Dispatches from the caffeine-free front line

I confess. I’m a coffee addict and I love all coffee, espresso, Americano, even cappuccino although my favourite is a short Cortado or a freshly brewed espresso pot in the morning. Yet, despite all that, I gave it up in April. 

Why? Because I asked my clients to go caffeine-free for our Transform Six week Challenge and so I thought, if I was asking them to do it, I should too in support (the fact that I was the ONLY one to do so however, will be something I’ll raise with them all!).

There were a few more reasons too, the fact that I always needed to run to the toilet as soon as I had a coffee (perhaps lactose and caffeine related) and because I had this general idea that I was perhaps drinking a bit too much.

What is too much though? Well, I’d always have one first thing in the morning before I was coaching at 5am, although in truth this would usually only be a few mouthfuls, then one when I got home, and perhaps another couple in meetings or to keep me awake. Doesn’t sound much, right?

Yet, on the first week of giving up, my headaches were just AWFUL! And the desire to drink coffee was like a terrible itch that wouldn’t go away.

It’s funny because, over ten years ago I went to Portugal to write about a juice retreat for The Metro newspaper, where I had to give up not just coffee but food too (lots of juices and broths). But I didn’t get any headaches then and I was drinking similar amounts. And I think that’s because the world of coffee has changed hugely since then.

Back then, you’d get a bit of a weak coffee from Pret and that was about it. For Londoners in the know, Flat White, the Kiwi coffee shop on Brewer Street was the first of it’s kind. Now, there are coffee shops selling fantastic coffee on every street corner (sometimes three within a few shops of each other) and it’s MUCH stronger than it used to be. Everything from how it’s roasted, the blend, the type of coffee bean ALL effect the amounts of caffeine.So whereas a Pret coffee might give you a light buzz, nowadays most coffee will have you gabbling and firing through emails as if you’ve had a shot of something far more illicit than coffee.

Indeed, The Food Standards Agency guidelines released in 2008 recommends 400mg for the average person, about EIGHT cups of coffee. I’d be a gibbering wreck on eight cups!

And another reason why coffee is so hard to give up is because coffee shops have come of age, they’re cool, nice places to hang out so they’ve become a social occasion, somewhere to meet friends instead of going to the pub, a place to go for meetings, hell, even a place to sit and work, where means buying coffee. Which all means that my first three weeks were hell.

While alcohol-free drinks have finally started to move on (Erdinger is my favourite) alternatives to coffee in cafes have not. Decaf coffee, I hear you cry. Well, yes, but I’ve definitely had a buzz of some decafs too which I shouldn’t have done. And if I’d kept the ritual of coffee drinking, I think it was only so long before I’d slip back.

So, what have I drunk instead? I started off having fresh cinnamon sticks in hot water which is really nice, then lemon and hot water and lots of pepper mint tea. I’d have almond milk chai lattes in coffee shops and nip to a juice bars for nut milk based drinks. Delicious, but both are expensive and often full of sugary items.

But gradually, day by day, I found peppermint herbal tea was enough.

It was my intention to return to drinking coffee at the end of our last six week course but then something weird happened. On the last week, when I taught four mornings which required me to get up at 5.15am, and then work all day (often writing features for national magazines) before coaching until 8pm at night, I realised I felt more alert, awake and free of that horrible feeling of being wired WITHOUT coffee.

So, now eight weeks on, I’m still largely caffeine free except for the occasional sip that I steal from my partner’s cup in the morning (I’m not THAT virtuous). The hardest thing now about not drinking it now the craving has gone is the social side; having a coffee after a bike ride, meeting a friend, going for a hot drink and a croissant (shhh!) after an open water swim. I’m not sure the solution to that yet but I’m going to try and fine one.