How I reconciled my love of coffee with my desire to be free of unhealthy habits
If I were marooned on a desert island and only allowed to bring one thing with me, it would be coffee. I’ve been drinking it like it was water for 15 years.
But between 2016–2018, part by choice and part happenstance, I gradually transitioned to black decaf coffee. With each step of the journey, my body responded positively. It shed light on the various ways that coffee, and the crap I put in it, had affected me without even realizing it.
Below I outline the four stages of my coffee journey, the benefits gained at each, and just a smidge of the science to support it.
One morning in 2016, the break room at my job was no longer stocked with flavored coffee creamers. Up until this point, I put CoffeeMate Irish Cream in coffee every day. Instead, all they had was Dominos sugar packets and milk. With my mom being recently diagnosed as diabetic, I decided to avoid the sugar packets and go with just milk. At first, the taste was an issue. I’d always loved the taste of coffee, but maybe I really just loved the taste of sweeteners.
An immediate benefit of cutting sugar was balanced energy levels. I’d always gotten really sluggish around noon, and needed more coffee as a pick-me-up. What was assumed to be a caffeine crash turned out in reality to be a sugar crash. This is obvious in hindsight, but somehow it had never crossed my mind. After dropping the sugary crap, the need for a second cup by noon vanished, and my energy levels were more even throughout the day.
It’s also important to realize that sugar and flavored creamers, when taken daily, are hazardous to health. They cause a large blood sugar spike, which contributes to weight gain, insulin resistance, and ultimately diabetes.
Drinking too much caffeine has always been a concern. I also really like to drink coffee at night, an unfortunate residual grad school habit. And while I was able to fall asleep easily, caffeine certainly was impacting the quality of sleep. So at some point, I started mixing decaffeinated brew at a ratio of about 50/50.
The reduction in caffeine had noticeable benefits, which I’ll discuss further in Step 4. However, half-caff itself has a great perk: it tastes like regular coffee! It is a great way to ween off the hard stuff since coffee drinking is habitual. For me, it was much easier to dilute than to actually drink less. This can be a strategy towards full decaf: slowly decreasing the caffeine ratio until it’s gone entirely. As this publication describes it, caffeine intake is linearly proportional to caffeine absorption in the brain.
In summer 2017, I was exercising regularly but not losing much weight. So I tried out an eating pattern called intermittent fasting, which basically restricts calorie intake to an eight-hour daily window. So for example, I could eat between 1–9 p.m. but otherwise was restricted to zero-calorie beverages like water and black coffee. Black coffee was extremely intimidating. I’d always assumed that it was rough on the stomach, as well as tasting boring. But I sucked it up and gave it a whirl.
The first benefit of black coffee was that it didn’t upset my stomach. In fact, sudden and urgent morning bowel movements, which I’d always attribute to just “bad guts”, were actually caused by the additives in my morning coffee. Removing cream, sugars, and eventually, caffeine, stopped the aggravation of my digestive system. Sure — black coffee will still stimulate the bowel, but in a much less aggressive/unnatural way.
A second unexpected perk was that my taste buds evolved. Without the overpowering of sugar and cream, they tuned into subtle notes of flavor. Suddenly black coffee took on a taste all its own. For example, I’d always preferred Starbucks to Dunkin, but after going black, my opinion flipped. It turns out Starbucks has a distinct burnt flavor, which became more pronounced in black coffee.
Although I’d switched to half-caff, I was still drinking a lot of caffeine. I didn’t realize just how much until one day in summer 2018 when my wife and I were traveling and I went 36 hours without it. It was almost like a divine intervention — every place we stopped was out of coffee, and the pot in the place we were staying was broken.
At the 36-hour mark, it was stunning just how debilitated I felt. I was exhausted, irritable, had a massive headache, and couldn’t stop fantasizing about coffee. Sure, I always knew I was addicted, but imagined it as more behavioral than physical. Boy was that wrong.
The withdrawal was so galvanizing that I decided to see how long I could go without caffeine, and how long it would take for this to wear off. I estimated it at three or four days — nope, it took three weeks for the tiredness and headaches to completely disappear. To get to this point was such an arduous journey, that the prospect of going back was too scary. I decided to tough it out and see how long I could last on just decaf.
The first month after going cold turkey, I slept like the dead.
“The primary mechanism of action of caffeine is antagonism of adenosine receptors in the brain. Adenosine is a sleep promoter, increasing melatonin production in the pineal gland, a small neuroendocrine gland located in the brain. When coffee is ingested, it blocks adenosine from binding to the receptor.” (Source)
I also found it much easier to wake up. On caffeine, I remained drowsy until that first cup. But with decaf, once out of bed and moving, I generally feel fully awake and more productive.
Another win is that my caffeine sensitivity is back. So on the rare occasions when I do need caffeine, it has a noticeable effect. For example, before an important presentation at work, a small cup of regular coffee feels like a rocket blasting off.
A final note: caffeine dehydrates. Staying well-hydrated and avoiding caffeine leads to enumerable health benefits such as weight loss, toxin reduction, and regularity (yes — talking about bowels again).