Coming Clean About My Cup of Joe


One of the first things that new clients like to declare to me is this: “Just so you know, I love my morning coffee, and I’m sorry, but I’m not giving it up.”

Hmmmm. OK. Thanks for sharing?

To be frank, this statement amuses me. Half the time I’m tempted to reply, “In comparison to some of the things you’re eating, buddy, coffee is the least of your problems. Lay off the processed food and diet soda, then we’ll talk about coffee.” The rest of the time, I want to smile and say, “Don’t worry, I’m not giving up coffee, either.” Because –after much tortured consideration — I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m not.

Coffee. Java. Black gold. Cafe. Joe. Drip. Brain juice. Jet fuel. Liquid energy. Morning thunder. Mud. Bean juice. Americano. Day starter. Lifeblood. These are only a few of my pet names for the smooth, sultry, and incomparable stuff that is coffee. Few pleasures in life can compare to coffee drinking. Since my first sip at the tender age of ten, coffee and I have been good, good friends. I remember sneaking out of class in fifth grade to spend a whopping $4.00 on iced mocha from Timothy’s. A small fortune, then, but it was worth it, every time. I remember the advent of the frappucino — what a joyous day that was! I remember hot, tall lattes that steered me through every study break, every play rehearsal, and every homeroom hour of high school. I remember drinking six or seven cups of the burnt, bitter, totally ordinary, yet totally reliable brew that was churned out all over the Columbia campus for each and every day of my college career. I remember discovering real espresso in Italy during my sophomore year, and wishing that one day I might squander a paycheck on an espresso machine. Sigh. So many beautiful memories.

If coffee is so divine and dear to me, why bother writing about it at all? Why not simply guzzle it to my heart’s content, and be done with it? Well, here’s the thing: coffee’s not exactly awesome for you. It’s heavily acidic, which is bad news for reasons I’ve discussed many a time. It’s dehydrating, which is no fun. It’s a stimulant, which means it exerts stress on your adrenal system and keeps your body in a constant state of over-stimulation and recovery. Drinking too much coffee has been linked to fatigue, foggy headedness, cranky moods, and weakened immunity. And, if you suffer from IBS or a sensitive belly, coffee is very likely to exacerbate your symptoms and prompt attacks.

The news isn’t all terrible. As you’ve probably read, moderate coffee consumption has been linked to some good things, too: reduction of headaches, mood elevation, and even a decrease in changes of Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, and colon cancer. I’m not totally convinced about the latter claim, but I do think that coffee can boost athletic performance, increase alertness, and (perhaps) offer us some antioxidants. Which is why I hold firm in my insistence that drinking a cup or two of coffee each day is far less harmful than eating poor, processed, and impossible to digest foods on a regular basis. But let’s get real here. Coffee ain’t kale. It ain’t green juice. It isn’t health food. There may be purported benefits, but at the end of the day, I’d suggest that the known downsides of coffee probably outweigh the potential upsides. And because it’s acidifying and can irritate digestion, it’s fairly at odds with the rest of the things I try to do for my body.

Two years ago, I decided that it was time to wean myself off. I had just quit smoking: how tough could coffee be? The answer is, relatively un-tough. Compared to the misery of quitting smoking, ditching coffee seemed like a piece of cake (OK, maybe not quite, but it wasn’t painful, either). I missed the taste quite a lot, but I didn’t seem to suffer any significant withdrawal, and my tummy certainly felt good without it. Green juice gave me the jolt I needed, and I wasn’t suddenly lacking in energy, so it seemed to me that I could and should vow to do without coffee for good. If I didn’t need it, and it wasn’t great for me, why bother?

coffee-posterWhat I left out of that reasoning was this: I may not need coffee, but I love it. Dearly. And because I ignored that crucial factor — pleasure — my coffee hiatus was not meant to last.

A few months ago, I find myself craving my morning joe. A lot. So I had a cup. And one became another. And another. And another. And, like the dysfunctional, yet stubbornly persistent ex-boyfriend I thought I’d kicked to the curb, coffee crept back into my life in the weeks that followed, guilty cup by guilty cup. Today, as I write this, I’ve gone from stolen sips of espresso and furtive trips to the office coffee maker to brewing at home each morning. So much for quitting.

Today, my friend Kristen posted an excellent article on how to kick a caffeine habit. In it, she offered many of the tips I offer to clients myself: sip juice each morning; try Teechino; depend on caffinated teas, and then move to herbal tea; try warm almond milk with cocoa powder to satisfy a craving. Awesome tips, Kristen! I couldn’t have said it better myself. The problem is that it’s not caffeine I’m addicted to. It’s coffee. I’m actually not particularly responsive to caffeine. When days go by — and don’t worry, many still do! — when I don’t drink coffee, I don’t feel very tired or cranky. I don’t get headaches. In fact, I know darn well that green juice boosts my energy far more than coffee does.

