Reality check: Does drinking coffee really help with weight loss?

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Can coffee affect the body’s fat stores and help boost metabolism? According to new research, it might.

A study out of the University of Nottingham in England found that caffeine may stimulate brown fat reserves, which help determine how fast our bodies burn calories.

The findings, published Monday in the journal Scientific Reports, suggest that caffeine intake may help tackle health issues of obesity and diabetes.

“This is the first study in humans to show that something like a cup of coffee can have a direct effect on our brown fat functions,” Michael Symonds, one of the study’s co-authors and professor at University of Nottingham’s school of medicine, said in a statement.

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“The potential implications of our results are pretty big, as obesity is a major health concern for society and we also have a growing diabetes epidemic and brown fat could potentially be part of the solution in tackling them.”

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Brown fat is also known as brown adipose tissue (BAT), which is one of two main types of fat found in humans. Brown fat’s main purpose is to generate body heat by burning calories. White fat cells, on the other hand, store calories.

“Brown fat works in a different way to other fat in your body and produces heat by burning sugar and fat, often in response to cold,” Symonds said.

“Increasing its activity improves blood sugar control as well as improving blood lipid levels and the extra calories burnt help with weight loss.”

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Researchers first conducted a series of stem cell studies to see how coffee affected brown fat. Once they learned it stimulated the fat cells, they tested on humans using a thermal imaging technique “to trace the body’s brown fat reserves.”

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Symonds told Global News that he and his research team believe caffeine affects brown fat by stimulating the sympathetic nervous system. This, in turn, affects the body’s metabolism.

He said the researchers looked at the effects of one cup of coffee, which was enough to stimulate brown fat within an hour of consumption.

“We used a sachet of Nescafé, which has about two grams of coffee powder in about 200 millilitres of water,” he said.

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While their research only included nine people, Symonds said it was the first study to show brown fat stimulation in all subjects.

“We know that cold exposure stimulates brown fat, and both ourselves and other [researchers] have shown that eating a meal can stimulate brown fat… but this is the first time that anyone’s shown a specific ingredient — coffee — can stimulate brown fat within an hour of having it,” he said.

So does this mean the more coffee you drink the more brown fat is targeted?

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Symonds says more research is needed before making that connection.

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“If one coffee works, does two, three, four have a bigger effect? I think it would depend on how long you wait in between coffees, and what other things you do during the day,” he told Global News.

“But potentially, one could make that proposal.”

According to Dr. Donald Hensrud, medical editor of the Mayo Clinic Diet and medical director of the Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program in Rochester, Minn., the research findings sound probable, but coffee drinkers should be cautious.

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“While the study is plausible, we already know through population studies and randomized, controlled trials that the effect of caffeine and coffee on metabolic rate and weight loss is relatively small — this research has already been done,” he told Global News.

“Thus, the practical implications of this study are currently small.”

A recent systematic review on the effects of caffeine on weight loss found that “caffeine intake might promote weight, BMI and body fat reduction.”

When it comes to managing diabetes, Hensrud says there is “good evidence” that both caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee may be effective in preventing Type 2 diabetes.

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“This suggests that something other than caffeine may be responsible for this effect,” he said.

“Coffee has many different compounds and is abundant in antioxidants. However, the effect of coffee on diabetes risk is much less than is weight, and coffee is not effective in treatment of diabetes.”

So though this new study claims to be a source of hope for those wanting to lose weight, it’s still best viewed cautiously until further research is done.

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