Oh, coffee. (By the way...if you are not a coffee drinker, but you drink tea and wonder what you can add to it, you can substitute the word "tea" for "coffee" throughout this blog post and it still applies to you. You're welcome.)
Is there anything that inspires more affection from the intermittent faster than coffee?
Coffee wakes us up in the morning. Coffee is there for us when we are fasting. Coffee is that friend we can always count on. Coffee may even stimulate autophagy! Click here to read more. That is seriously the best news I have heard all day.
BUT--coffee is also one of the biggest stumbling blocks to living an intermittent fasting lifestyle for many people. In fact, one of the hottest topics on any intermittent fasting support group is this:
"How should I take my coffee?"
The answer is simple: BLACK. Period.
But, but, but.....
People do NOT want to hear that they need to switch to black coffee. For many, it's like they just heard the worst news of their lives and we are asking them to do something that is against their moral code. It is at that point that people start to search for reasons why it's "okay" to add "just a little" something into their coffee.
Why do we so desperately want to add something to our coffee?
Well, I'll be honest: black coffee is not something that tickles and amuses your taste buds. If you are used to a creamy and/or sweet concoction that passes for coffee--your daily "hot milkshake", if you will--then black coffee is going to taste like poison at first. Trust me--I've been there. When I first realized that I was going to have to switch my coffee to black in order to fully benefit from an intermittent fasting lifestyle, I decided that I would rather skip coffee altogether than drink it black. I went cold turkey, and the headache I got from the caffeine withdrawal was definitely not pleasant! But the longer I went without coffee, the more I realized it wasn't just the hit of caffeine that I enjoy. I really missed coffee. So--I added it back, and I knew it was going to have to be black. (Anyone else thinking of the AC/DC song, Back in Black, right now, or is just me?) The first day, I choked down that black coffee...and I didn't die. Over the next week or two, I started to actually enjoy it without wincing. Now, I can't believe what a baby I was about switching to black coffee. Drum roll: I actually prefer it black now.
You may think that there is NO WAY you will ever be able to switch to black coffee.
"It's okay for YOU, Gin, but I REALLY hate black coffee. I just can't do it."
If I had $1 for every person who told me that, I would have a big pile of dollars. Yes, YOU can. So many people start out just like me--grimacing through the black coffee. Then, they don't hate it anymore. After that, something funny happens. They'll try coffee the old hot-milkshake way that they used to drink it--only to discover that miraculously, they now PREFER it black. Then--another miracle--people realize how much easier it is to fast now that they are drinking their coffee black. It's very common for someone to post something like this:
"I can't believe I am now drinking black coffee...and I actually enjoy it! AND--fasting is so much easier now that I have switched! I didn't believe you, but it's true!"
You can thank me later. I'll look forward to it, in fact.
So--why is it important to have it black? Isn't there something we can add to the coffee so that it is more delicious, that is compatible with an intermittent fasting lifestyle? The answer is no.
Believe me, I've heard it all when it comes to our beloved coffee additives. People REALLY want to add something to coffee. There are so many ways to rationalize adding things to your coffee, but here are the most popular. (By the way, everyone always adds the disclaimer, "It works for me!", so I am going to add it to each statement, below, to make it more realistic):
Let's address those one by one.
My favorite artificial or natural sweetener doesn't add any calories to my coffee, so it is fine.
This is a big one. We have been trained for so long that "calories" are the dieter's enemy, right? Avoid calories and you will be fine! Following that logic, anything with zero calories must, therefore, be the dieter's best friend. However, the more we understand about how the body works, the more we realize that there is so much more to weight loss and maintenance than calories in/calories out. In fact, there is so much to this topic that it is beyond the scope of this blog post. Someone should write a book. Oh, wait. I did. And if you don't yet understand the role that insulin plays in fat storage, then you need to click here immediately and get my book, Delay, Don't Deny. In it, you will learn in detail why any kind of sweetener (or sweet taste) is a no-no during your fast. For now, remember this: anything that spikes your insulin, such as your preferred artificial sweetener, or even that innocent-sounding "natural" sweetener, is a bad idea if you are fasting. When you fast, your goal is for your body to dig down into your fat stores for energy. Since insulin is a hormone related to fat storage, the last thing you want to do is spike insulin during the fast. It's not the calories that are the problem: it's the insulin release. Sweet tastes cause insulin release. Just remember this: sweet=no. As I said, there is a much more detailed explanation in Delay, Don't Deny, so look for it there.
I only add a little creamer/milk/cream, and I'm still losing weight.
First of all, there are big differences between creamer and milk/cream. Let's break them down.
Creamer is absolutely a no-no. When we say "creamer," we are usually referring to a chemical concoction that has been developed in a lab. Now there are even some "natural" creamers, but these still contain something sweet. Refer to point #1, above--sweet=no. Creamer is never going to be a good idea.
