Kent Peterson, senior editor at UpWell, has also produced award-winning work in television and radio.

I don’t have diabetes, but I have great respect for people who manage it successfully because they carefully watch everything they eat—and I know I’d be lousy at that. I have fallen into indulgent diet habits, especially when it comes to sweets. I never met a candy, cake, or cookie I didn’t like—and I devour them all on the spot.

But even though I haven’t seen any health consequences so far, I know that it can’t go on like this forever. According to Berkeley Wellness, eating too much sugar has been linked to a greater risk of obesity, cavities, cardiovascular disease, stroke, and, yes, type 2 diabetes, among other ailments. So I decided to limit my sugar intake, and that’s what led me to start drinking diet soda.

Feeding my habit

It seemed like the perfect crime: I could enjoy all the sweet, fizzy stuff I wanted without swigging any sugar. I liked Diet Coke and Diet Mountain Dew best. But over time, I noticed myself reaching for those shiny aluminum cans and sleek two-liter bottles more and more often. I poured myself a glass every morning with breakfast. And I kept a big water bottle filled with diet soda on my desk at work to sip all day.

I thought about the caffeine in my sodas and wondered if I had become dependent on it. That seemed unlikely because, ounce for ounce, the sodas I drink have very little caffeine compared to, say, the coffee my wife drinks at the breakfast table from a cup the size of a Crock Pot.
How much caffeine are we talking about? A 12-ounce can of Diet Coke has 46 milligrams of caffeine. Diet Mountain Dew has 54 milligrams. Most other caffeinated sodas are in that ballpark. But 12 ounces of brewed coffee has, on average, 142 milligrams of caffeine. And some coffees have a lot more than that.

Content with my choices, I kept drinking as much as I pleased—about three cans a day. For years.

To quit or not to quit

Recently I wondered what would happen if I stopped drinking diet soda. And whether it was really worth doing since I hadn’t had any health scares to motivate me. What else might be an incentive?
I asked my dentist if the acid in soda pop would hurt my tooth enamel. He smiled and clucked, “Drink all you want. I’ve got boat payments to make.” Okay, that was one good reason to stop—but it wasn’t enough for me.

Searching online (while sipping my diet soda, of course) turned up some unsettling research linking diet soda to belly fat, cardiovascular problems, and other health issues. But the studies weren’t conclusive enough to prove cause and effect, so I kept right on sipping. Why deny myself until the growing evidence is undeniable?

What finally made me decide to try quitting diet soda was the nagging thought that I might be hooked on the stuff. Could I quit cold turkey for a week? I savored one final bubbly brew, threw away the empty can, and wondered what would happen next.

It didn’t take long to find out.

The rules

For my personal challenge, I allowed myself no diet soda of any kind, caffeinated or not. So what could I drink instead? Sugar-free punch like Crystal Light seemed so similar that it was like cheating, so I crossed it off the list. I don’t drink coffee, tea, or alcohol either, and I wasn’t about to start. Fruit juice is too sugary, even if the sugars are natural. Water infused with pieces of fruit tastes no better than plain water to me. And swapping diet soda for sugar-sweetened soda would be ridiculous. So I vowed to drink only tap water and milk.

Seven days stretched endlessly before me. I noticed that the clock seemed to be ticking slower than usual.

Managing mornings

I’m not a morning person. If you ever saw me first thing in the morning, you would realize that this is one of the greatest understatements of all time. When I dragged myself out of bed on the first day without diet soda, it was hard to get by without my usual glass of Diet Mountain Dew. A few years back when I started drinking it with breakfast, I noticed that even that little bit of caffeine helped me get my groggy eyes open. That’s a clue that I am more sensitive to caffeine than most people. And, I realized, that also means it might only take a little caffeine to make me dependent.

Feeling the pain

I went through the first day feeling sluggish and a little hung over, suffering from mild headaches and brain fog. Was it withdrawal from soda, or was I just having an off day? When the next day and the day after that were the same and there was no other explanation, I had my answer. I hadn’t expected such conspicuous symptoms. I began to worry when, during a weekend outing with my wife, I suddenly started to see snakes. “We’re in the reptile house at the zoo, Einstein,” she reminded me, rolling her eyes. Whew.

At the office, my colleagues noticed my diet soda habit long ago and have teased me about the “addiction” that I insistently denied. So when they found out I was kicking the habit for a week, they gleefully watched me for signs that I was shaky, cranky, and irritable (well, shakier, crankier, and more irritable than usual). I still kept a big bottle on my desk to sip from, but now it only contained water. I have nothing against plain water, except that it tastes like (yawn) plain water.

Then there was the time I stopped by a McRestaurant to grab a burger for lunch. “And what would you like to drink?” asked a perky McOrderTaker.

“Drink?” I stammered, caught off-guard.

She gestured to a poster with a picture of a six-foot-tall cup of sparkling Diet Coke on it. “We’re having a special. You can get any size soda for a dollar.”

“Any size? Even the extra-large?

“Yes, sir. Can I get you a refreshing, ice-cold soda right now?”

I bolted out the door without my burger before I could give in.

Lessons learned

Where does a habit end and a dependency begin? I’ve come to realize that the dividing line is fuzzy.

By the end of my week without diet soda, the physical and mental withdrawal symptoms were practically gone. But I still missed my beloved beverages. Caffeine wasn’t the only issue. I also missed having something sweet within reach all the time. And I also discovered that a big part of my problem was that I simply didn’t like changing my usual habit. Sipping soda was a little treat in my day, and I felt deprived without it.

I didn’t like learning that a little thing like diet soda could have so much control over how I think and feel. So even though the experiment is over and I’m back on the sauce, I’ve cut back. Especially on caffeinated diet sodas. I hope it’s enough to make a difference.

I discovered that a big part of my problem was that I simply didn’t like changing my usual habit.

If you’re concerned about being hooked on diet soda, you can learn from my mistakes:

  • Anticipate the times when you’ll be tempted by diet soda and be ready with something else to drink or snack on instead.
  • Find a greater variety of alternative beverages that you like so you don’t feel deprived.
  • Drink plenty of water (whether you think it tastes exciting or not).
  • Moderation is okay. It’s easier to drink less diet soda than to feel miserable because you can never have any.
  • Caffeine doesn’t significantly affect taste. If you’re as sensitive to caffeine as I am, skip the caffeinated sodas and you’ll never have to worry about a Diet Coke withdrawal hangover.

Everyone needs a little treat now and then. But if you notice that the treats are taking charge, it’s time to remind them that you’re in control.

Are you hooked on a favorite food or beverage? What helps you to control your craving? Add a comment below.