No no, the lure of coffee isn’t the caffeine. It’s the taste, the smell, the associations. Like all true pleasures, my love of coffee can’t be replicated with a substitute. No coffee-like beverage — not tea, not Teecino, and certainly not grain coffee — tastes as good to me as the real thing. And since it’s not caffeine per se that I want, but coffee itself, I’ve virtually no interest in anything that’s meant to seem like coffee, or simply to deliver some caffeine. When I quit smoking, the idea of nicorette gum seemed absurd to me. How on earth would a little nugget of nicotine help me get over my adoration of the smell, taste, and sensation of smoking? Well, ditto for coffee. You can keep the Teecino, thanks. If I’m going to drink something coffee-like, it’ll be the real thing, or nothing at all.

What about green juice, you ask? Doesn’t that help? In a word, no. Green juice is heavenly: in many ways, it’s my idea of lifeblood. But for me, it offers an entirely different experience than drinking coffee. The two can’t even be compared, and I don’t see how one is supposed to supplant the other. Of course I love and drink juice. But it’s no stand in for my tall, dark, and handsome morning bean.

So where does that leave me? Well, let me break out the counseling skills for a moment here. Whenever a client and I discuss the pros and cons of eating a food that’s not ideal, I ask my client not to think in terms of “good” and “bad,” but rather to consider the whole picture. Maybe a food isn’t exactly bad for him or her, but it tends to prompt overeating or binges that are bad, both physically and psychologically (many women feel this way about nuts, or sweets). On the other hand, maybe there’s a food that isn’t nutritionally ideal, but it gives my client a great deal of pleasure, and helps him or her not to feel deprived, which in turn helps maintain balance. In those cases, I’ll always say that the food should stay in my client’s life. Living without pleasure does not fit into my definition of health.

4816617_939621efadOf course, such a statement can be misused and taken to extremes: if my client’s pleasure happens to be heroin, or Big Macs for dinner each night, I’ll most likely declare that the pleasure afforded is vastly outweighed by the harm done to his or her body, and we should work on strategies to excise the habit. This is what I ultimately had to do with cigarettes. Yes, I loved them, but I knew that they did me too much harm for me to keep them around on the grounds that they gave me pleasure. With some habits, there’s no middle ground.

With coffee, fortunately, there is. Coffee’s not doing my body any favors, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s not sending me to an early grave, either. I drink an eight ounce cup or less almost every day, but not every day, and I don’t return to the coffee maker all afternoon for more if I can help it. I drink the caffeinated stuff, but it doesn’t make me overly jumpy. And the nice news is that my digestive system is now so strong, and my terrible IBS such a distant memory, that coffee doesn’t send my body into spasms of discomfort. Score!

I know that this isn’t a balance that should be abused: if I were to push the envelope and drink coffee three or four times a day, I’d likely begin to feel sick. But fortunately, I won’t. I’m not perfect, but I do possess fairly impressive stores of discipline (to counteract my equally impressive stores of coffee love), and I know I won’t often go beyond the pleasureful morning cup — or perhaps an afternoon cup, if that’s my pleasure instead.

Is coffee undoing all of the good things I do for my health? Nah, I don’t think so. It’s probably making me more acidic, but the amount of juice and alkaline foods and greens I put in my body should do a fine job of counteracting that effect. It’s probably stressing my adrenal system a bit, but to be honest, my stress levels are far more responsible for any adrenal fatigue I’ve got, and I’d rather spend time working on stress management than depriving myself a sip or two of liquid joy each morning. And since my own vision of health includes certain things that aren’t necessarily biologically ideal, but boost our pleasure and enhance our waking experience, a little bit of coffee in the morning is actually not so very out of keeping with my own talk.

Don’t get me wrong: getting back together with coffee isn’t exactly something I’m proud of. If I were, I wouldn’t be writing this little wry apologia for the habit. But I do think it’s important for us all to recognize the value in certain gentle imperfections. Would I like to love coffee less, and want it less? Yes. I’d no doubt be better off. But since it does mean a lot to me, and since my life is otherwise bursting with good foods and habits, I like to think that the joys coffee affords me stack up sort of evenly with its dangers. And, after two years of trying to avoid the stuff simply because I know it’s not ideal, I’m ready to welcome it back into my life. If I can drink my green juice first, and if that sometimes satisfies my taste for morning thunder, great: I’ll skip the java. If not, well, I’ve got a lovely French press at home that’s just dying to be dusted off. And I’ll be happy to get reacquainted with it 🙂

OK, readers. You’ve stuck with me this long. Tell me: what gentle imperfections do you like to keep around? And why?

Have a lovely night, all!


P.S. I highly recommend anyone who’s been following Jamie Oliver’s show — and those of you that haven’t — to check out Heather’s wonderful “insider” post on school lunch.

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  1. Thanks Gena for sharing such a informative post. In the post I love this quotes because I always do like this “The rest of the time, I want to smile and say, “Don’t worry, I’m not giving up coffee, either.” Because –after much tortured consideration — I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m not.”
    Thank you again for helping us.

  2. The common ground to most issues in life really is moderation, like you’ve outlined!

    Even water can be bad for you in excess 😮

    When it comes to coffee – a little moderation will mean you have a healthy and long lasting relationship with your cup of joe

    Great article – I loved reading your internal dialogue.

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