What about milk and/or cream? Isn't that okay? To make matters even more confusing, one fasting expert (who I greatly respect and may even have a slight crush on...don't tell anyone) "allows" a small amount of heavy cream or milk in your coffee, so I see people clinging to that recommendation like a life raft. He "allows" it, so it's fine, right? Well, why does he "allow" it? Is it because adding a little cream or milk doesn't break the fast? No, it absolutely does break the fast. So, why would it be "allowed"? The answer: compliance. People are more likely to fast if they don't have to give up that creamy coffee. Just like with the sweeteners, though--you are not fully fasting if you are having milk and/or cream. You may be able to "get away with it," but you may also never know how you are cheating yourself out of the full benefits of a clean fast. Suck it up, buttercup: leave out the milk/cream. Give clean fasting a chance. You might just be surprised at the difference you notice!
Fat doesn't spike insulin, so I can add it to my coffee. Plus, some fats boost your metabolic rate!
That's a big one. We hear it all the time from promoters of "Bulletproof" coffee. So, what is Bulletproof Coffee, also known as BPC? Legend has it in the intermittent fasting world that if you add certain things to your coffee, such as coconut oil and/or butter, then your metabolism will be boosted to such a degree that you will burn more fat over the course of the day than you normally would. Who doesn't love a good metabolic boost, am I right? But is it true?
If you ask Uncle Google, you will find all sorts of claims about coconut oil. First of all, let me say that I have no doubt that coconut oil has many fabulous health benefits. I believe it is a wonderfully healthy food, and you can benefit from adding it to your diet. I have some in my pantry right now. However, I do not believe that it has magical properties that will result in your metabolism being boosted to such a degree that you are burning more energy than the energy contained in the coconut oil you just consumed. Let's do some math, and see what we can discover.
Coconut oil is rich in Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCTs), among other things. Of course, coconut oil isn't 100% MCT oil, but let's analyze MCT oil on its own, because many BPC proponents suggest that the MCT oil is the "magical" ingredient in the BPC (in fact, some BPC recipes recommend that you use pure MCT oil rather than coconut oil to get maximum benefits.) Does MCT oil really boost your metabolism? The answer is yes! In a study, found here, researchers found out that participants who were fed MCTs (30 g per day, divided among 3 meals) had an increase of energy expenditure (EE) of 500 kj per day. That sounds substantial, until you realize that 500 kj equals 119 calories. MCT oil has approximately 8.3 calories per gram, so that means that adding 30 grams of pure MCT oil (coming in at approximately 250 calories) caused an increased metabolic rate of 119 calories per day! Oops. According to that study, you have to consume 250 calories of MCT oil to boost your metabolism by 119 calories per day. Is that some sort of Common Core Math? (Sorry, that's a teacher joke.) Either way, we see that the math just doesn't work out in your favor.
I love Dr. Jason Fung's take on it. Click here to go to his blog post about adding extra fat to your diet. Basically, he says what I just did: if you are trying to lose body fat, do you really think that you will lose MORE body fat by adding fat to your day during the fast? It's common sense. Do you want to run on the fat from your body or the fat from your coffee cup? I know my answer to that question.
Is it ever a good idea to add fat to your coffee during the fast? My answer may surprise you, because the answer could be yes, depending on your situation. Within the fasting adjustment period, BPC might help you adjust to fasting by encouraging your body to switch to fat burning. Of course, you are going to be burning the fat from the coconut oil, rather than your own fat, but it absolutely can help you make the transition. For that reason, you may want to include it during the adjustment period and then gradually wean yourself off of it as your body adapts to burning your own fat. Just don't forget to wean yourself off of it. Also, be careful, because coconut oil can send you VERY QUICKLY to the restroom if you ingest it on an empty stomach. Don't ask me how I know this.
One final question people sometimes ask about coffee:
Is coffee REQUIRED? Do I HAVE TO drink coffee to live an intermittent fasting lifestyle?
The answer is: NO! Of course not. If you don't drink coffee, then why are you still here reading this blog post??? Coffee is not a required part of this lifestyle. Go on about your coffee-free life, and forget you ever saw this blog post.
But--if it is a required part of YOUR life, make the transition to black. You can thank me later.
Plus, you'll feel like such a grown up when you drink it.
Gin Stephens lives in Augusta, Georgia, where she has been following an intermittent fasting lifestyle since 2014. In addition to writing the book Delay, Don't Deny, Gin is co-host of The Intermittent Fasting Podcast, along with fellow intermittent faster and author, Melanie Avalon. Check out www.ifpodcast.com or search for The Intermittent Fasting Podcast on iTunes.