The Coffee Date: 7 Survival Strategies For Not Ruining Your Blood Sugar

The coffee date has become a cultural phenomenon. Is an old friend in town? Did you meet a potentially special someone online and you’re ready to meet in person? The coffee shop is your answer. You can buy a drink and sit for hours listening to tunes by indie songwriters, and though your drink may cost 10 times what you could have made it for at home, it just tastes better when it’s served to you by a friendly barista and you’re sitting with a friend.

Step aside, happy hour, there’s a new game in town.

Photo: AdobeStock/ikostudio
Photo: AdobeStock/ikostudio

Of course, if you have diabetes, popping into a coffee shop can be like popping into a very cozy minefield. You don’t want to say no to a date with friends, and you also probably don’t want to sit there awkwardly with a glass of water while your friends sip fragrant concoctions of fluffy white foam. Still, making a decision that will wreak havoc on your day seems a steep price just to fit in with the crowd.

We’ve got you covered. Armed with a plan, you can stride into your local vendor of caffeinated brews and sip with no regrets. Here are 7 simple strategies for making smart choices the next time you meet for a cuppa something tasty.

1. Be a leader not a follower

Be a force for good, because even your friend the gym enthusiast who eats kale and protein powder for breakfast would be better served by saying no to a cup of seasonally-flavored sugar and empty calories. Perhaps your friend is ordering the 16 ounce vanilla latte from Starbucks and being healthy by choosing nonfat milk. But even that is a solid 200 calories and 37 grams of carbohydrates. Ouch.

No one needs to drink a meal’s worth of calories in one sitting. Order first so that you won’t be tempted, or subconsciously enabled, to indulge because your friend did. Perhaps you’ll influence them to make a healthier decision. Don’t think of yourself as the only person who can’t order a sugary latte; think of yourself as the person with the sense to say no.

Photo: AdobeStock/Andy Dean
Photo: AdobeStock/Andy Dean

2. Beware the lingo

Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between a truly healthy choice and something that just sounds healthy. How do these strike you: Cold-pressed, handcrafted, all-natural, locally-sourced, or no high-fructose corn syrup. Most of us know, when we take the time to think about it, that how something is made, where it’s from, or what kind of sugar it has does not actually affect how healthy it is or its carbohydrate count. Even organic fair-trade all-natural sugar is still sugar.

Case in point: If you pop into Starbucks for a venti Strawberry Acai Refresher, which sounds so very light and airy, you’ll still consume 130 calories. That doesn’t seem that bad, but packed into those calories are 30 grams of sugar and 32 grams of carbs, which is significantly less refreshing. Don’t let fancy marketing tricks get you to make decisions you normally wouldn’t, and when deciding about a particular choice, stick to the facts, ma’am. Just the facts.

Not sure where to find your facts? We’re glad you brought that up.

Photo: AdobeStock/adragan
Photo: AdobeStock/adragan

3. Do a background check

It’s not hard to get more information about your coffee drinks. A quick online search will often reveal nutrition guides from major chains, and even if you’re going to a mom and pop shop, you can usually estimate nutritional value based on similar drinks in the same size from a chain. Starbucks’ online tool allows you to see how the nutritional content of your drink order changes based on your size, type of milk, and other options. Warning: it can be addictive playing with the options to get your drink of choice within the carb and calorie range that you’re comfortable with, but the process helps educate you about how different choices affect your drinks.

Watching the calorie count drop by 80-100 calories just from saying “no whip” makes it a lot easier to leave behind the topper. If you know your drink’s stats beforehand, it’s easier to order with confidence, because you know exactly what you’re signing up for.

Photo: AdobeStock/Tierney
Photo: AdobeStock/Tierney

4. The barista is your friend

Have you ever met an unfriendly barista? It’s probably been rare if ever, and that’s because coffee shops know they’re selling more than just tasty beverages and pastries. They’re selling an experience.

The friendly greeting, the cozy atmosphere and a drink made just for you are all part of the charm that makes selling 50 cents worth of ingredients for $5 a highly profitable venture. Coffee shops want to cater to you, so take advantage of it!

Ask your barista how your drink is made. Can it be made with fewer pumps of syrup? Do they have sugar free options? Is there a particular type of carb- and calorie-free tea that your barista recommends? Don’t be shy about asking for options that work better for you—it’s a part of the experience.

Photo: AdobeStock/bst2012
Photo: AdobeStock/bst2012

5. Go Classic

Fancy drinks are fun, and they have tempting names like sugar-cookie mocha or tropical passion pineapple green tea. Just remember, these fancy names are often smokescreens for tons of sugar and higher price tags. Go classic with a simpler drink. They’ll still serve it to you in a fancy cup, and you can put your pinky up and sip like a star.

Classic brewed, unsweetened coffee and tea still have no calories, sugar, or carbs, and they tend to be the cheapest options on the drink menu. Watch out about confusing brewed tea with tea lattes and chai concoctions as those do have carbs and sugar, and often more than you’d think.

Tea has been renowned for its health benefits for ages, and there’s something extremely cozy about a hot cup of tea on a cold day. On a sunny day, we think an unsweetened iced tea (perhaps with a slice of lemon) is the perfect companion. If you don’t like the taste of tea, try herbal blends, which are often called tea but are really just infusions of herbs. Any coffee shop worth its beans should have at least a few fun herbal blends to choose from.

