Coffee: Friend, Foe or Fuel?

(Kim O'Donnel)

Normally this happily caffeinated sipper wouldn’t ask, but the topic of brown brew as mental glue has been on my mind of late. It seems various friends and colleagues are trying to kick the coffee habit – for a day, for Lent or until withdrawal sets in.

One friend announced on Twitter that he tried “to substitute green tea for coffee this morning. You know, the healthy Chinese way. Then I went to Starbucks.”

Another friend and her partner went on a week-long caffeine-free cleanse and writes in an e-mail that she’s “about to eat the leather off my shoes.”

And a colleague in San Francisco, who was simply caffe-curious, writes “I give: I'm back on the coffee tomorrow; this is ridiculous. I miss my brain.”

On the flipside, my friend Paula, a big-time coffee drinker who used to brew up heady pots of Cafe Bustelo, thick as motor oil, gave up the stuff cold turkey several years ago, after too many sleepless nights.

Meanwhile, don’t even think of talking to my brother Tim until he’s had his first sip of morning joe. (Must run in the family; I’m kind of that way, too.)

Surely, you can get your fix of caffeine from tea, chocolate, cola and guarana berries, but what is it about coffee that gets folks all riled up -- for better or for worse? With coffee, there seems to be no middle ground; you either love it (and can’t live without it) or can’t stand the stuff.

As for me, coffee is a small part of my life (I'm satisfied with about 1 1/2 cups a day), but it’s there every day, an integral part of the whole equation -- with the Sunday paper, with a grilled cheese at the diner and how I catch up with a friend or with my own thoughts.

And you? Weigh in, take the poll and share your thoughts, caffeinated or otherwise.

By Kim ODonnel |  March 27, 2009; 7:00 AM ET Liquid Diet
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

I'm not an addict! I can stop drinking coffee anytime! (It's just that no one would like me if I did.)

Seriously, the caffeine and the ritual of making it and sipping it while I peruse the paper is something that I look forward to every morning. The social aspect of meeting to chat over coffee is also quite lovely.

Posted by: CentreOfNowhere1 | March 27, 2009 7:54 AM

After years of at least several cups a day, a lot of insomnia, stomach issues, and the shakes, I cut down to just one cup a day about a year ago.

I finally gave up coffee altogether almost three months ago. I still love the smell (and taste, I think) but I'm not drinking it anymore.

I've been drinking a cup of green tea instead. I feel fantastic!

Posted by: earlysun | March 27, 2009 8:14 AM

Couldn't, or at least sure wouldn't like to, start the day without it...but once the day has started, I don't have to continue drinking it throughout. It's a morning-only drink to me, and half-caff is fine. I think it's more the ritual/comfort of it rather than any energy perk that makes it appealing to me.

Posted by: mlc2 | March 27, 2009 8:22 AM

Thanks to a friend, I stumbled on Yogi Tea's Decaf Green Tea Kombucha. I drank only that for three days and was pleased that I did not suffer any withdrawal symptoms from lack of coffee. However, this Friday morning, my coffee cup is near. I like the ritual of brewing up my coffee and smelling it in the kitchen after a morning shower.

Posted by: FullGTilt | March 27, 2009 8:41 AM

I think the coffee habit has four parts:
1. Caffeine. Available from other sources.
2. Heat. Available from other sources.
3. Taste. Not available from other sources.
4. Ritual. Often one ritual can - eventually! - be replaced with another, but not always.

Coffee never did it for me and I'm immune to caffeine. OTOH, my daily beverage ritual includes some cola and things go badly without it. Unless I'm on vacation which tells me it's habit and not necessity.

Posted by: fitday19550 | March 27, 2009 8:48 AM

I started having a bad reaction to caffeine several years ago, so we switched to decaf, slowly mixing decaf beans in with caf beans. It took about three weeks to get off the caffeine, but it was worth it.

However, I'm not ever giving up coffee. We have a local roaster that makes a pinon decaf that is my morning brew of choice. I know some purists who would say that decaf isn't real coffee; they've never tasted these beans.

