An Afternoon Starbucks’ Drink May Be Great for Your Mood, but a Disaster for Your Weight

A full-page advertisement for an Ultra Caramel Frappuccino stopped me from turning the page in a magazine I was reading. The picture of this drink caused my mouth to water, and was one of several Starbucks drinks they are featuring to entice morning customers back into their stores for afternoon refreshment.  Hidden in small letters at the bottom of the page is the phrase “Find Your Happy.” Perhaps it refers to happy taste buds after drinking one of the Frappuccinos.  And for many, this may be the result. Moreover, I suspect that the marketing people at Starbucks who came up with the campaign did not know that an afternoon drink combining caffeine and carbohydrate are satisfying a need rooted in our brains, not our taste buds.

Collette Reitz describes how many of us feel around 3 or 4 pm when she writes on Elite Daily’s May 2018 web site”…you can’t decide what to order at Starbucks because you are craving both a giant piece of cake and a caffeine boost.“ What Ms. Reitz is describing is the phenomenon of a, “…universal afternoon carbohydrate craving and afternoon lack of caffeine fatigue.”

The flagging energy and blah feelings experienced around 3 or 4 pm is largely due in part to caffeine levels that have been declining since morning, when many of us drink our coffee or other caffeinated drinks. They can be quite low by mid-afternoon unless a caffeinated beverage was consumed with lunch.  But most of the mood changes in the afternoon seem to be associated with decreasing brain levels of serotonin. We don’t know why there should be a change in the level of this neurotransmitter, but its effects can be seen in the craving for carbohydrates along with the distractibility, grumpiness, irritability and restlessness many experience between 3 and 5 pm.

We discovered this in studies carried out at MIT almost thirty years ago with people who self-identified as carbohydrate cravers. At first we believed people were eating carbohydrates in the afternoon because they wanted something pleasurable to munch on when they took a break from work. But it turned that eating the carbohydrates was a kind of self-medication. Our subjects told us how they couldn’t concentrate or became irritable with their kids, or felt depressed or angry late in the afternoon. They said they needed to eat carbs at that time. They weren’t hungry, but they found it impossible not to eat a sweet or starchy snack and when they did so they felt better.

We tested their claim that eating a carbohydrate in the afternoon positively affected their moods by giving them a drinks containing carbohydrate or protein, and measuring their moods before and after the drinks. They didn’t know what was in the drinks. It turned out that the carbohydrate drink reversed their bad moods but the protein drink had no effect.   (“Changes in Mood after Carbohydrate Consumption may influence Snack Choices of Obese Individuals,” Leiberman, H.J., Wurtman, J., and Chew, B., Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 45:772-778, 1986)

Further tests in which they received either a drug that increased serotonin activity, or a placebo showed that when serotonin was more active, their carbohydrate craving disappeared.( D-fenfluramine selectively suppresses carbohydrate snacking by obese subjects.Wurtman, J.J., Wurtman, R.J., Mark, S., Tsay, R., Gilbert, W., Growdon, J. Int. J. Eating Disorders, 4(1):89-99, 1985.)

So it appeared that somehow serotonin was signaling them to eat carbohydrates. Why? The reason was actually discovered years earlier, also at MIT. Serotonin is made after insulin is released and changes the pattern of amino acids in the blood. When insulin does this, a particular amino acid, tryptophan, gets into the brain and instantly is converted to serotonin. Insulin is secreted only after sweet or starchy carbohydrates (with the exception of fructose) are eaten.  (“Brain serotonin content: physiological dependence on plasma tryptophan levels,” Fernstrom, J., and Wurtman, R., Science, 173:149-152, 1971) Perhaps the lack of serotonin sent a signal in the form of carbohydrate craving just as thirst is a signal that the body needs water.

Starbucks’ “afternoon made” drinks may be the solution to this serotonin-generated afternoon mood and energy slump. But it is also a problem. The heavily advertised Frappuccino contains so many calories that the elevation in energy and mood may be costly in added pounds.  A grande size of the Ultra Caramel Frappuccino contains 420 calories, 19 grams of fat, 59 grams of carbs and 5 grams of protein. The grande size Triple Mocha Frappuccino has 400 calories, 18 grams of fat, 55 grams of carbs and 5 grams of protein. One does not need to consume 55 grams of carbohydrate and 400 calories to increase serotonin levels. Twenty-five to thirty grams is sufficient and if the snack is very low in fat or fat-free like some breakfast cereals the calories rarely exceed 130. Moreover, the fat content of the drinks may actually have a negative impact on mood. Feeling logy or foggy or just tired after eating a load of fat is not uncommon. Drinking 18 or 19 grams of fat puts a “ball of fat” in your stomach, and when digested rarely leads to increased mental or physical energy. I would not want to have a surgical procedure if my doctor just finished drinking a Frappuccino. To add fat to the fire, as it were, the fat drastically slows down digestion so the beneficial effects of caffeine and carbohydrate on energy and mood take longer to be experienced.

Starbucks offers other options that refresh and rejuvenate with many fewer calories. Mango Dragon Fruit Lemonade has 110 calories and 26 grams of carbohydrate. Strawberry acai lemonade has a similar nutrient profile. Other low-calorie drinks such as lemonade do not have quite enough carbohydrate to activate serotonin synthesis in the tall size, but would if ordered in the next larger size.

Will you find your “happy” in these afternoon drinks? Yes—but only if your mood goes up without your weight doing the same.

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