I was hooked on diet soda for 12 years: Here’s how I finally gave it up

I’m a health writer with a dirty secret: I drink way too much diet soda. The duplicitous nature of this habit was glaring as I wrote this article, telling you how diet soda is linked to strokes and dementia, with a 20-ounce bottle of the bad and bubbly culprit on my desk.

Sure, diet soda has zero calories. But, the artificial sweeteners that keep them that way are implicated in all kinds of health problems, according to research and registered dietitians.

I decided to go on a diet soda cleanse to try and kick the can. And, the bottle. And, the $1 large Diet Coke from McDonald’s that, for this reason, tastes fantastic. But then something surprising happened. I ended up breaking up with diet soda altogether, ending a 12-year dependency to the drink. Here’s how I did it:

Day 1: Am I An “Abstainer” Or A “Moderator?”

One of my favorite podcasts is “Happier,” co-hosted by “Happiness Project” author Gretchen Rubin and her sister, TV writer/producer Elizabeth Craft. Rubin writes about “abstainers” vs. “moderators.” “In a nutshell, the difference is: abstainers find it easier to resist temptation by giving up something altogether, while moderators find it easier to indulge in moderation,” Rubin explains.

I think I fall in the moderator category. My overarching goal is diet soda becomes a “treat,” something that I can enjoy maybe once or twice a week, but am not completely dependent on for a caffeine jolt or to satiate an intense craving.

To get to this point, though, I want to abstain altogether and see how my body reacts when I eliminate diet soda from my diet. As a writer, I also appreciate phrasing. So, instead of saying, “Ugh, I’m dependent on diet soda, I’m doing a cleanse,” I’ve decided to work toward being able to say, “I’m free of diet soda,” phrasing I borrowed from Craft and the “Happier” podcast.

On an average day, I down at least two, 20-ounce bottles of diet soda. Today, I scale back to one.

diet coke bottle photo
Getty Images | George Frey

Day 2: Where Did This Habit Come From?

I started drinking Mountain Dew in college when I needed to stay up late to study for tests. The habit followed me into my first career out of college: a night cops reporter at a newspaper. But, I quickly gained 10 pounds because instead of playing basketball every day and walking around campus, I was mostly desk-bound or lingering at crime scenes with my notepad.

I switched to diet soda, eliminating about 300 empty calories from my diet each day, and, not surprisingly, the weight fell off. But, research shows diet soda is a bad idea when it comes to long-term weight control. (More on that later).

I don’t drink any soda today. I hit a mid-morning slump and another one in the mid-afternoon. Instead of grabbing a soda each time, I take a break from my desk and go for a short walk with my dog in an effort to re-energize.


Day 3: Doing The Research

I’m a bit grumpy, I have a headache and am definitely craving the bubbles of diet soda and the accompanying caffeine. (Hello, withdrawal!)

I need a reminder as to why I’m doing this, so I delve into the research about why diet soda is so bad for me, which, thankfully, makes it less appealing. Diet soda—even though it helped me cut calories after college—is no angel. Research shows drinking it regularly can translate to more belly fat and put me at a higher risk for heart disease.

Another study suggests diet soda could be linked to depression. And here’s where things get really interesting to me: diet soda drinkers tend to consume more calories at meals and while snacking, according to research.

The idea behind this? Artificial sweeteners in diet drinks are associated with a greater activation of reward centers in the brain. So, the brain’s sweet sensors aren’t providing a reliable gauge of energy consumption because those artificial sweeteners are disrupting appetite control, which could lead to overeating.

buffet food photo
Flickr | switz1873

Day 4: I’m Tired!

Without the caffeine from diet soda, I feel like I’ve been dragging all day. I take an afternoon nap. In a word, I feel “meh.” I’m actually glad I told my editor I’d do this diet soda breakup experiment because my deadline is my accountability partner.

Day 5: Green Tea Is My Backup

I’m determined to get my energy levels up today. I’m not a coffee drinker. So, I try tea instead.

I go with a Lipton Herbal Supplement tea that’s got green tea in it. Green tea is a “good guy” when it comes to beverages, with studies showing green tea can promote weight loss and boost memory. Green tea is a rich source of caffeine and catechins, Rebecca Lee, a registered nurse from New York City and founder of Remedies For Me, tells me.

Each of these substances can increase metabolism, but when consumed together they have a synergistic effect, she explains. They help to boost levels norepinephrine, a hormone which signals for stored fat to be released into the bloodstream so that it can be used as energy. I’m feeling more awake today and glad that I’m not depending on the caffeine in soda.

Photo by Drew Taylor on Unsplash

Day 6: I Forgot I Gave Up Soda

I’m on a ski trip in Park City, Utah and the thrill of fresh powder at Park City Mountain Resort has completely distracted me from my diet soda cravings. Plus, I’m thirsty and chugging water to stay hydrated at the high elevation. I have an ah-ha moment: I associate diet soda with work, mostly, and I basically use it as crutch to power me through long days and nights.


Day 7: I’m Less Bloated And I Think My Taste Buds Are Changing

I woke up this morning and felt like my tummy was flatter, and, overall, I don’t feel bloated. That’s an encouraging win that will help me build momentum. Justine Roth, R.D., also explains to me that my taste buds could be changing.

The fake sugar taste from artificial sweeteners makes regular sugar taste a lot less sweet, she explains. Roth tells me about how she was drinking diet soda and using Splenda in her coffee while she was getting her master’s degree seven years ago, but ultimately kicked the habit, which she suspected was causing her to get stomach aches.

“My stomach felt instantly better and within a very short period of time, my taste buds adjusted and I barely needed any sweetener in things,” Roth says.


Takeaway: Wait, Is Diet Soda Gross?

When I returned home from Park City, I stocked my fridge with San Pellegrino natural sparkling water since I had identified that I associated fizzy drinks with work. I’ll occasionally put a splash (as in one ounce) of tart cherry juice in it to make it taste slightly sweet.

After 10 days of going without diet soda, I lost 1.2 pounds. Honestly, though, this could be because of the skiing and workouts that I did while on vacation. But, on the other hand, I was eating out more while in Park City (apres-ski fondue for the win), so it could be that avoiding diet soda assisted with the moderate weight loss.

But the biggest surprise from this whole experience?

I decided after 10 days without any diet soda, that I could treat myself to one at the movie theater. But, when I took a sip of it, I hardly recognized it. The cola had a sickly sweet taste, like it was saturated with too much syrup, and it tasted very artificial.

I think I might finally be free of my diet soda habit altogether.