How I Kicked The Diet Soda Habit (And How You Can Too)

Over the past year, I've learned that my calorie-free drink of choice may be doing more harm than I thought. And so I drank my last diet soda on New Year's Eve 2011.
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As a health editor, I really do try to practice what I preach. I walk up escalators. I don't smoke. I get off the subway a few stops early to get more exercise in each morning. And I try not to drink my calories (unless it's a glass of wine -- that's healthy, right?).

I thought that was enough. But over the past year, I've learned that Diet Coke, my calorie-free drink of choice, may be doing more harm than I thought. A study last summer presented at an American Diabetes Association meeting suggested an association between diet soda and a wider waist. A second, unrelated study found that aspartame -- the artificial sweetener found in most diet soft drinks -- raises blood sugar in mice prone to diabetes, with possible implications for humans as well. And just yesterday, we heard word that a diet soda a day is linked with an increased risk of stroke and heart attack (findings that were also presented last year at the International Stroke Conference).

"They may be free of calories but not of consequences," Helen P. Hazuda, Ph.D., an author on the first study and a professor and chief of clinical epidemiology at the University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio's School of Medicine, said in a statement.

Uh oh -- my "light" choice has turned into a vice.

While I've long suspected that a bottle full of chemicals is likely not as healthy as a glass of pure H20 (the ingredient list, including aspartame, caramel coloring and phosphoric acid, was a tip off), I've never considered it to be a real risk.

The truth is that Diet Coke and I have a long history. Cans of the stuff got me through late-night study sessions in college and grad school. When I lived abroad, the more economical two-liter bottle became a taste of home. And the individual-serving plastic bottles became the mainstay of my working life: a bottle with my salad at lunch and the occasional second bottle when the day got stressful. We have free vending machines at work (thank you, AOL Huffington Post Media Group), and the ritual of getting up and taking a walk over right before lunch became a habit. Always the health editor, I drank with a straw to avoid staining my teeth.

But, as with any great love story, there were tough times, as well. Through the years, I became a caffeine addict to varying degrees. If I went too long on the weekend without a Diet Coke (no free vending machines at home), I'd get a headache. And while I'd long acknowledged that artificial sweeteners trigger migraine headaches for me, I was in denial that Diet Coke counted. I swore the caffeine content counteracted any adverse affects.

Things could have gone on like that, but when I started reading more and more about a possible association between diet soda and serious health problems, I knew I had to do something. If I had already cut back on processed foods and started opting for organic produce with fewer pesticides over the past few years, how could I just ignore this research?

While compelling, studies linking diet soda to health problems are hardly definitive at this point. "It's hard to translate one observational study into public health messages," Hannah Gardener, lead author on the most recent diet soda study and assistant scientist at the clinical research division of the University of Miami's department of neurology, told me over the phone on Tuesday. "For people who take a precautionary approach and change their habits on one study, they certainly wouldn't be missing out on any important nutrients."

In other words, it couldn't hurt to make some serious changes and for me, these few studies were convincing enough. And so I drank my last Diet Coke on New Year's Eve 2011 -- I went out and bought a single-serve bottle at the grocery store so I wouldn't have any temptation left at home. As my New Year's Resolution, I made the decision to go one month diet soda free, and then to reintroduce it as an occasional special treat, not a daily lunch-salad pairing.

Coinciding with the latest health findings on diet soda, there's been some speculation about whether or not it's addictive. Last November, for instance, a U.K. man announced he was a diet soda addict who downed 18 cans of Diet Coke a day.

Our partner, reported:

Although diet soda clearly isn't as addictive as a drug like nicotine, experts say the rituals that surround diet soda and the artificial sweeteners it contains can make some people psychologically -- and even physically -- dependent on it in ways that mimic more serious addictions. And unlike sugared soda, which will make you gain weight if you drink too much of it, zero-calorie soda doesn't seem to have an immediate downside that prevents people from overindulging.

"You think, 'Oh, I can drink another one because I'm not getting more calories,'" says Harold C. Urschel, MD, an addiction psychiatrist in Dallas and the author of Healing the Addicted Brain. "Psychologically you're giving yourself permission."

Read the rest of their report here.

While I'm no chain drinker, for sure, there was something incredibly hard about avoiding the Diet Coke, even when I knew it could possibly be linked to health problems. My lunch didn't feel nearly as satisfying without that aspartame-sweetened beverage to wash it down and my mid-afternoon slumps were much more pronounced. I became a little moodier and I often had to take a nap after work for those first two weeks. To be honest, the strong reaction concerned me and spurred me on in my commitment, but it didn't make the month-long ban, which officially ended yesterday, any easier. So I asked HuffPost blogger Dawn Jackson Blatner, R.D., author of The Flexitarian Diet, to offer her best advice on how to make kicking the habit as painless as possible:

1. Replace the fizz. "What I have found is that my patients who are diet soda drinkers are in love with two things: with caffeine and with carbonation," Blatner told me. So you'll need a swap that addresses both. Get your fizz fix by taking a shot glass (1.5 oz) worth of 100 percent juice, such as pomegranate, blueberry or sour cherry, and mixing it in with sparkling water, she suggests. I switched to a Schweppes black cherry seltzer water, courtesy of the work vending machines.

2. Get a caffeine substitute. Even if you get your carbonation, cutting out caffeine abruptly can make you feel like you're dragging. Blatner suggests swapping for either iced or hot green tea, which is loaded with health benefits and has a specific compound, L-theanine, that makes it a gentler source of caffeine. If you want to cut caffeine altogether, do it slowly, cutting down the amount a little bit every three days. I went cold turkey, which ended with headaches and irritability.

3. Replace the ritual. "Human beings love pattern, we love habituation, we love routine," Blatner says. For me, there was something about getting up around 2 p.m., walking over to the vending machine and grabbing my drink. For others, it may be the one time you get to stretch your legs, or even the experience of sipping out of a can. Once you identify the habit, find a way to replace it. I kept up with the vending machine walks and just swapped in the seltzer water. Others may want to find their replacement drink in a similar container or take a walk with a co-worker and skip the vending machine altogether.

4. Keep downing the water. People forget that one of the main components of diet soda is water. So make sure you replace it with water -- staying well hydrated has a host of other health benefits, as well.

Blatner says that with the right tools, most people can kick this habit in about two weeks. For me, it took the whole month of January -- it wasn't until the end that I finally stopped craving my mid-day fix. Now, as planned, I'm hoping to reintroduce it as an infrequent treat -- as Blatner put it, if you finish a bad day with a zero-calorie drink instead of a pint of Ben and Jerry's, then that's not so bad.

And I'll be honest. Yesterday was February 1 and I broke the Diet Coke fast with my first can. And yep, it was amazing. But then something funny happened: around 4:00, I started craving that black cherry seltzer. And I bet I will again today.