January 30, 2013

To Boldly Go...

Captain's Log: Stardate 201301.30
This is some seriously uncharted territory.

Ten days have elapsed since I entered the realm I never thought I would enter. Sanity and optimism are growing thin. But my will remains strong. I am boldly going where no New York-born Jew has gone before. I am entering the sector of the universe where…there is no coffee. (What, you thought I was going to say bagels? Nah, gave those up seven years ago.)

Yes, my friends, I am giving up coffee. Not forever. Just for a month.

Why? Well, I realized that if I’m going to ask nutrition clients to give up or at least cut way back on things they love, it’s only fair for me to do the same. Now, granted, I already do go without a lot of foods I once practically lived on, but it’s been years since I flat-out quit something cold turkey. Especially something I love as much as coffee. I decided I had to remind myself how hard it is. Bagels? Meh. Pasta? Rice? Truthfully, they don’t even look like food to me anymore. I’ve even been known to go a while without chocolate. But coffee? The NRA has nothing on me, baby. You will have to pry it from my cold, dead hands. (And even then you’d better put a carafe in my coffin just in case! *Note: I get this from my mother. I suspect it was located on the same chromosome as the blue eyes.)

Ask anyone who knows me well: the idea of me giving up coffee is as plausible as stuffing a lion into a duffel bag and sneaking it onto an airplane in your carry-on bag. (But that would be much easier, actually, because a lion being stuffed into a duffel bag would likely be much more tame than I am without my coffee.) In fact, the longest I’ve ever gone without it since college (when I joined the legions of card-carrying Americans who wouldn't dream of starting a morning without a yummy cup), was during Air Force basic training, when I spent six and half weeks being woken up not by caffeine, but by a blasting reveille and a training instructor yelling that I was a worthless turd and had better get the hell up and hit the ground running.

I’m not without caffeine, mind you, just without coffee. It’s not the caffeine I’m trying to live without. It’s the ritual. The physical and psychological reliance I’d developed on it. (I hesitate to say “addiction,” because I don’t think my coffee intake qualified. *Looks away shamefully.* Okay, fine. Addiction. There. I said it.) I realized that I was drinking coffee by default. On auto-pilot. Even if I didn’t expressly want or need it. It was just the thing to do. To be honest, I didn’t even like it anymore. It was just there. The taste wasn’t doing anything for me.

Mostly, coffee was comfort. It was my routine. I would wake up in the morning, visit the little girls’ room, and then head down to the kitchen to fish a filter out of the pack, measure out the coffee, and set the pot to brewing. (If I was in a serious hurry, I would use my housemates’ Keurig, but I’ve found the stuff I made myself was usually much better. [Finally, after years of being clueless about making decent coffee. Step one: buy good quality coffee beans.]) I would get dressed, and even before I was done, I could head back downstairs to pour myself half a cup to make being up and about while it was still dark outside that much more bearable.

Above all, coffee was my liquid hug. My day job for now (completely unrelated to nutrition) is one I’m glad to have for the sake of financial security, but one in which I find exactly zero satisfaction, fulfillment, or engagement. I’m single, and I live 200 miles away from my family. There isn’t a lot of “warm fuzzy” in my life at the moment, and I’m not above admitting that coffee was a warm pair of arms around me and a soft whisper in my ear, delivering my daily dose of “it’s going to be okay.”

And while I was still getting that kind of comfort from coffee, the taste had become disappointing. Even flavored coffees, like vanilla nut, cinnamon hazelnut, chocolate raspberry, and even doctored up the way I like it with cream and stevia (hey, I’m a nutritionist, not a saint), it wasn’t hitting the spot anymore.

Amy's giving up coffee?
But I just bought stock in Allegro!

I honestly don’t even think it was the caffeine I was addicted to. It was mostly the physical act of drinking it—and, during the workday, of stepping away from my desk for a while and reminding myself there’s more to life than cubicles and computer screens. Of course, a little stimulant shot in the arm (or down the hatch, as it were) never hurt when I was struggling to keep my eyes open on a slow day or when I’d had trouble falling asleep the night before. I confess, I was one of the millions of worker bees who could honestly not imagine making it through a day without coffee. But I don’t think I was quite as addicted to the wake-up effect as some.

See, I often drank half-caff, or even straight decaf. Only when I was especially sleepy (or grouchy, which, not coincidentally, went hand-in-hand with especially sleepy), would I get the full-throttle stuff. I won’t tell you where I work, but let’s just say it’s inside the DC Beltway and the building has five sides, which, if you want to get technical, makes it a pentagon, but you didn’t hear that from me. Anyway, there’s a Starbucks inside! (Your tax dollars at work! No, actually, if the line there at 8 a.m. is anything to go by, it’s most definitely our own paychecks at work. And then again, since most people who work there are government employees, government contractors, or military personnel, I guess it is our tax dollars at work. Touche.) Most of the time I would get my daily dose at the run-of-the-mill coffee shop, but if I needed “the real thing,” Starbucks was the place.

And I rarely got a large…I usually got a small or medium, and often took it back to my desk where I would take long enough to drink it that by the time I was done, it was long since cold. (Note: I do not recommend this method. Iced coffee is good, hot coffee is great. Room temperature coffee is gross, and coffee reheated in the microwave is downright unpalatable.) I guess what I’m saying is, if I was addicted to the caffeine, I certainly wasn’t as far gone as people I see downing multiple regular ventis throughout the day.

