Choosing Your “Central Perk”

I’ve noticed during my recent “Friends”-watching that no two members of the group have the same coffee order when they sit down in their corner at the Central Perk. Joey’s usually involves a muffin, and who can forget Episode 1 where Ross tears Rachel’s sweet-n-low packets for her? When their drink orders get mixed up, everyone is quick to switch. You obviously want your own order, not someone else’s. But how do you know you’ve chosen the best cup for you? And why are there so many options in coffee shops today?

Many people suffer from “coffee shop anxiety.” As they approach the board, their eyes are overwhelmed by the long lists of words and flavors and brews… it’s a little crazy how many different drinks we call “coffee.” If you’re clueless about coffeeshop choices, this post should clear up a lot of the confusion. If you already have your standard order down pat, keep reading – you might see a modification here that you could use to make it even better and better for you.

The cardinal rule I try to follow is to eat/drink to feel better afterward than I did before – not worse. To benefit myself, and not harm myself. A sugar coma or a sick tummy does not make me feel better, nor does it benefit my long-term health. Who wants to feel gross, just because some calorie-bomb drink tasted good in the moment? Trust me, I’ve made good choices and bad – and I’d say that for me the good choice generally leads to a better mood, a more successful day, better self-esteem, and better choices afterward. Remember, it’s not any one choice, but the accumulation of your choices over time that defines your diet. Having good go-to’s takes the guess work out of eating out, too. When you’ve ordered something lots of times, it becomes a stress-free decision, and you won’t have to expend as much energy making that choice as you did the first time.

iced coffee

I’ve been attending a small group for a couple of weeks that meets at the local coffee place, Village Coffee. So, everybody’s gonna ask you what you ordered (naturally) to break the ice. This got me thinking about whether my order defines me as a person – am I a 12oz sugar-free vanilla soy latte girl, forever? Nope, I’m still just Rae. And guess what – I can be a cafe misto, or hot tea, or black coffee kind of girl whenever I’d like.

I’ve got 3 big tips that will take any order to its healthiest level – and here they are. These are the foundation of my coffeehouse philosophy.

  1. Choose your base wisely. If you’re having a drink that contains a good bit of milk (most “coffee” drinks that aren’t plain brewed coffee), I recommend choosing either non-fat (skim) milk, or non-dairy milk. This will bring the total calories and fat way down for your drink (and it still tastes heavenly). If you’re using cream or whole or 2% milk in your brewed coffee, remember that a little goes a long way.
  2. Cut (back) the sugar. Nix whipped cream to do yourself nothing but good; skip drizzles and extra syrup shots. Consider sugar-free syrup if you’re okay with occasional consumption of artificial sweeteners.
  3. Simpler can be better. My stand-by at coffee shops is a modification of the classic vanilla latte, but on the daily I drink brewed coffee. I feel no need to branch out into crazy stuff with triple-flavored names… those often involve multiple syrup shots, which isn’t going to be healthier. I recommend sticking with one flavor shot!

You can use these tips to give any drink a healthy upgrade. If you’d like a little more insight into ordering, here’s an overview of some of the top order categories, and how to approach them.

coffee and cereal

BLACK COFFEE – There are always a few “purists” who drink it black, or with a little cream or sugar, and wouldn’t have it any other way. This is definitely one of the most budget-friendly, waistline-friendly options, and it’s universally served. There’s likely no coffee shop where you won’t find it. With black coffee, just watch the amount of cream/sugar you add, and you’ll be fine. For your reference, 1 tablespoon of half and half contains 20 calories (1.7g fat, 0.6g carb, and 0.4g protein). I’d usually use 2 tablespoons, so that’d be 40 calories. Sugar contains 15 calories per teaspoon (or packet), all from 4.2g carb. Doctoring up your coffee with 2 tbsp of half and half and 1 tsp sugar = A fairly tame cup, at 55 calories, 3.4g fat, 4.8g carb, and 0.8g protein. If the coffee’s good, I’ll usually go with a splash of cream and skip the sugar.

Some places will offer milk, and you can use a little more of this for less fat and calories than half and half. It’s less concentrated, but you can use more. You can use 1/2 cup skim milk for the same caloric value as 2 tbsp half and half, and none of the saturated fat – and you’ll also get 4 g of protein. 2% milk is a happy medium – creamier than skim milk, a little more fat but less than half and half, and 31 calories per 1/4 cup.

Artificial sweeteners are another swap you can try – keep in mind you’re only saving 15 calories per packet, and they may give your coffee a slightly different taste.

{If you are diabetic, the artificial sweetener is the best choice for you if you need it, because it won’t spike your blood sugar like sugar does. There are varying opinions on artificial sweeteners – some believe they can cause more cravings for real sugar. They have been shown to aid in weight loss, however, when they replace sugar. It’s ultimately your call – do your own research by using google scholar, or finding analyses of artificial sweeteners by RDN’s or RD’s on youtube/blogs/etc.}

Smiley face mug - happy yellow coffee

There are really so many options for fixing a cup of coffee. Lately, at home, I’ve been using 1/4 to 1/2 cup almond or cashew milk in mine and loving it. 1/2 cup provides almost a quarter of your recommended daily calcium intake, is free of sugar and saturated fat, and makes your coffee nice and creamy for just 15 calories. It tastes better to me than dairy milk, so I use it whenever I get the chance. The only drawback is less protein, but we can get that from many other sources during the day. Many coffee shops are beginning to offer almond milk as an option for lattes, etc. – so if this is the case at your favorite place, you could ask them to give you a splash (they’ll keep it behind the counter in their fridge). You can also ask for a cafe misto or cafe au lait – half brewed coffee, half steamed milk of your choice. These are fabulous and I do get them sometimes – they tend to cost a little more than a cup of coffee, but a little less than a latte.

