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Can Coffee Cause Obesity and Diabetes? Not So Fast, Experts Say
A mouse study linked a compound in coffee to risk factors for diabetes, but you needn't worry about your morning habit just yet.
By Johannah Sakimura, RD
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THURSDAY, May 30, 2013 – Java junkies may have been alarmed to hear earlier this week that their morning brew could pack on the pounds and put them at risk for diabetes. "Study shows five cups of coffee could cause obesity," ran the headline on the British tabloid Daily Mail's web site. "Regular coffee drinkers 'at increased risk of weight gain,'" the U.K. newspaper The Telegraph announced online.
But experts say those overreaching claims aren't supported by the findings of the study they were based on. After all, the research was conducted in mice, not people, and it examined one compound isolated from coffee, not the actual drink. "The data are not necessarily directly applicable to humans," said Marie-Pierre St-Onge, PhD, a researcher at the New York Obesity Research Center who was not involved with the study.
Researchers at the Western Australian Institute for Medical Research began the study hoping to shed more light on the health benefits of coffee. Numerous studies have found that regular coffee drinkers are at lower risk for type 2 diabetes, and previous research suggests that compounds in coffee beans — called polyphenols — may be responsible for the beverage's health perks.
"With this in mind, we studied the effects of polyphenols, or more specifically [chlorogenic acids], which are very rich in coffee but also found in some tea and fruits including plums," study author Keven Croft, PhD, said in a press release.
Coffee polyphenols, including chlorogenic acid (CGA), have been found to have positive effects on blood sugar regulation, blood pressure, and body fat in animal studies. And in people, polyphenol-rich green coffee extract supplements have been shown to increase weight loss and temporarily lower blood sugar in a few small studies.
But the new study, published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, turned up some unexpected results. CGA showed no metabolic benefits in rodents; in fact, the coffee compound was associated with a few harmful health effects.
Chlorogenic Acid Increases Insulin Resistance in Mice
The researchers compared changes in body weight and blood sugar regulation in three groups of mice fed different diets for 12 weeks. One group was fed a normal diet, and a second was given a high-fat diet. The third group was fed a high-fat diet supplemented with CGA at an amount roughly equivalent in humans to 5 cups of coffee a day.
Not surprisingly, both groups fed the high-fat diet gained more weight than the mice fed a standard diet. But the mice eating a high-fat diet with CGA gained the same amount of weight as those eating the high-fat diet alone, indicating that CGA did not offer a weight loss advantage.
Further, the mice fed CGA were more insulin resistant than those given the plain high-fat diet. Insulin resistance interferes with blood sugar control and is a hallmark of type 2 diabetes. The mice given the coffee compound also developed more fat in their livers, a feature associated with metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes.
“Everybody knows about the effects of caffeine, but when we’re considering our lifestyle choices it’s important to remember that compounds such as CGA can have an effect on our health if they’re not consumed in moderation,” senior study author Vance Matthews, PhD, said in the press release.
It's too early to draw conclusions about CGA's effects on human health from this research, experts said. For one thing, the study looked at the compound in isolation, which isn't how people naturally consume the ingredient in their diet. "It's not the same as coffee, which has all these other ingredients that synergistically may have different effects," Dr. St-Onge said.
In addition to chlorogenic acid, a cup of joe contains magnesium, fiber, polysaccharides, and other nutrients that may affect health. Humans may also metabolize CGA differently than mice, added Oliver Chen, PhD, a researcher at the Tufts University Antioxidants Research Laboratory.
Keep Your Coffee, But Sip Wisely
Most experts agree there's no reason for java afficianodos to give up their daily fix. "Based on current science, coffee seems to have more benefits than harms," Dr. Chen said. Epidemiological studies that track large groups of people over a number of years have linked coffee consumption to lower risk of type 2 diabetes, as well as stroke, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, and certain cancers.
However, while the research plays out, it's probably best to sip in moderation. “A moderate intake of coffee, up to three or four cups a day, still seems to decrease the risk of developing diseases such as cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes,” Dr. Matthews said.
And of course, watch what you're adding to your morning pick-me-up, advised St-Onge. A mug loaded with fattening cream or half-and-half and spoonfuls of sugar certainly isn't going to do your body — or your waistline — any favors.
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