Plain tea and coffee too intense?

If you still need a touch of sweetness try adding your own sweetener. See more about the pros and cons of artificial sweeteners here. Adding your own sweetener will likely encourage you to use less since you’re the one pouring it in. If you’re looking for creaminess, you can add up to 1/4 cup of 1% milk for a reasonable 26 calories and 3 grams of carbohydrates.

You may want to learn to enjoy the taste of plain coffee, because without added fat and sugar, it may help you live longer. Just be sure to weigh the pros and cons before filling your water bottles with joe. Type 1 diabetics may actually see a rise in blood sugar after drinking coffee, so be aware of what does and doesn’t work for you and enjoy in moderation until you are familiar with coffee’s effect on you. That’s just good advice for anyone.

Photo: AdobeStock/135pixels
Photo: AdobeStock/135pixels

6. Muffins are not your friends

This is a tough one. There’s something so cozy about a nice cup of tea and, since you opted for a healthy drink, treating yourself to a freshly-warmed muffin. Don’t do it. Step away from the pastry case.

The Starbucks Chocolate Chunk Muffin, for example, has 60 grams of carbohydrates and 20% of your recommended daily allowance of cholesterol. And the sweet breads, pastries, and other baked treats are close nutritional cousins of the muffin. They offer a lot of sugar and calories but little nutrition.

It’s not just Starbucks muffins that are sugar bombs. If your favorite coffee shop doesn’t advertise nutritional information, then it can be easy to assume your snack is not that bad. But people tend to underestimate caloric values, and it’s better to know what you’re signing up for. If you choose a zero-sugar drink but a 500-calorie piece of what is essentially cake marketed as breakfast food, then you may have been better off getting a frappuccino and skipping the pastry. The truth hurts!

If you need a snack, check out the packaged options that have the nutritional information clearly stated. Or go bold and bring your own snack. As long as you don’t lay out a four-course meal, we doubt anyone will mind.

Photo: AdobeStock/Michael Rohrich
Photo: AdobeStock/Michael Rohrich

7. Enjoy the Holidays Wisely

It’s the most wonderful time of the year—especially if you’re looking to put on a few pounds and set new blood sugar records. Americans consume too much sugar all through the year, but when the weather gets cold, sugar intake skyrockets. Sugary treats are often associated with tradition and family, and it can be well-nigh impossible to say no.

We are not going to be the grinches that suggest you opt for carrot sticks and tonic water from October to January. We suggest a quick reality check. Think about what you want your holidays to be about. What traditions are meaningful to you, and where do you want to spend your time and money in the holiday season? Speciality holiday-themed drinks are probably not at the top of your list.

When you focus on what you are saying yes to (family, money to donate to charity, feeling healthy, saving calories for Grandma’s fudge) then it’s easier to say no to things that you know aren’t important in the long run.

Photo: AdobeStock/sunny_bunny
Photo: AdobeStock/sunny_bunny

Still, if you’re on a coffee date and it happens to be the holiday season, there are ways to add some holly-jolly to your beverage with minimum effect on your blood sugar. Here are some tips:

  • Sprinkle some cinnamon on your coffee. Cinnamon has several known health benefits, and its smell is reminiscent of holiday breakfasts and desserts. Perfect.
  • Try a brewed chai tea (not the latte). Chai takes the holiday feel of cinnamon and adds warm spices like cloves, ginger, and cardamom. A splash of milk and sprinkle of nutmeg make this a smooth and spicy treat just as fragrant as any higher-priced sugar explosion.
  • Photo: AdobeStock/kolotype
    Photo: AdobeStock/kolotype
  • Go with a sugar-free holiday syrup. Sometimes it’s hard to resist a peppermint/pumpkin/caramel latte on a frosty morning. The sugar-free drink options often supply equal sweetness with fewer carbs.
  • Order your drink sugar-plum-fairy-sized. Starbucks now offers an 8-ounce option, and even if another coffee shop doesn’t have an 8-ounce cup, there’s no rule that says your 12-ounce cup has to be filled to the top. Plus, isn’t that little cup cute?
  • Bring your own mug. No, you’re not being a cheapskate. You’re being environmentally conscious and showing off your holiday mug collection. Now, no matter what you fill your mug with, your drink is holiday-themed. Plus, you may get a small discount for bringing your own cup!

Coffee shops are more and more of a hub for all our relationships, and for good reason. They offer a warm, welcoming environment, the sweet siren’s call of caffeine, and free wi-fi. Coffee shop menus have expanded with their popularity, and are filled with ways to consume your complete daily sugar allowance through a straw. But if you know your options, and make a plan, then you can enjoy your coffee shop rendezvous with confidence. Happy sipping, friends!

Katie Taylor

Katie Taylor started writing in 5th grade and hasn't stopped since. Her favorite place to pen a phrase is in front of her fireplace with a cup of tea, but she's been known to write in parking lots on the backs of old receipts if necessary. She and her husband live cozily in the Pacific Northwest enjoying rainy days and Netflix.

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