Posted by: lsgc | March 27, 2009 9:02 AM

I switched from coffee to green tea several years ago, and now have only an occasional mocha if I'm out somewhere. There are differences, however, with tea. First the one negative: you may need two cups of tea to get the "lift" of one cup of coffee.
Now the very good side: you won't experience the sudden "falling off the cliff" that you get with coffee. The tea effect lasts much longer and tapers off gradually, so you may not need more later. Even if you do, you won't feel near collapsing as you prepare another cup. Also, green tea is full of anti-oxidents, so drinking it is actually very good for you. Like coffee, different brands taste different, so try a few until you find one you like.

Posted by: j24w | March 27, 2009 9:21 AM

There are two conversations to be had here: are you addicted to caffeine and are you addicted to coffee.

I am a caffeine addict; I admit this. Gave it up years ago and after the initial massive headache was able to stay off...and then had a lot to do about a year into my decaf existence and not enough time to do it and sleep so caffeine became my friend again. (Reunited and it feels so good....)

But I've never understood coffee as an enjoyable experience as opposed to a "must...stay...awake!" measure. I can brew and drink insanely strong black tea that makes even even my coffee drinker friends' hair curl, but I think the last time I had a cup of coffee was around mid-October, when I really needed a jolt awake.

(Incidentally, I have also been frequenting Starbucks slightly more than I used to since they figured out that tea makes for decent lattes as well....)

Posted by: | March 27, 2009 9:34 AM

Coffee is definately a friend, unless you have abused it, then it is an enemy of your body. Most negative comments about coffee come from people that drank too much, or their system rejects it. for us folks that drink a reasonable amount on a regular basis, CHEERS, My Friends!

Posted by: bestowens | March 27, 2009 9:37 AM

I love my coffee in the morning. I think I like the smell more than anything. I have started brewing coffee at home, in the morning before work, since the office switched to the "K-cups". I find the coffee in them isn't very good -- doesn't have the right smell or taste...and we've gone through a lot of brands, blends and flavors.

Posted by: LaurenMcK | March 27, 2009 9:48 AM

Unless one is drinking decaf green tea, one is generally consuming MORE caffeine in the average cup of green tea than in the average cup of coffee. Green tea may have many other benefits, but natural decaffeination is not one of them.

Posted by: carrieripley | March 27, 2009 9:55 AM

If I don't drink coffee regularly, I react like someone who has taken too much speed when I do drink coffee.

I have given it up. I don't want or need to distort my personality with a drug like coffee.

The solution to having a very busy lifestyle and feeling the need to drink coffee is simple: get enough sleep and the problem disappears. With or without coffee, lack of sleep makes you stupid.

Posted by: geneven | March 27, 2009 10:21 AM

20 years ago, coffee was entirely for the caffeine. Then my town's first coffee shop opened and I started to have some really good stuff. So now, it's mostly about the taste and ritual for me.

Like a previous commenter, I drink a lot of decaf. We buy excellent green beans and roast them ourselves, so the taste is nearly as strong and complex as regular.

Posted by: mouse4 | March 27, 2009 10:43 AM

I went without coffee for four years after kicking the habit during an illness. It was fine, but life was a little less pleasurable. I travelled to a foreign country that had remarkably good coffee and never looked back when I started up again.

I truly despise being addicted. If I don't have two cups in my by 6:30 I'll have headaches all day, even if I drink my coffee later. I hate that my life is dictated by this substance addiction (not abuse, I usually stop with those two cups), but I do really love the coffee, strong, black and un-sweetened. I'm just grateful that my only addiction isn't particulary harmful.

Heck, how often do our addictions provide us with anti-oxidants, anyway?

Posted by: esleigh | March 27, 2009 10:43 AM

Coffee, whether you sip or drink it throughout the day as my mother did, contains caffeine and if you have any heart fibrillation problems, it can sure make your heart go pitty-pat. I switched slowly to decaf (Starbucks) and I don't miss it, but it took time to adjust. Now I get that lovely morning black liquid without bringing on a jumpy heart.

Posted by: aaronhorowitz | March 27, 2009 10:58 AM

I love the smell and the taste. The jolt is nice too, but that's mainly because it takes me about two hours to fully wake up without it. When I don't have to be immediately cognizant in the mornings, I can skip it and be fine.