LATTES – My usual, if I want to treat myself. The latte is likely the most classic and widely ordered hot drink in the U.S. It’s steamed milk and espresso, with (optional) a syrupy flavor of your choice. A plain latte (no syrup) can be good if you’re in the right mood. Give it a shot if you can handle things less sweet, but still want to sip on some creamy, frothy goodness. Sugar-free syrups are also an option, and, though made with artificial sweeteners, will save you approximately 20 calories and 5g sugar per pump. Key here is your milk – a classic latte is made with whole or 2% milk, but you can ask for nonfat, soy, or almond (if available).

Let’s compare: I’m using Starbucks nutrition facts for calculations, and no whipped cream on any of these for simplicity’s sake.

12oz (Tall) Whole milk latte with vanilla syrup: 220 calories, 9g fat, 27g sugar.

12oz (Tall) Nonfat latte with vanilla syrup: 150 calories, 0g fat, 35g sugar.

12oz (Tall) “Skinny Vanilla Latte” (Nonfat milk, sugar-free vanilla syrup): 100 calories, 0g fat, 12g sugar. Note, the sugar here comes from the milk – it’s a natural sugar, known as none other than lactose.

12oz (Tall) Skinny Vanilla Latte with Soy Milk – 140 calories,  4g fat, 12g sugar. Great for those who prefer non-dairy, but not more calorie-efficient than the skinny.

12oz (Tall) Skinny Vanilla Latte with Unsweetened Almond Milk: 80 calories, 5g fat, 0g sugar. Niceeee. Less protein, though. Almond milk isn’t as widely available as soy, either. It’ll get there one day.

latte

CAPPUCCINOS – Traditionally much like a latte, with more foam. Same principles should apply here that would to a latte. Cappuccinos are traditionally plain, unsweetened, but you can ask for any flavoring you like to be added.

MOCHAS – A mocha is much like a latte, but with mocha sauce in place of the flavored syrup. This is generally going to give you a higher calorie drink, depending on how much sauce the barista uses. A 12oz nonfat mocha = 190 calories, 2g far, and 27g sugar. Some places, like Starbucks, will offer skinny mochas, with sugar-free mocha sauce – 110 calories, 1g fat, 12g sugar. Not bad- very similar to a skinny latte.

MACCHIATOS – Coffee with a splash of milk, syrup, and often a caramel drizzle. Can be similar in nutritional value to a latte – a 12oz Starbucks skinny macchiato is 100 calories, 1g fat, 14g sugar. Here’s one below – yum. Often served iced – the main reason it’s not my go-to (I like my drinks hot!).

macchiato

FRAPPES – I thought they were dangerous territory. Guess what – You can order a tall “Coffee Light Frappuccino” at good old Starbs’ for just 90 calories. “Cafe’ Vanilla Light” for 130. Really?! Who knew. They get a bad rep because they look so decadent, with their swirly whipped cream and fancy lids – but here on the light, we’re nixing the whipped cream. Wanna hear the stats for the original Cafe Vanilla Frappucino? The big one you’ll see people toting around – a 24oz Venti? 530 calories, 16g fat, and 88g sugar. Good grief!

It’s worth noting that at smaller coffee shops, frappes are usually made from a pre-made mix, and may not be this customizable (while lattes, cappuccinos, etc. will be). You can always, always ask, but you might not be able to get a skinny frappe just anywhere. In this case, I’d go with an iced drink – Iced coffee with a splash of milk and a shot of vanilla syrup, or an iced skinny latte, mocha, etc.

Note- size. I looked at the small (12oz) size in this post because that’s what I’m usually after. If I want a treat, I’m treating myself, and the small is special enough for me (but it’s totally up to you, and personal preference, and your caloric needs). You can calculate the calories for any beverage you’d like easily by searching it online and maybe talking with the barista if necessary. If size is more important to you, you can choose a lighter drink than maybe you would if you were getting a smaller one. If you’ve just worked out really hard, or have higher caloric needs, your body could probably handle more discretionary calories being spent here. Remember – it’s all about meeting your body’s own personal needs on that given day. All foods can fit.

Not a coffee drinker? You can opt for these yummy options:

  • Hot tea (your best bet – 0 calories, and you can add milk or honey if you’d like)
  • Iced tea (go with an unsweetened variety and add your own if needed)
  • Chai latte – switch out your milk for skim or another lighter milk
  • At Starbucks – a hot vanilla creme with nonfat milk (a slimmed down, vanilla version of hot cocoa!)
  • Hot apple cider
  • Hot cocoa brewed with water instead of milk
Pukka love tea hot chamomile rose
Yummmmm.

Coffeehouse grub? A lot of it offers you little nutritional value in a highly attractive and sugar-y package. Muffins, scones, cookies… think of them as an occasional treat, not a regular purchase, and split them with a friend. You’ll enjoy it more, because you have somebody to “mmmmm” with, and you’ll obviously eat less!

Decent breakfast choices offered at some coffee shops include oatmeal (watch your sugar and toppings), whole grain breads, fruit bowls, breakfast sandwiches on whole grain english muffins with topping such as eggs, egg whites, spinach, etc. The more progressive places, like Mama Mocha’s in Auburn, Al, are offering killer healthy lunch options like Kale salads! Yum.

highlands

Choose based on your coffee place’s best options, your personal needs on that given day, and how much you’re willing to spend. Doing that, you can’t go wrong! And remember – don’t be afraid to switch up your classic order. You can be whatever kind of coffee drinker you want to be, today.

Stay bright,

Rae

 

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