Still Life with Blue Enamel Coffeepot

Fighting Obesity with Coffee and Headlines

It’s all so simple. We can fight obesity with a single cup of coffee! It’s a “fat-burning, obesity-fighting beverage.” So say the headlines about a study of brown fat activation with caffeine. This new study in Scientific Reports, hyped by a press release from the University of Nottingham, has unleashed a flood of sensational headlines about fighting obesity with a cuppa Joe. For good measure, they’re throwing in diabetes, too.

An Interesting Study

It’s an interesting study. The study is all about the potential for caffeine to activate brown fat and potentially burn excess energy. Michael Symonds and his colleagues studied the effects of caffeine on fat cells in vitro and found that it caused some “browning” of those cells. In other words, they started acting more like brown fat cells, burning more energy and generating more heat.

The researchers also compared the effects of a cup of coffee in nine humans to a cup of water. They used instant coffee (yuck). The key effect in this part of the study was to stimulate higher temperature in the area above the collar bone where brown fat is found. Indeed, this might suggest that brown fat is burning more energy in response to that cuppa Joe.

But Nothing About Obesity

But here’s the thing. This study had nothing to do with “fighting obesity.” Nor did investigators record any effects on body weight. It’s an interesting study of brown fat. Nothing more and nothing less.

A few studies (here and here) have found an association between high caffeine intake and better weight maintenance. However, there’s nothing to suggest a potent effect.

Why all the sensational stories? Click bait, of course, is a factor. But the root of the problem, in our view, comes from the press release by the university, hailing this as “pioneering research.” Puffery and science are incompatible.

Click here for the study and here for more on the problem of puffery in academic press releases.

Still Life with Blue Enamel Coffeepot, painting by Vincent van Gogh / WikiArt

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June 28, 2019

2 Responses to “Fighting Obesity with Coffee and Headlines”

  1. June 28, 2019 at 6:40 am, Mary-Jo said:

    Yet another spate of articles and online blurbs from the “if it’s too good to be true, it probably is” genre. If it were true, My body would be 90% brown fat after living in Europe for 35 years consuming strong coffee, often throughout the whole day! Not to mention, even when I lived stateside before that, being raised in an Italian home, we drank expresso — not the usual American (weak) coffee back then. I love the Van Gogh! 🌻

  2. July 11, 2019 at 5:35 am, Samuel said:

    Great article. Very helpful information. Thank you.