Kim, is that your cup up top? The print is adorable, did you get it in DC?

Posted by: shhh | March 27, 2009 11:39 AM

There was a piece in yesterday's NYT about how caffiene is proven to improve athletic performance. I'm thinking of maybe having a little cup at 5:30 a.m. before I go to gym to run as test. Usually, I drink water and then have a coffee when I get home. I can definitely OD on coffee, esp. on Sundays and get a little shaky and fluttery. But if I don't have a couple of cups in the a.m., I get the massive headache, and like a previously poster, it doesn't completely resolve even if I drink coffee later in the day. I do have a personal rule of no caffiene after about 3 p.m., however.

Posted by: khachiya1 | March 27, 2009 11:47 AM

This statement appears in comments
"Unless one is drinking decaf green tea, one is generally consuming MORE caffeine in the average cup of green tea than in the average cup of coffee."

The data from here

suggest this is not correct

8 oz brewed coffer = 135 mg caffeine

8 oz green tea = 25-50 mg

Posted by: gr743 | March 27, 2009 11:51 AM

I don't like your poll. What about those of us who like coffee but are not physically addicted to it?

I like my coffee in the morning, and I've altered my routine over the years. My family drank a lot of coffee, and my extended relations drink even more (go visit my Aunt Joyce to understand the meaning of "bottomless cup." She keeps the stuff in a Thermos, and if one's cup becomes even half-empty, she has to fill it up; even now that she hobbles around on her second artificial hip--must...not...let...cup...become...empty!)

Needless to say, I probably drank a lot of coffee before I was born (most folks didn't know not to drink it back then), and I remember my first regular cup of coffee when I was around 7 (I recall my Mom and I sitting around the kitchen table talking about politics as I drank a heavily-sugared and -milked brew). Her drink of choice was and still is "Taster's Choice" instant.

In high school I dispensed with the milk; I don't remember why. In basic training, I cut out the sugar; the coffee was so awful that drinking it without sugar was actually an improvement.

I've ground my own beans, used French Press and vacuum machines, roasted my own beans. I had a friend who insisted on counting beans-per-cup rather than using a measuring scoop. Now I buy dark roasts of supermarket brands that claim to be 100-percent Arabica. I'll even drink instant--recently tried the Starbucks, and it ain't all that.

For me, coffee is like the paper, the New Yorker, the internet, my partner. I can't really imagine life being as pleasurable without it, but I'd definitely survive. I've gone weeks without it because of circumstance, and I didn't experience physical withdrawal, but I always returned to it hot, comforting bosom as soon as I could.

It's the rituals I'd miss, and the memories of it would always be poignant.

Posted by: rvdee | March 27, 2009 11:52 AM

I've done it for Lent cold turkey. Miserable headaches for a week. Cut back to 1-1.5 cups for pregnancy. That worked. But I just love the taste of the stuff too much - I love a cuppa (joe, that is).

I'm a tea drinker, too - following in my mama's footsteps. But coffee, well...

Posted by: alisoncsmith | March 27, 2009 12:02 PM

Shhh, pretty sure that cup is an oldie from the house where I grew up outside of Philly -- I have my Mom to thank for that! Mister MA is like you -- he can skip it for the first hour or two with no problem unlike me, who's unable to utter anything intelligible until her first few sips!

Posted by: Kim ODonnel | March 27, 2009 12:08 PM

For me anyway, coffee is not addictive, just habit forming.

I've gone on trips for weeks at a time where there either was not any coffee, or it was so weird that I wouldn't drink it and it was never much of an issue.

I do enjoy drinking coffee with friends. Everybody gets a little perked up.

It kind of reminds me of of the earliest stages of when I used to have drinks with friends - everybody livens up. Of course the alcohol-drinks-with-friends then proceeded to liven up more than I prefer.

Posted by: Heerman532 | March 27, 2009 12:24 PM

This week, a doctor suggested that I might suffer from GERD and, among other things, gave me a list of lifestyle changes:
1) Reduce or eliminate caffeine.
2) Reduce or eliminate chocolate.

There are three more rules, but at that point I had already blown off the whole list. I will live with the acid reflux.
G-d has given us coffee and chocolate to be our friends. :)

Posted by: bucinka8 | March 27, 2009 12:27 PM

Interesting does have a great smell, doesn't it?

