What’s the line between ‘guilty pleasure’ and ‘unhealthy,’ anyway?
A few autumns ago, as I soldiered through a tough work assignment, I decided to head to the corner coffee shop and treat myself to one of those “tricked out” lattes — the trick being that you convince yourself that a drink topped with caramel, fudge, and whipped cream counts as breakfast rather than, well, a sundae. The drink was a rare reward for me; I had somehow purposely resisted coffee culture throughout four decades of life. I silently looked down on the coffee worshippers, and found the taste too bitter. I ignored co-workers’ warnings that they had once found coffee bitter too, but eventually acquired the taste.
But I sometimes lean on my favorite foods to get through hard tasks, and learn to set boundaries on guilty pleasures to avoid overindulging. Back in college, when the dining hall offered unlimited ice cream toppings, I designated two days a week “ice cream days” and “chocolate days” so I wouldn’t scarf the Sno Caps at every study break. The guy across the hall laughed at me. “You girls with your ‘ice cream days,’ he said, shaking his head. At least I knew I wasn’t alone.
I’m not sure whether it’s psychologically normal to strategize so much about one’s guilty pleasures, and I’ve heard more talk about it from women than men. I’ve wondered: Does thinking about certain substances mean a person is vulnerable to addiction? What indicates an “addictive personality” anyway? Is it a slippery slope? And how does one determine if a fondness for a particular substance crosses the line into dependence?
How guilty should you feel about a guilty pleasure?
When I journeyed to the local coffee joint and tried that first “fall spice” latte with pumpkin, nutmeg, and cinnamon, plus that frothy milk and sugar, I was flooded with inspiration. At my desk, tapping my way through an article, I enjoyed the sweetness, the warmth, the effects of the caffeine. I quickly careened into the coffee culture I’d condescendingly avoided: staking out the places that offered the less bitter brews, chatting with other customers in line about Haitian vs. Salvadoran. It’s definitely a tame vice considering the paths of many. Still, I asked myself questions.
I had friends who’d cut down on coffee and got headaches as a result; how could I avoid becoming like those people? What if I only let myself have it every other day, would that help? What if I ordered them half-caf? And then I wondered: If I have to be this careful about food and coffee boundaries, am I one venti PSL away from needing it all the time?
I think we all wonder, especially as the holiday season approaches, where the line is between a guilty pleasure and a substance use disorder.
I began reading up on addictions to legal substances such as food and wine. I ultimately wrote an article about addiction for a major newspaper, but I didn’t focus on coffee as much. However, while interviewing one of the pioneers in the study of food addiction — a doctor who had created the Yale Food Addiction Scale back in 2009 — I had a question.
I asked — trying to sound as non-chalant as possible — how a person could tell if he or she was addicted to a beverage like coffee.
“Coffee isn’t classified under substance use disorders,” she told me.
I was surprised by this, but I looked it up in the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM-5 (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
It listed the substances that potentially cause a “substance use disorder,” and most were what we’d expect: alcohol, tobacco, cocaine, methamphetamines, opiods. As of now, caffeine is not on the list of ingredients that are officially classified as causing “use” disorders. That doesn’t mean it won’t be there in the future, and in fact, it has the rare distinction of being in the DSM for potentially causing a substance “related” disorder (rather than a “use” disorder). This means that for now, the DSM recognizes it as causing withdrawal symptoms following cessation, but doesn’t recognize that people may have a dependence and need more and more to achieve the same high. This distinction may change as more studies are done.
There’s an 11-point test for use disorders on line. A person who answers “yes” to two of the 11 questions has a mild use disorder; answering more questions positively means a person may have a “moderate” or “severe” disorder. I read the DSM-V questions and applied them to my own life. Did I keep using the substance despite adverse health effects? Not really. Did I have a problem in my relationships because of it? I didn’t think so. I was still gainfully employed. Do I “crave” the substance (a relatively new category)? Have I tried to quit, but failed?
I realized that despite my overthinking and strategizing, I have pretty good willpower and am able to maintain boundaries when needed. I read an 2015 article in Prevention Magazine about an Alabama woman who needed chocolate so badly that one cold morning, she strapped her 3- and 4-year-old daughters into the car to drive to the gas station just for a Snickers bar. That seemed more desperate than anything I’ve done for caffeinated treats.
Everyone deserves a reward (as long as it doesn’t become a crutch).
Caffeine is still considered something that can cause a “related disorder.” The DSM specifically gives a diagnostic code to “caffeine-related disorder” or “caffeine withdrawal,” with symptoms.
A 2013 study published in the Journal of Caffeine Research by researchers at Johns Hopkins and the University of Vermont says, “Caffeine is the most commonly used drug in the world. Although consumption of low to moderate doses of caffeine is generally safe, an increasing number of clinical studies are showing that some caffeine users become dependent on the drug and are unable to reduce consumption despite knowledge of recurrent health problems associated with continued use. The World Health Organization and some health care professionals recognize caffeine dependence as a clinical disorder.”
But of course, there are studies saying coffee can be good for you. (The specialty drinks, however, may be high in sugar and fat, depending on what you add.)
In general, I’d be curious about how many people stagger their guilty pleasures or tie them to specific tasks, and how far they take it. But for now, I think I’m still far enough away from dependence that I probably won’t have to quit my flavored lattes just yet. It might be more important is for me to stop beating myself up over my little rewards. When it comes to “guilty” pleasures, the fact that I feel guilt at all may be the least healthy part.