Dear Coffee: Should we be married, dating, estranged or just keep it casual?

Updated: Jul 27

“There’s nothing like the first coffee of the day, or the first beer of the day.” These wise words were spoken to me by my wife’s uncle many years ago but still ring true.

Like any good coffee career, mine began with that wonderful gateway drug to the coffee world: the latte. Just enough coffee for the uninitiated, coupled with enough frothed milk to avoid the bitterness that puts most kids off of coffee in their youth. Relatively late (in at least in the educational game), I began drinking coffee in the form of the inestimable latte as a first year graduate student in the United Kingdom. Sipping this hot accompaniment to a fresh croissant on the sidewalk seating in front of the Alternative Tuck Shop, watching the denizens of Oxford cycle to work and school on a mild-weathered morning was enough to instill an overriding sense of contentment with the world and my place in it.

My next step in this journey was to the French press, another signpost of a life unconcerned with efficiencies. The typical French press doesn’t have high capacity, isn’t very portable and doesn’t stay hot, requiring you to brew right before drinking unless you have a storage plan. It requires a coarse grind, which usually means you have to grind it yourself, unlocking the flavor just before brewing. But the flavor is rich! I would stay with the French press for some time before transitioning to espresso and filter coffee as my go-to hot beverages, chosen for their relative efficiencies during my orthopedic surgery residency. To this day, the French press evokes for me a sentiment of a very civilized way to enjoy coffee.

My standard orthopedic coffee has long been the single shot of espresso. It provides a mild dose of caffeine, not enough to cause jitters or tremors, making it a practical pre-surgery beverage. It’s low volume makes it easy to drink quickly and won’t fill up the bladder. However, when one doesn’t have to worry about a steady hand, say on an off-weekend morning, there’s little to compare with the thought, as you wake, of a pot of drip coffee that has already been brewed before you awoke, through the wonders of the programmable coffee machine.

The standard 12-cup coffee machine tends to lead you down a rabbit hole of coffee volume though, especially if there are only one or two coffee drinkers in the house. Another half cup always seems enticing doesn’t it? How much coffee should I be drinking anyway?

On balance, coffee and caffeine are mostly good for you. Caffeine is a stimulant, increasing wakefulness and energy. It enhances performance in endurance exercise as well as in more intense, short duration exercise. It is associated with living longer and reduced risk of certain cancers. As with many lifestyle and nutrition choices though, both moderation and an individualized experiment on your own life are in order here. Caffeine has a half life of 7-8 hours, so I don’t consume it after 2:00 pm, ideally not after 12:00 noon. I’ve also found that I don’t really need more than one cup of coffee to really enjoy my daily coffee. Why limit to one? I find that my patience (e.g. with my young kids) decreases the more coffee I have on a given morning. On the other hand, if I am feeling any anxiety that day, large amounts of coffee will increase it. Reflecting on my wife’s uncle’s wisdom: if the day’s first cup of coffee is the best, and I only have one cup of coffee per day, then every cup of coffee is the best cup of coffee.

But the longevity benefit of coffee consumption was found in individuals drinking three to four cups per day – how can I keep up with that? Fortunately, decaf counts! As the authors of the 2015 study published in Circulation write, “Higher consumption of total coffee, caffeinated coffee, and decaffeinated coffee was associated with lower risk of total mortality.” Boom! Score one for decaf. Decaffeinated coffee still contains caffeine, so I approach it the same way I do regular coffee, but it helps to know you can have a bit more volume and not worry as much about the caffeine.

I have moved to a much more decaffeinated life, but I still fully embrace the performance enhancing benefits of caffeine, especially on running days!

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