Most people are either larks (morning people) or owls (evening people). As you read down the comments, see if you can tell which avian the writer is...not all that hard!

I think the main problem for many owls is they (okay, "we") have to function in the morning due to having day jobs or other A.M. obligations. Getting enough sleep isn't really the issue for us; we just aren't very alert in the mornings. Caffeine provides a stimulus most larks don't require, but owls depend on it!

Posted by: cat52 | March 27, 2009 12:32 PM

Coffee is more about the flavor and aroma than the caffeine for me. I like a good, full bodied roast, but not burned. I can't stand the brands that claim to be "Rich" in flavor, when they are just this side of charred to ashes.

I treated myself to one of the by the cup coffee makers when my sister found a website that demonstrated how to make your own coffee pods. Like LaurenMcK, I found the commercial pods to be bad, stale, flat, tasteless, and too expensive. Now I make my own, at about $.25 per cup.

Posted by: JennyA1 | March 27, 2009 12:44 PM

JennyA1, I also make my own pods. I travel a lot for business and read those Sky Mall catalogs regularly, with their expensive gadgets. But when I saw the pod maker, I knew I had to have it. I have a Senseo machine, and my favorite flavored coffee is coconut. Senseo doesn't make coconut pods, so I make my own. Mmmm...

Do be careful to seal the pods VERY securely, as the hot water from the machine might open the pod during brewing and allow the grounds to get out and clog the machine. I lost one Senseo that way.

Posted by: bucinka8 | March 27, 2009 1:27 PM

I have been drinking coffee ever since i took my first steps! My mom makes her coffee with so much milk and sugar, its hardly coffee. She would set her cup down and I (and my brother and sisters through the years) would be on top of it in a heartbeat. I love the smell, the taste (I drink it black like my heart nowadays) and the perk doesn't hurt either.

I wouldn't say I am addicted, but i have had plenty of afternoon headaches that retreat immediately after a good cup. It's never been more than a cup or two a day, even during school, but its always there.

Posted by: The_Dude_Abides1 | March 27, 2009 1:52 PM

luv my coffee, black, but if i drink it after 2 pm i won't go to sleep til at least 2 am. so i have 2 cups before i head off to work, 2 more when i get there and i'm good for the day.

but nuthin beats the sunday paper with a good hot cup!

Posted by: nall92 | March 27, 2009 2:53 PM

Like "the dude" above, I think I was weaned onto coffee. Love the flavor, the smell - I used to joke that I couldn't eat until after the 1st cup of coffee coated my stomach. (I'm 8 months pregnant, however, and have had no interest in coffee for the last 7.5 months, weird.) But I can't handle caffeine. At some point during college I started finding lumps in my breasts. Since both my mother and grandmother had given up caffeine due to fibrous cysts, I figured the excessive caffeine that goes along with being a college student was to blame. I weaned off the caffeine, and the cysts went away. But I still started my day, EVERY DAY, with a cup of decent decaf, until pregnancy turned me off coffee. I'm hoping that my taste for it returns after I give birth in a few weeks.

Posted by: JHBVA | March 27, 2009 3:31 PM

"JennyA1, I also make my own pods. I travel a lot for business and read those Sky Mall catalogs regularly, with their expensive gadgets. But when I saw the pod maker, I knew I had to have it...Do be careful to seal the pods VERY securely, as the hot water from the machine might open the pod during brewing and allow the grounds to get out and clog the machine. I lost one Senseo that way." Posted by: bucinka8

Thanks for the warning. I don't use a gadget, I follow the directions from You take a 1/3 cup measuring cup, a coffee filter for a 4 cup coffee maker with a basket filter, and a vitamin bottle. Push the filter into the 1/3 cup measure using the vitamin bottle as a plunger to shape the filter to fit the measure. Measure the coffee into the filter lined cup, I like 4 level teaspoons per pod. Fold the filter over the coffee making sure you aren't leaving any coffee exposed. This fits my Melitta 1:1 perfectly.

Posted by: JennyA1 | March 27, 2009 4:44 PM

I love coffee, not because of the caffeine, but because I just adore the flavor and aroma. I think I've tried just about each and every single brand, method, contraption.

