When fall hits, a lot of people reach for the pumpkin spice latte — a lot.
Starbucks says the pumpkin spice latte (aka PSL) is its most popular seasonal beverage of all time, a statistic that’s not shocking considering that the drink has inspired countless tweets, knockoff recipes, and even GIFs. The day after Labor Day, when the drink “officially” rolls out in stores, is practically a national holiday for PSL fans.
But what actually happens to your body after you sip a 16-ounce grande pumpkin spice latte — which, when made with 2 percent milk and topped with whipped cream, contains 380 calories, 14 grams of fat, and 50 grams of sugar? Much more than you think.
There’s a reason why you crave sugary drinks like the PSL, which contains a whopping 12 teaspoons of sugar. Research has shown your body’s response to all that sweet stuff is similar to what happens when someone consumes heroin or cocaine — “Just something to think about when considering what to order on your next coffee run,” New York City certified dietitian-nutritionist Jessica Cording tells Yahoo Health.
Within 20 minutes, your pancreas is hard at work, registered dietitian-nutritionist Sonya Angelone, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells Yahoo Health. It begins secreting insulin to help break the sugar down into glucose for your body’s cells, where it can be stored for energy or used for fuel. But if your cells are already full of glucose, it gets rejected, Angelone says.
Here’s why that’s an issue: Glucose continues to rise in your blood, which leads to more insulin production, and the excess sugar is stored in your body — as fat.
Your insulin levels spike after the sugar rush, kicking your liver into action.
And there’s a lot of work for your liver after you have a PSL: The 50 grams of sugar in a grande size of the drink with whipped cream is more than 100 percent of your daily recommended intake. “That’s a lot for your system to handle in one go,” Cording says.
Within a half-hour, your liver starts absorbing glucose and creating glycogen, a stored form of glucose, essentially trying to store any extra sugar in your body as fat.
Your triglyceride level (i.e., fats in your blood) starts increasing as the fat gets absorbed into your body. Over time, a rise in triglycerides may clog blood vessels, says Angelone, because high triglycerides can cause a drop in HDL (“good”) cholesterol and saturated fats boost LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. Triglycerides can stay elevated for six hours or more.
“There is not a triglyceride level where it suddenly becomes dangerous,” says Angelone. But, she adds, just having elevated triglyceride levels leads to higher risk of atherosclerosis, a disease in which plaque builds up in your arteries.
About 15 minutes after drinking a PSL, your blood pressure and pulse increase, but it can take 45 minutes to an hour to feel the caffeine’s full effects.
Why? Fat in the PSL delays the absorption of the caffeine in your stomach, slowing down the time it will take to ramp up your heart rate, says Angelone.
Worth noting: About 75 milligrams of caffeine still remains in your system three to four hours after drinking a pumpkin spice latte, which can cause you to have trouble sleeping if you consume it in the late afternoon.
There is an upside to drinking a PSL: It contains 14 grams of protein. That can help boost your muscles and leave you feeling fuller, longer, says Cording.
And it should, thanks to all the fat and calories it contains. Angelone points out that the 14 grams of fat and 380 calories in a PSL made with 2 percent milk and topped with whipped cream account for 20 percent of both your recommended fat intake and average calorie recommendation for a whole day.
But the high levels of sugar and caffeine in the drink can also mess with your stomach. “They may contribute to gastrointestinal discomfort, along with impacting your mood and energy levels,” says Cording.
Despite the strong impact the pumpkin spice latte can have on your body, both experts agree that having it here and there is fine. Adds Angelone, “If you are healthy, indulging once in a while shouldn’t be a problem.”
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