A new obesity suspect

The number of overweight and obese has been remarkably stable for the past several years at about two-thirds of the adult population. This strongly suggests that these Americans are genetically prone to gain weight under the right dietary circumstances. Yet a greater number of adults are moving from a classification of being simply overweight to being labeled as obese. This is a strong indication that those who are genetically predisposed to weight gain are becoming fatter. According to the Centers for Disease Control, only three states in 2007 had more than 30 percent of the adult population classified as obese. In only two years, the number of states that have more than 30 percent obesity in adult populations had increased to nine. That’s a 300 percent increase in two years!

One new suspect in our growing obesity crisis may be caffeinated coffee. It has been known for a long time that a high-fat meal increases blood sugar as well as maintains high levels of triglycerides (1). A new study from the University of Guelph found that consuming a high-fat meal increased blood sugar by more than 30 percent when giving a standard glucose tolerance test five hours later (2). Adding the equivalent of two cups of coffee more than doubled this increase in blood-sugar levels five hours after a high-fat meal.

The implication is that a constant diet of high-fat foods and a lot of coffee will accelerate the development of insulin resistance. When this occurs, the pancreas is forced to release more insulin to help reduce blood sugar levels. Unfortunately, it is excess insulin that makes you fat and keeps you fat.

The controversy over caffeine has continued for more than 100 years. The first instance occurred in a trial in the early part of the 20th century at which the U.S. government sued Coca-Cola for adulterating a food by adding caffeine to a soft drink. (Fortunately for Coca-Cola, the company had removed the coca extracts containing cocaine several years earlier). In a trial similar to the Scopes trial on evolution that would be held 15 years later in the same court system, the testimony was highly charged on both sides. The local judge dismissed the case, but the government continued it for many years in various appeals courts until the case was settled with a no-contest plea (3).

Now a new call for limits on caffeine was presented in a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (4). Maybe with more research we will find that caffeine may be another factor for those who are genetically predisposed to gain weight to become fatter than ever.


  1. Tushuizen ME, Nieuwland R, Scheffer PG, Sturk A, Heine RJ, and Diamant M. “Two consecutive high-fat meals affect endothelial-dependent vasodilation, oxidative stress and cellular microparticles in healthy men.” J Thromb Haemost 4: 1003-1010 (2006)
  2. Beaudoin MS, Robinson LE, and Graham TE. “An oral lipid challenge and acute intake of caffeinated coffee additively decrease glucose tolerance in healthy men.” J Nutrition 141: 574-581 (2011)
  3. Carpenter M. “A century later, jury’s still out on caffeine limits.” New York Times. March 28, 2011
  4. Arria A and O’Brien MC. “The ‘high’ risk of energy drinks.” JAMA 305: 600-601 (2011)

Nothing contained in this blog is intended to be instructional for medial diagnosis or treatment. If you have a medical concern or issue, please consult your personal physician immediately.

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This entry was posted in Zone Diet and tagged , , , by Dr. Barry Sears. Bookmark the permalink.

About Dr. Barry Sears

Dr. Barry Sears is a leading authority on the impact of the diet on hormonal response, genetic expression, and inflammation. A former research scientist at the Boston University School of Medicine and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr. Sears has dedicated his research efforts over the past 30 years to the study of lipids. He has published more than 30 scientific articles and holds 13 U.S. patents in the areas of intravenous drug delivery systems and hormonal regulation for the treatment of cardiovascular disease. He has also written 13 books, including the New York Times #1 best-seller "The Zone". These books have sold more than 5 million copies in the U.S. and have been translated into 22 different languages.

31 thoughts on “A new obesity suspect

  1. When is the best time to take omega 3 supplements? Morning vs bedtime? Should I take it with a particular food? I’m taking 2 doses daily each containing 550 mg of EPA and 215 mg of DHA.
    Also, when is the best time to take polyphenols? I am taking 400mg of Grape Seed Extract twice daily (contains standarized 90% polyphenols). I take it with my Chobani yogurt because I read it helps the live cultures get to the gut better and also take it with breakfast. Comments welcomed. Thank you.