So yeah…it’s now ten days sans caf√©. How am I doing so far? I want to kill every last one of the em-effs who comes up to me at work and asks me to do something for them. And God help you if you make my phone ring before 9:30a.m. I’m surprisingly all right. I suspect this has to do with the fact that my coffee intake has been replaced by probably triple the amount of tea. (Hey, I said I was giving up coffee, not my higher cognitive functions.) Some of it’s caffeinated, but I’m drinking a lot of herbal tea, too. Mostly stuff with herbs and spices that are good for liver function, digestion, detox, and all that jazz (cinnamon, dandelion, ginger, burdock, licorice, clove, mint, etc). And I figure even when I drink black tea, it has far less caffeine than coffee, so my total intake is probably much lower than two weeks ago.

I’m drinking plain ol’ English tea, Earl Grey (my favorite, if I had to choose a favorite in a category which I generally like none of), green tea with mint, herbal mint teas, and other black or herbal teas that taste like gingerbread, pumpkin pie, cocoa, and even a slightly off-the-wall one that has cayenne pepper in it. Except for that last one, I generally still add a tiny bit of cream and sweetener. Otherwise, frankly, tea to me is just dirty water. Ick. (And I stay away from the fruity herbal teas…peach, black cherry, pomegranate…fruity dirty water. Doube ick. These are what my sister calls “froo-froo teas”. Note: She drinks them. She is also 5’10”, while I am 5’2”. I’m not entirely sure we’re related. Forget Obama’s birth certificate; I want to see hers.) The only tea I can drink straight up with nothing added is yerba mate. The real deal, authentic yerba mate, imported from Paraguay. (Huge thanks to a former housemate from Paraguay who introduced me to this specific brand and flavor. It is HEAVEN and I’ve loved it for years, even before I was ditching coffee for a month.)

For someone who claims to not like tea, I have
a heckuva lot of it.

I know what you’re thinking: why so much tea, Amy? You hate tea. Well, yes, compared to coffee, I do. So why am I not turning to the coffee substitutes widely available nowadays? Things like Teecino (which is AMAZING, by the way) or Dandy Blend (which is also very good, but I much prefer Teecino)? I decided that going that route would be obeying the letter of the law, but not the spirit. Sure, those things are naturally caffeine-free, non-acidic, not bitter, and all that other good stuff, but they would be close enough to that cup of liquid hug that I’d feel like I was breaking my own rule, even if I technically wasn’t. (Note: if you are trying to get off coffee, or even just cut back a little but aren’t ready to jump ship entirely to tea, I highly recommend Teecino. They have a ton of different flavors, and the three I’ve tried in the past were all delicious. You can do half coffee, half Teecino for a while, then ¾ Teecino. That’s how a lot of folks do it…by easing into it. Easier done at home than at work, but it’s still a viable strategy.)

This is hard. Giving up coffee?
Not so much.
So yeah, I’m all right so far. Yes, that’s probably due to the caffeine in the black tea (and the teeny tiny amount in the green), but I stand by my claim that my total intake is less than what it was. And honestly, for someone who never, ever thought she’d be able to make it two days with zero coffee—even decaf—this is huge. It would be nice if I wasn’t using tea as a crutch, but hey, I’m only human. And my clients are, too. There are reasonable substitutions we can make for almost any food or beverage, and making my way through one right now, I’m actually surprised at how not difficult it is. Would I rather be drinking coffee tomorrow morning? Yes. But it’s important that I prove to myself that I can do this. There are guys getting caught in firefights in Afghanistan; I’m pretty sure I can make do without my precious coffee for a few days.

Now, will I go back to drinking coffee when this little 30-day experiment is up? YOU BET YOUR SWEET ARSE I WILL. Maybe. Depends on how I’m feeling by then. Regarding the health benefits (or detriments) of coffee, I’m in the camp that believes the good things research says and closes its eyes and covers its ears when negative things come up. But I tend to put coffee in the same category as red wine: a little is probably good, but that doesn’t mean more is better. (In fact, when it comes to liver function, we know for sure that more wine is definitely not better.)

So I do plan to return to my beloved brew, but I’m thinking about making it a more occasional thing. I’d like to keep it special—very good quality, savored slowly while still in my pajamas, with a novel in my hand on a lazy Saturday morning. Or a cup to accompany good friends and good conversation at a Sunday brunch. But every day, without even thinking about it? When it doesn’t even taste that good? That, I think I can keep passing on.

It’ll be interesting to see how I react when I have that first, long-anticipated, tantalizing cup. Will I bounce off the walls? It’ll probably depend on what kind of coffee I choose. But this I know for sure, even just ten days in: I will not be wishing it was tea.

Do NOT tease me, Microsoft clip art!

P.S. If not for all the tea I’m drinking now, this would probably be a good time to use the Crest WhiteStrips I’ve had in the medicine cabinet forever but haven’t tried yet.

P.P.S. Next thing I’ll try to go without: Peanut butter. (Yes, even the natural kind, where the ingredient list is: peanuts.) Even without hydrogenated soybean and canola oils, added sugar, molasses, and salt, I still find the stuff ridiculously addictive. And while I firmly do NOT believe most people need to count calories, at almost 100 calories per tablespoon, there comes a point where a PB addiction amounts to thousands of extra cals before I even know what’s hit me. And oddly enough, I’ve been eating a lot more PB than usual since I’ve been off coffee. Substituting one harmful addiction for another…not a good strategy. But I ain’t skeer’d. If I can give up coffee for a month, peanut butter’s got nowhere to hide)

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