When you know better, you do better. You’ve heard this phrase before, right? While it surely *can* ring true, sometimes you simply know better and could use an extra nudge for the “doing” part. One prime example in my case —and perhaps yours—is drinking coffee on its own first thing in the morning. The drive to sip on a tasty, glorious, brewed cup of caffeine is my sole motivating factor to crawl out of bed on most mornings… though I know fully well that a hearty breakfast in which coffee is a supporting player, instead of the main act, is much more ideal for a few reasons.
- Maddie Pasquariello, MS, RDN, Brooklyn–based registered dietitian
If you’re part of the coffee-first fam and your stomach is none too happy about it, you’ll want to keep reading. Ahead, Brooklyn–based dietitian Maddie Pasquariello, MS, RDN, recaps why coffee isn’t a valid morning meal on its own and how to make your a.m. intake at least a bit easier on your tummy.
Why coffee-as-breakfast isn’t ideal for your stomach
Coffee and caffeine affects people in different ways. Some can down cup after cup and function just fine, while others may experience adverse digestive effects (amongst other sensitivities) from drinking even small amounts on their own. “Drinking coffee results in the stomach producing acid. You may also have experienced increased intestinal movements (resulting in quicker bowel emptying), elevated heart rate, and elevated blood pressure when drinking coffee on an empty stomach,” Pasquariello explains. The latter effects may cause jitters or pique anxiety. “Heartburn is another potential pitfall, though it should be noted that data is mixed with regard to how strongly or consistently drinking coffee on an empty stomach can lead to heartburn,” she continues.
You may also find that coffee suppresses your appetite, which can hinder your ability to stick to a balanced, nourishing diet. “By having coffee instead of a nutrient-dense breakfast, you could be missing an opportunity to contribute to your overall macronutrient intake for the day,” the dietitian warns. Plus, if you work out in the morning or during your lunch break, Pasquariello notes that some extra fuel (via food and not just a jolt of caffeine) will be helpful to power your sweat sesh.
3 tips to make your morning cup of coffee easier to digest
“If you have a healthy gut—i.e., one that has a strong defense system and does its job—it's working constantly to seal off what you're eating from the lining of the stomach itself,” Pasquariello explains. “From that perspective, you don't have to worry too much about danger from a cup of coffee or two on an empty stomach.” However, if your tummy gets in a twist after having coffee on its own, try adopting the following RD-approved tips for your morning intake.
1. Hydrate first
Since we expel water through breathing as we’re fast asleep, sipping on H2O once you rise and shine can help your hydration game and maybe even your stomach. “For some people, having water first can also lessen the effects of caffeine—and generally speaking, it's always best to start with water before consuming other beverages,” says Pasquariello. “This helps your body rehydrate after a night of sleep, improves digestion, and promotes a healthy metabolism.”
“For some people, having water first can also lessen the effects of caffeine—and generally speaking, it's always best to start with water before consuming other beverages."
—Maddie Pasquariello, MS, RDN
2. Eat *and* drink up
“Having a bite of food with your morning cup is probably one of the best ways to avoid digestive distress with coffee, short of avoiding or lessening your intake,” Pasquariello shares. “By eating a bit of food, you're helping to absorb some of the stomach acid produced and avoid unpleasant symptoms.” As for what to eat, there’s no shortage of nutritious options at your disposal whether you’re into sweet or savory fare. Pasquariello simply advises sticking to the standard of balancing carbs, protein, and fat to keep you energized and satiated until lunchtime. (P.S. You’ll do your gut and greater health a solid by prioritizing fiber intake at brekkie, too. For inspo, check out a few protein- and fiber- packed sample menus here.)
3. Switch up your brews
Need some time to acclimate before enjoying a full meal upon waking? If coffee absolutely *must* remain the one item on your morning menu and you’re still hoping to minimize digestive discomfort, Pasquariello suggests decreasing the volume, strength, or brew time of your java. This could look like “lowering your number of espresso shots from three to two; switching to [low-acid coffees like] dark roast; or opting for drip coffee instead of cold brew,” she shares. (Note: While cold brew is often less acidic than hot brewed coffee, it tends to pack a higher concentration of caffeine, so this tip applies if the stimulant is the main instigator of your tummy troubles. And if you’re cutting back on caffeine, Pasquariello recommends tapering off slowly to avoid the pangs of caffeine withdrawal.)
Other winning ideas: If you’re used to enjoying your coffee black, the dietitian says a splash of milk or creamer (non-dairy for those who have difficulty digesting lactose) can help curb stomach upset. “Some people may also choose to add a tiny pinch of baking soda to their coffee to raise its overall pH and help prevent it from causing heartburn,” Pasquariello adds.
By adopting one, some, or all of these tips, your digestion is bound to be in a better place—all without having to nix your delicious morning brew and its many health benefits.
- Vanhaecke, Tiphaine et al. “Drinking Water Source and Intake Are Associated with Distinct Gut Microbiota Signatures in US and UK Populations.” The Journal of nutrition vol. 152,1 (2022): 171-182. doi:10.1093/jn/nxab312
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