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Can coffee cause obesity?

Posted in: General Health 04 Jun, 2013

‘Is your caffeine fix making you fat?’ is the question proposed by foolhardy journalists at the Mail Online, but can we really trust the studies they use to generate these headlines?

What were the aims and results of the research?

The main function of the study was to explore the impact of a chemical named chlorogenic acid (a component of coffee) on male mice. After giving them a 1g dosage of this acid, they were tested to see how it affected their fatness and blood sugar regulation (a known risk factor relating to type 2 diabetes.)

Mice fed on a high-fat diet supplemented with chlorogenic acid (CGA) seemed to exhibit worse glucose-regulating abilities then those mice that were fed on a high-fat diet only, which indicates that consuming high levels of CGA may increase insulin resistance, a symptom of type 2 diabetes.

Now, the Mail Online hastily used the study to claim that ‘five cups of coffee a day could cause obesity’, yet both groups on the high-fat diet gained weight, whether they were given CGA or not. It’s too early to be making bold statements like the one above. More research must be undertaken to apply these results to human beings.

Why can we not trust this study?

Although animal studies can be a useful starting point to understand the biological foundations of certain diseases, they should not, necessarily, be taken verbatim. An article on the NHS website has rightly stated that ‘mice and men are not identical,’ and so we cannot directly apply these findings to human beings. To validate connections between coffee and obesity, studies will need to involve humans.

Researchers at universities in Australia and Malaysia used a dose of CGA, which was ‘realistically attainable through diet,’ but they didn’t stipulate how many cups of coffee this may equate to. This grey area has given reason for newspapers to make their own speculations, resulting in crude and potentially misleading conclusions.

This headline, like others, has the potential to cause panic amongst a nation that considers caffeine to be an important remedy for modern-day living. Remember, it wasn’t long ago that the newspapers were extolling the virtues of coffee. Studies had found that certain dietary polyphenols found in coffee could have beneficial effects, such as preventing symptoms of metabolic syndrome, a medical term for a combination of diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity.

Contradictory evidence arising from different research usually indicates that the biological causes of the disease are not fully understood. Therefore, further research should be carried out to allow journalists to make more concrete claims rather then scaremongering headlines like the one in question.

Established ways of preventing metabolic syndrome

The jury may still be out on the benefits of CGA, but there are more proven ways to lower your risk of developing features of metabolic syndrome:

So, whom should we believe?

The study in question is a long way from being directly relevant to more complex beings, like humans. You should always exercise caution when reading a study that exclusively uses animals. In addition, newspapers can often extrapolate from the real study results so, to get reliable information you should go straight to the source. In most cases, the actual study can be located online. It may seem longwinded at first, but it can provide you with peace of mind when trying to interpret the myths behind the headlines.

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