Why Coffee is Bad for You Plus Tips for Ordering a Diabetes-Friendly Cup

Americans are obsessed with coffee but few people drink it black. Added fat and sugar from the syrups and sweeteners we use pose significant health risks. Here are healthy ways to enjoy caffeine.

hot mocha latteCoffeehouses have become popular gathering places for adults and teens. Although some research suggests positive benefits from coffee drinking, many people add too much fat and sugar to their cups. (Photo:123rf)

Coffee Drinks: Harmless Culture or Health Crisis?

Thanks largely to Starbucks, we’ve been encouraged to not only stop in for a variety of fancy coffee drinks, but to grab a comfy seat and stay a while. Hence the 20-ounce “venti” size. After all, staying longer means you’ll probably buy and drink more coffee.

And even though the caffeine can leave you wanting (and needing) more, so too can the cozy and pleasing aesthetics. In fact, during the past few decades, coffeehouses have become a home away from home for adults, and even more concerning, teens.

Today many parents shy away from hosting groups of teens due to worries about underage drinking. Coffeehouses have become safe and enjoyable places for teens to gather and socialize.

Perhaps it's no coincidence that as the coffee culture has boomed, rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes in young people have also increased. Make no mistake, the oversized coffee drinks favored by today's teens contain plenty of fat and added sugar.

Research also shows that high-sugar drinks may be even more harmful than high-sugar solid foods because the body doesn’t compensate by eating fewer calories later. In short, coffeehouse culture may be contributing to our country’s health crisis in adults and teens alike.

Java and Diabetes

Even so, some promising studies have also suggested drinking coffee may be preventive against type 2 diabetes. While more research is needed to better understand this link, regular consumption of high-fat, high-sugar coffee drinks could be outweighing any potential benefits from the coffee itself.

Of course, eliminating coffee drinks will not eradicate obesity or diabetes—these are complex problems. Yet we all have a personal responsibility for our own health, and it is even more important to foster healthy behaviors in our children who are surrounded with almost limitless food and drink choices.

Step one: first worry about yourself! With regard to coffee, choose wisely on a regular basis. Modeling healthy behaviors is the most effective way to teach children about nutrition as kids are more influenced not by what we say, but by what we do for ourselves each day.

So Many Choices 
So, how do you choose a coffee drink when the choices seem endless? I took an informal survey and I realized there were as many favorite coffee drinks (and variations) as there were people who responded! Something for everyone, quite literally.

Of course, there’s always black coffee. It may surprise you that I consider black coffee a “real food.” It comes from natural beans that are minimally processed—roasted, ground and brewed. The caffeine provides a nice burst of energy with negligible calories and has been shown to have some health benefits. But most of us aren’t drinking our coffee black, without anything added. That’s because black coffee has a bitter and acidic flavor that is not for everyone. Even me.

So, how do you prefer it? Hot, iced or frozen and blended; traditional bold or more mild espresso; French press, American drip or cold-brew. And don’t forget pour over. And that is just the coffee.

I can’t even begin to list all of the creative “mixers” that get added to the coffee to make it taste creamy, sweet, and often seasonal. Suffice it to say you can add your choice of milk (traditional cow’s, soy, coconut, almond, or hemp) and a specified number of “pumps” of sugar syrups or sugar-free alternatives.

Looking at a coffee drink menu can be overwhelming, so it’s a good idea to have a plan in place for choosing a healthier option. Those seasonal marketing pitches reminding you to order a decadent treat now since they're only available for a limited time can be so hard to resist. And if that doesn’t sway you, the subtle peer pressure of those you’re with just might.

Here are some tips that can help you navigate the choices and find one that is equally enjoyable and diabetes friendly.

Tips for Ordering Diabetes-Friendly Coffee

  1. Downsize to a smaller size (short 8 or tall 12 ounces). Ordering a larger size increases not only the sugar, fat and calories, but also the caffeine depending on the drink. A smaller size helps keep all of these in check.
  2. Switch the syrup. In many cases you can choose sugar-free syrup, or at the very least reduce the amount of regular syrup used. After all, “one pump” in a smaller drink will still taste plenty sweet.
  3. Milk matters. At Starbucks, if you don’t specify, you’ll get 2% milk. At other coffeehouses, it may be whole milk. Whole milk isn’t a bad choice (it depends on your overall eating habits), but it does contain more calories (from fat). Plant-based milks are an option if you prefer, but they still contain significant carbohydrates while providing much less protein than traditional cow’s milk.
  4. Drink a signature drink. Pick one lower-sugar drink that you usually order. For example, mine’s a tall cappuccino (as is, with 2% milk it contains 90 calories, 9 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams protein, 3.5 grams fat). I order it 99% of the time when I’m out for coffee. I like it, it reminds me of our time in Italy and it’s one of the healthier options, so it takes the guess work out of my decision (which also reduces decision fatigue in our hectic world!)

Many menus list some nutritional information, but most have a comprehensive list on their websites. Use it to search for the better choices at your favorite coffeehouse.

How to Get Less Sugar at Starbucks

Here are a five more suggestions for a signature lower-sugar drink at Starbucks:

  1. Tall Flat White with Non-fat milk (100 calories, 15 grams carbohydrates, 10 grams protein, 0 grams fat)*
  2. Tall Caffé Latte with Non-fat milk (100 calories, 15 grams carbohydrates, 10 grams protein, 0 grams fat)*
  3. Tall Vanilla Sweet Cream Cold Brew (80 calories, 18 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams protein, 0 grams fat)*
  4. Grande Iced Coffee with Non-fat milk (25 calories, 3 grams carbohydrate, 2 grams protein, 0 grams fat)*
  5. Grande Iced Skinny Cinnamon Dolce Latte with Non-fat milk (80 calories, 12 grams carbohydrates, 8 grams protein, 0 grams fat)

*These drinks all come unsweetened. Feel free to add cinnamon, unsweetened cocoa powder and/or sugar substitute to add sweetness without a significant amount of carbohydrates.


While perhaps the greatest benefit of ordering a coffee on the go is the convenience, sometimes it’s worthwhile to make your own at home! It is less expensive, you don’t even have to get dressed and you can control the ingredients. In addition, you can drink it in your favorite cheery mug. For a special diabetes-friendly treat, try this recipe for a homemade Hot Mocha Latte.

Your Greatest Choice—Your Health

To be clear, the real problem is not high-calorie coffee drinks. The larger problem is our culture’s demand for convenient, processed (and usually high-sugar) foods. Frankly, your greatest choice of all is your health. I recommend making this choice first, because all other choices don’t matter if you aren’t around to make them!


Updated on: March 25, 2019
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