  2. You should always take fish oil supplements with food for improved absorption. I would also suggest taking the polyphenols at the same time as the fish oil.

    It is unlikely the polyphenols will speed the transit of cultures to the gut as most of them are destroyed in the digestion process.

  3. First you take my simple carbs away and now my coffee. Your killing me…urr while you help me live longer:)

  4. I think this theory has merrit based on my own personal experience. I am about 100lbs overweight, last year I gave up caffine- coffee, soda etc. and lost 20lbs rather easily w/lots of cardio and weight training, I also included high fibre diet, for saity, – I have gained back 30lbs over the last year, I work out w/a trainer 3 times a week and do 1 hour of cardio at least 4 days a week, plus lead a good active life w/family, housework, dog walking etc. ….the only thing i have changed is COFFEE! I drink 2 to 3 cups a day- …and am having a hard time loosing any weight at all! …I am going to cut out the coffee again and let you know how it goes! I do have other family members in my family that are obese- so I am pretty sure it is genetic- …I have to reduce my calorie intak to about 1200-1400 calories a day- tons of exercise, high fiber, – protien, and no coffee to loose…so frustrating.
    I am 47 years old, and am sure age is also a factor, but I really believe coffee could be a major factor.

    • Hi Ann,
      A few years ago I decided that nuts, caffeine, bread, and sugar was my downfall in weight loss. I am older than you by over ten years and was sure my resistant weight loss was age related alone. Well in no time (about 2 months) I lost almost twenty pds. I did not exercise much at all. The problem was all in the kind of food I was eating. I don’t stuff myself and was not terribly overweight but just carried more than I was comfortable with. Some foods like nuts and grains simply slow my weight loss down to nothing or cause me to gain immediately like nuts and sugars. I had read some time ago from a reputable medical journal that caffeine incapacitates your insulin to some extent and the pancreas has to work harder to produce more insulin to finally bring blood sugar down. Also nuts (especially raw) will slow your thyroid down. Both things are not what a dieter wants to have happen. Some vegetables also contain thiocyanate which also slows down the thyroid. Hope that helps.
      But being a nurse and observing other nurses who are on their feet going fast hours on end tells the whole story of weight problems in America. No Europeans would be on their feet as long as a nurse (unless they were nurses too). The diet makes the difference. Some nurses are burning 3,000 calories a shift, but they still are heavy or have a hard time losing weight. Stop the sweets, stop the high starchy and/or fatty snacks and high caffeine and most people will be thin in America.

  5. I have heard and read of several studies that indicate that coffee actually decreases rist of Type II diabetes. What is your opinion of these?

    • Those are epidemiological studies which always have a lot of cofounders. For most Americans, coffee is their primary source of polyphenols and if consumed in high enough levels have anti-inflammatory actions. I strongly believe the best source of polyphenols remains vegetables and fruits.

  6. In my view, there is an unfortunate conflation of “caffeine” and “coffee” in the above precis of the research—these are hardly the same things. As well, caffeine will release the catecholomines—useful if harnessed wisely.

    In my experience, coffee (including its caffeine) is an extremely useful adjunct to body recomposition—so, fat loss—when drunk on an empty stomach prior to exercise, for example. As well, the benefits of real coffee (coffee made from beans; this contains phytonutrients and caffeine) are much researched as well, in other places, as any search can easily find.

    Blanket recommendations for or against anything are rarely helpful, and even more rarely followed. Perhaps the recommendation should simply be that overweight people should not drink coffee with high-fat meals? This can be supported by the adduced research.

    • I agree, one should never have coffee with high fat meals. Or for that matter one should never have it with sugar (for the same reason that Dr. Sears recommends that people get their polyphenols from veggies and fruits instead of chocolate candies, etc.) to make the bitter tolerable. So one should never have coffee or caffeine with fats or sweets. If coffee is a suspect in the fattening of America I can easily see that even apart from the research. After all, coffee is the king of “go juice” for nurses and it is not doing anything for their figures. But it does keep them awake while they drive home after a long night shift, so you could say it can save a life. And another thing, I always wonder what is going on with all the burnt carbohydrate in the beans? Don’t they have evidence to show that burnt carbs form a toxin even in potato chips? No one says anything about this in roasted coffee beans, that I know of anyway. I am sticking to a little tea or a little decaf now and then.