I even have a home roaster and have bought green beans from

In the end, settled on a Seattle favorite, Storyville and french press.

No more trying to roast my own.Is anyone in need of 20# of green coffee beans? Nespresso? Roaster? Cuisinart Drip? Espresso machine? Husband's complaining they are taking up too much space in garage....


Posted by: steamykitchen | March 27, 2009 9:30 PM

My husband loves strong coffee and makes a pot every morning. I've always loved the smell of it but almost the instant I got pregnant, the smell reminded me of something unpleasant, like rotten fish. As soon as my kids were born, coffee smelled good again. This happened during both of my pregnancies. I wonder why.

Posted by: teacher14 | March 27, 2009 11:24 PM

I gave up coffee for two years. But then I realized that was stupid. I got tired defining myself by what I didn't do rather than by what I did. And people who go cold turkey on coffee are just hiding from the real problem anyway: the ability to self-moderate.

Posted by: swag | March 28, 2009 2:14 AM

And for all the pod-makers out there: do you realize you're following what people have done for printer ink cartridges? Don't you find it odd that a coffee system makes people follow the same practices they do for computer printers?

So wrong. So very, very wrong.

Posted by: swag | March 28, 2009 2:15 AM

Coffee doesn't agree with you? Check out the Toddy maker for an acid-free's easy on the stomach, and you still get that caffeine and great flavor.

Posted by: newkiwi | March 28, 2009 5:54 PM

I must have a cup of coffee before I can get my day started. I have cut back to 2-3 cups in the morning. I do not drink caffeine soda. I like the non caffeine green tea and other herbal teas. A day without what I call "MY GOOD MORNING COFFEE".... is a day to stay in bed, and not speak to anyone!!!

Posted by: RobinGoDuke | March 29, 2009 10:48 AM

Coffee always consists of caffeine, it always affects the hunger i. e., appetite.
The appetite is the desire to eat food, felt as hunger. Appetite exists in all higher life-forms, and serves to regulate adequate energy intake to maintain metabolic needs. -Used Car Dealers

Posted by: aartig | March 30, 2009 6:58 AM

I have coffee in the morning if it's cold out, but for an energy boost I prefer not to have calories. Patches from work great for me.

Posted by: rjud | March 30, 2009 10:44 AM

I gave up caffine after a visit to the ER for palpitations. It turns out it doesn't mix well with sinus meds and too much stress. But I drink my decaf coffee happily! I've tried tea, but it's just... not coffee. And now that I'm less stressed and my sinuses are better, I can have the occasional cup of the real stuff. And Frappacinos, which don't come decaf. But I get a real buzz out of it now!

I heard a rumor Starbucks was cutting out all decaf. I sure hope that's not true. I wish they had MORE decaf options.

As it is, when my in-laws visit with their half-caf, I need recovery time afterwards. I find myself dragging and wonder why, then I remember how much coffee I drink when they're here!

Posted by: GirlScoutMom | March 30, 2009 11:25 AM

This is something that I have talking about lately with my peers. How necessary is caffeine, really? Shouldn't you just get enough rest regularly that coffee will only be the occasional pick-me-up? As a college student, coffee is a very big temptation as an enabler to late nights of little sleep, but the health-conscious side of me cannot allow myself to depend on something to keep me awake when all my body wants is sleep. I will not deny that there is something very soothing about sitting down with a steaming cup of coffee and I'm not saying that coffee in and of itself is bad, but I firmly believe that it should not be depended on as a daily means of functioning.

Posted by: collegegirl1 | March 31, 2009 1:09 AM

I'm a caffeine addict, and coffee is my preferred drug delivery mechanism. I'm definitely somebody you don't want to talk to before I've had my first cup of the morning. However, I'm also fairly sensitive to caffeine: two cups of coffee is my limit, and no caffeine at all after noon if I want to sleep at night.

I like black tea and drink it fairly often, especially on days when I've only had one cup of coffee, but it always upsets my stomach - for some reason the acid in coffee isn't a problem for me. Green tea - meh.

Posted by: northgs | March 31, 2009 9:19 AM

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