Is decaf "the new sober"?

Could reducing your caffeine consumption be the key to a healthier new year? I asked the experts

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published January 7, 2024 1:30PM (EST)

 (Ediebloom / Getty Images)
(Ediebloom / Getty Images)

I can't handle my drug of choice the way I used to anymore. I used to think it gave me energy and made me fun. Now, even a little too much makes my mind race and my palms sweat.

Caffeine, I thought we had an understanding.

Even for those of us who don't make resolutions, the start of a new year feels like a sensible time to assess where we want to make positive changes in our lives. This year, I find that I have plenty of company in no longer identifying as a "but first, coffee" person.

A 2021 Ipsos poll found that Americans are drinking less coffee than before the pandemic, especially with regard to the amount of cups per day they consume. The poll also found a steep generational divide, with Boomers most likely to drink coffee more than once a week and Gen Z the least likely. Similarly, consumer sales of packaged coffee have been declining since 2019. It's no wonder that "Today" declared going decaf "the new sober" earlier this month.

While part of it is the steadily rising cost of coffee, a lot of it has to do with shifting tastes and values. Last year, market research company Mintel reported that "39% of coffee drinkers want to reduce their caffeine consumption." The word "reduce" is key here: I'm as likely to go completely caffeine free as I am to become a teetotaler or a vegan, but I likewise recognize that I feel a whole lot better when I indulge a whole lot less.

For starters, there's the headache factor. Feeling like I have a short window of time in the morning to drink coffee before an epic, throbbing headache kicks in is just ridiculous — especially when I'm traveling and trying to adjust to different time zones.

"Caffeine is a huge issue for people with migraines," Jon Katz, founder of the migraine-friendly food brand Amia, says. "Caffeine is known as a vasoconstrictor, which means it constricts blood vessels in the brain. The interesting thing is that migraines happen when blood vessels dilate, so the caffeine actually helps alleviate an active attack, but then it causes rebound when the caffeine wears off."

According to Katz, reducing his caffeine intake has "helped tremendously" in reducing his migraine frequency.

"My reduction in caffeine has helped tremendously in reducing my migraine frequency," Jon Katz says. 

As the anxiety prone and sleep starved among us probably already know, there are loads of other reasons to keep caffeine consumption in check.

"While it it provide a temporary boost in alertness and cognitive function," says Paul Daidone, Medical Director at True Self Recovery, "excessive caffeine consumption can have negative effects on your health, including insomnia, nervousness, restlessness, stomach upset, rapid heartbeat and muscle tremors."

Daidone notes that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration "suggests a maximum intake of 400 milligrams of caffeine per day for most adults. This is roughly the amount in four cups of brewed coffee. However, individual tolerance to caffeine can vary, and some people may experience side effects at lower amounts."

I get palpitations just thinking about drinking four entire cups of joe, but of course, coffee isn't the only source of caffeine. Switching to herbal tea or decaf in the morning if you're still chugging Coke or Snapple in the afternoon won't do much to break the dependence. Not all teas are created equal, either.

"A lot of people make resolutions to cut out coffee, to eliminate caffeine from their diets, yet they’re replacing coffee with matcha, which also has caffeine," Nancy Mitchell, a registered nurse and a contributing writer at Assisted Living, says. "Green teas are one of the sneakiest sources of caffeine because most people don’t suspect that herbal brews would contain any of that."

"People make resolutions to eliminate caffeine from their diets, yet they’re replacing coffee with matcha, which also has caffeine," Nancy Mitchell says.

Then there's my greatest love of all: chocolate.

"The source of caffeine that tends to sneak up on people the most is chocolate," Catherine Rall, a registered dietitian with the women's wellness company Happy V, says. "We all know about caffeine in things like coffee and cola, and most people who are strongly affected by caffeine know better than to drink caffeinated beverages in the afternoon or evening. But the evening is also when we tend to have desserts or little indulgences at the end of a hard day, and for many of us, that indulgence is chocolate."

A 1-ounce portion of dark chocolate can have up to 23 milligrams of caffeine. That isn't a huge amount, but it's enough to feel the effects or exceed one's daily comfort level.

Even though it's pretty easy to spot where caffeine is lurking (unlike salt and sugar, which can be sneakier), and even though most of us prefer fewer headaches and better sleep, kicking dependency can be tough.

For me, even a slight uptick in my caffeine consumption (a "bottomless cup" breakfast out, an afternoon iced tea) can lead to a miserable cycle of headaches and jitters — and feeling like I need more caffeine to stave them off.

Paul Daidone recommends tapering down by starting small.

"Instead of going cold turkey," he says, "consider reducing your caffeine intake gradually. This might mean brewing a half-caff blend (half regular, half decaf coffee) or reducing your daily intake by one drink each week until you reach your goal."

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"Dehydration can worsen withdrawal symptoms," he also notes. "Be sure to drink plenty of water throughout the day. And get enough sleep: Adequate sleep can help your body adjust to the decrease in caffeine and reduce feelings of fatigue."

I know that a big part of my love affair with coffee has always been tied to the ritual and the rhythm of it. We consume things not only for the taste but also the experience. Most days now, a cup of decaf (which has about 2 milligrams of caffeine) in the morning is enough to make me feel like I'm still enjoying something I love.

It helps that decaf has come a long way from the foul instant decaf my grandmother used to sip when I was growing up. As barista Laura Honey wrote in Homes & Gardens last year, "newer, gentler methods" of decaffeinating coffee while retaining "the oils, antioxidants, and fiber that you would drink from a regular cup of coffee" means that there are plenty of decent options that evoke the flavor of the hard stuff without the stimulants.

For my fellow morning caffeine drinkers who don't do decaf, moving over to herbal tea or the southern standby chicory can a reasonably painless switch. If the caffeine source is cola — and more than half of Americans are drinking soda every day — a shift to flavored seltzer can offer a similar kick.

I still enjoy an espresso on a weekend now and then, and I love chocolate, though I'm frugal if I consume it in the evening. Getting off the over-caffeinated hamster wheel has helped me exponentially in managing three of the biggest banes of my existence — headaches, sleep deprivation and anxiety — but the key to feeling happier and more alert in the morning still comes down to what I pour in my mug.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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