizes have more sugar added. Ask for fewer shots, sugar-free options, or leave out the flavor shots where possible.
  8. Smaller cup sizes: Large coffees often have 4 or more espresso shots plus a bunch of sugar syrup and milk added. While the larger size may sound like a better deal, you’re also paying for all of that milk and sugar. Stick to smaller sizes of your flavored drinks to save some calories.
  9. Beware blended coffee drinks: Blended coffee drinks are often nutritionally more like a milkshake than a coffee. They can run anywhere from 200 calories on the low end to over 1000 calories on the high end! Treat these as desserts, drink them sparingly (if at all), and order the smallest sizes to minimize calories.
  10. Coffee as dessert: You can still enjoy flavored coffee drinks like a pumpkin spice latte, white chocolate mocha or an iced, blended treat from time to time but realize that they’re more like desserts than coffees. It’s fine if you have one you can’t live without, but it shouldn’t be your go-to coffee for energy and alertness. Learn the calorie count and swap out your snacks for the day for that coffee treat.

Walking is a great alternative!

Couple walking dog in a sunny park
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One amazing zero-calorie alternative to coffee is going for a short walk! Studies have shown that 10-minutes of moderate stair walking (easily possible during breaks at work) gave the same energy boost as half a cup of coffee! Other studies have found that 20 minutes of walking can give you the same brain and performance boosts as a full cup of coffee. This effect was even more pronounced in heavy coffee drinkers – perhaps because they had already developed a high tolerance for caffeine.

Instead of reaching for a latte or bottled coffee drink that may be full of fat and sugar, why not go for a quick walk instead? It’s a creative way to get extra steps in addition to the energy boost you’ll get from taking 5 minutes every hour to stand up and take a quick walk.

Final thoughts

While plain, black coffee probably isn’t bad for you and may be good for you in moderation, the details are the important part. Adding large amounts of milk, sugar, and other sweeteners to your coffee makes your daily pick me up into something that resembles more of a dessert treat. By taking some easy steps to cut calories and drink healthier, you can cut calories and make your coffee part of a healthy eating plan.

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