In this ongoing series, the Levels team takes a close look at fast-food chains and restaurants to help you find the most metabolically friendly options. Read on for guidance on maximizing nutrition and maintaining healthy blood sugar levels when dining out.
When you need a quick drink or bite, chances are, there’s a Starbucks nearby. The downside: Most of the menu is a metabolic health nightmare. The chain offers a long list of coffees and teas plus seasonal drinks and snacks, but most of these are loaded with added sugars or refined carbs that can spike blood sugar. Even the low-carb food options can contain highly processed ingredients that may impair metabolic health.
But if you find yourself at a Starbucks, a few options can sidestep these landmines and give you some sustenance without a huge blood sugar spike and crash. Here’s how to customize a drink and select a snack that supports your health goals.
The Metabolic Challenge at Starbucks
While caffeine intake has been linked to impaired glucose metabolism and insulin response in the short run, long-term coffee consumption has been shown to decrease the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, making black coffee a solid Starbucks drink option. (Decaf shows similar long-term effects if you prefer to avoid caffeine.)
However, most Starbucks signature drinks contain added sugars in various forms: sweetened milks and milk alternatives, flavored syrups, foams (frothed cold milk), “fruit” beverages that contain little actual fruit, juices, and more. Some seemingly healthy drinks can be packed with added sugars—a grande (16 ounce) chai tea latte contains 42 grams, the equivalent of 10 teaspoons.
An abundance of added sugars can spike glucose levels. And over time, regular dramatic rises and falls in blood glucose increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, obesity, and Type 2 diabetes. When you drink a beverage with a meal, any fat, fiber, or protein in the food slows digestion and dampens the rise in blood sugar. But often, Starbucks drinks are consumed on their own, and pairing with a snack from Starbucks may not help—many contain refined grains such as corn starch, potato starch, and enriched wheat flour. These grains are ultra-processed and stripped of natural fibers that help blood glucose levels rise more gradually.
4 Steps to a Better Starbucks Order
1. Start with a simple beverage.
Choose a drink with no added sugars as your base: hot black coffee or espresso, unsweetened iced coffee, hot tea, or iced tea.
2. Customize wisely.
Naturally, you want to skip syrups, honey blends, cane sugar, and other sugar-based ingredients as they will elevate blood glucose. Don’t be fooled by the promises of “sugar-free” syrups. They may contain the artificial sweetener sucralose (Splenda), which may also have unfavorable impacts on your metabolic health.
3. Mind your milk choice.
Dairy prompts insulin release, and while this may stave off a glucose spike from your latte, it could also negatively affect insulin sensitivity. As for milk alternatives, some contain added sugar. Oat milk is popular, but even the unsweetened variety is known to spike glucose levels, so best to skip it. A splash of unsweetened almond milk is a safe bet because of its low sugar content, though individual responses may vary. (When choosing a milk alternative, ask the barista if it’s unsweetened. Since products and brands can change over time, it’s best to confirm.)
4. Prioritize protein.
If you’re hungry, choose something high in protein to support more stable blood glucose levels. Consider the classic almonds or the grain-free snack options available in protein boxes, such as hard-boiled eggs. (Give away the high-carb items in the box.) Be mindful that the peanut butter in the protein boxes contains honey and cane sugar.
3 Smart Starbucks Orders
If you need a coffee…
Order unsweetened hot or iced coffee or Americano (espresso plus water). Typically plain hot coffees come black, but unless you request no added sugar, iced coffee is served with a few pumps of Classic Syrup, racking up the sugar to 20 grams in a grande. Cold brew coffee, however, comes unsweetened.
If you want a refreshing sip that isn’t coffee…
To avoid sugary syrups and add-ins, choose the Iced Black Tea, Iced Green Tea, or Iced Passion Tango Tea. All are served unsweetened, with zero calories and grams of sugar. The other iced teas and Refreshers drinks contain sweeteners or fruit juices that significantly increase the added sugars count.
If you’re hungry and need something ASAP…
For breakfast, there are no ideal options. The egg bites provide 12 to 19 grams of protein and only 9 to 11 grams of carbs, but they also have some grains and refined oils such as canola oil.
For lunch, snag the Chicken & Hummus Protein Box, which provides 22 grams of protein and 7 grams of dietary fiber. Skip the naan bread to reduce the carb count.
For a quick snack, look for a bag of Classic Almonds. The extra 9 grams of protein and 5 grams of fiber will help keep your blood sugar levels stable and hold you over until your next meal.