    • Kit, I think you have it exactly right. I have gone from 192 lb to 137 following the Zone and one thing I am not willing to give up is my (regular) coffee! I think it is sort of ridiculous to put the blame on coffee (actually caffeine) when it is the donut, the muffin, the Pop Tart and the cheesecake that are doing the damage! To be fair, I do not guzzle coffee all day – I make 4 “cups” of normal strength and that is my daily allotment. I use a little creamer and no extra sugar (there is a little in the Coffee Mate regular).
      OK – I can accept the research that says regular high fat meals plus caffeine will make you fatter faster. But if you are in the Zone most of the time then a moderate amount of regular coffee should not be an issue. I have my coffee every morning and enjoy it immensely. Coffee lovers, unite!!

    • Kit, I agree totally with your statement. Blanket statements are useless for those who are in this for the long run. It creates an all-or-none feeling of either success or failure.

      Maybe the recommendation should be “overweight people should not consume high-fat meals”… Seems as if it is the high fat meal rather than the cofffee being the culprit.

  7. Two interesting observations when I drink coffee:

    1. Protein moderates the caffeine rush that I get with coffee.
    2. Drinking the expensive coffee (lattes, no sugar) appears to buffer the caffeine.

    Any thoughts on my observations?

    • @ Eileen:

      1. most protein contains fat; fat buffers absorption of caffeine, and

      2. see 1.! Lattes are 70% or so milk; again, the fat does the buffering. Good stuff, in the right place and at the right time!

  8. Isnt it that most people drink coffee with sugar and creamer, and thats the problem. Adding bad stuff to good stuff negates the good…….right? Like steamed vegetables with butter and salt. I think Im with Kit on this one.

  9. I started adding cinnamon to my morning coffee. About three shakes. I started doing this to slow down the absorption of carbs in my morning meal, but found that I love the taste! I seem to need one cup in the morning to open up my sinuses. For some reason, tea just doesn’t work the same for me. I love green tea and drink it throughout the day, but I can’t give up my morning coffee!

  10. Dr. Sears, a 52 year old friend of mine collapsed about 10 days ago. 3 clogged arteries; 4 stints inserted. Doing well now. He is not overweight. He is fit and exercises on a regular basis. His cholesterol levels are normal. He does not eat junk food or fast food. He does not over-eat desserts or sweets. He doesn’t drink coffee! So – is this an example of your research? What is causing his tendency toward clogged arteries – is it the silent inflammation we get from high glycemic carbs and the over-consumption of omega 6 in our diets? He and his wife are throwing out all of the salt in their pantry and cleaning the red meat out of their freezer – I want to tell them to toss the bread, rice and pasta. Also – it is frightening to think and look as though you are healthy and then discover you are a walking time-bomb! What tests should I be asking my doctor for?!! Your comments?

    • Reaching the Zone is all about controlling cellular inflammation. That also becomes my definition of wellness. Cellular inflammation is a result of your diet with your genetics, which means significant amount of individual variability. That’s why you are seeing a variety of opinions on the coffee research I reported on in this blog.

      The Zone diet is based on modifying the balance of low-fat protein, low glycemic load carbohydrates, and fats low in saturate and omega-6 and rich in monounsaturated and omega-3. Cellular inflammation is best measured by the AA/EPA ratio, just you as might measure blood glucose, cholesterol or blood pressure. If cellular inflammation is high you keep adjusting the balance of macronutrients until it reaches an appropriate zone. This only means you have done as much with your diet as you possibly can to live a better life.

  11. The JAMA article was more about energy drinks than coffee.

    An energy drink like Monster has an energy blend of 2500 mg per serving size and 3 servings per container. A full can would provide you with 7500mg of L-Carntine, Glucose, Caffeine, Guarana, Inositiol, Glucuraonolactone and Maltodetrin. (per wikipedia.org/wiki/Monster_Energy)

    A 8 oz of a cup of generic brewed coffee has 95-200 mg of caffeine. (www.mayoclinic.com/health/caffeine/AN01211) (Adapted from USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, 2009; Center for Science in the Public Interest, 2007; Journal of Analytical Toxicology.)

    Sucking down Monster drinks probably a horrible idea!! Enjoying a morning cup of coffee with some milk, probably okay.

    Additionally, how aboout the donuts, bagesl, muffins that are typically eaten with coffee?


  12. Dr. Sears, lets put aside (for a moment) that caffeinated coffee doubled the effect of the blood sugar rise in a high fat meal, and lets focus on the reason for the increase in blood sugar in the first place.

    Your blog does not give any of your readers much information regarding the specific details of the study at all. How much fat composes a “high fat meal”? What about the other components of the meal–was there adequate protein? What kinds of carb foods were consumed? Was the effect solely on men? or did women experience the same thing?

    Now, lets go back to the caffeinated coffee… was the study conducted comparing high fat meals with zone-balanced meals? In other words, if the meal composition is changed to a more appropriate balance of protein, carbs and fat using more healthy anti-inflammatory foods, is the effect of the caffeine still present?

    Maybe caffeinated coffee is not the culprit. Maybe the message should be geared to improving the diet and drinking coffee in moderation.

  13. Favorable nuts are tremendously good for you aside from the calories.

    I drink a lot of cold brewed coffee. A lot. I can lose fat easily by following Dr. Sears blocks guide, which is no more than cutting calories. My downfall is that I love to cook (one of my many hobbies) for myself and then eat it. i.e. I have the recipe for McDonald’s cheeseburgers and Big Macs and I would never use the excuse of my genes being the culprit for any weight gain.

    I walk a lot but walking and moderate exercise has no effect on weight/fat loss. Do the math. Walking burns about 150 calories per mile. To lose a pound, you have to burn 3,500 calories. So, you have to walk at least 25 miles to lose one pound, without eating. But the upside is usually that the walking will stifle your appetite.

    I don’t take much stock in any of the hype of what foods help or hinder weight/fat loss. I believe these hypes are for those looking for excuses or a crutch. The Zone is basically a calorie restricted diet with the means of controlling appetite. Fish oils and polyphenols etc. are good for the health of the body.

    Lastly, I also sprout my own (alfalpha, broccoli, etc.) seeds = (another hobby).

  14. Dr. Sears,
    I have never had a weight problem until I tore my achilles tendon and ended up with RSD…I was put on Lyrica for several months and gained about 30 lbs in 3 months all around my mid section…I have been holding down a 1200 per day calorie diet and have gotten to where my pie chart (Carbs / Fat / Protien ) are all bout equal…any other suggestions for weight loss…ps I dont drink coffee…but the weight is not coming off. My doc recently told me that running or jogging is out for the rest of my life…:( very depressing

    • Resistance training would be an ideal solution for you. One form of resistance training that I like is the use of kettlebells. Keep in mind, it is not so much the time of exercise but the intensity of the exercise that activates the hormonal responses required to released stored fat for conversion into chemical energy.

      I would also suggest checking your body composition using the Body Fat Calculator in the Zone Tools section instead of using a scale. If your clothes are fitting better and weight is not changing, then this indicates you are building muscle mass as the same rate as you are losing body fat.

  15. Andrea,
    I wonder if you are not eating much more than 1200 calories a day.

    I should have said before, coffee has nothing to do with weight. It’s irrelevant.
    Anybody who calculates how many food blocks you are allowed in a day and sticks to eating only these amount of blocks will lose weight.
    Dr.Sears is constantly mentioning curbing your appetite to make it easier and possible to stick to only eating your allowed food blocks. This is where people have the problem. Overeating!
    Coffee may have an effect on appetite but, as it is a stimulant, it should help to eat less, not more.

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