Two years ago, Daniel went to the doctor for a routine checkup. He felt and looked in normal shape for a man in his early 40s, but decades of drinking roughly 12 cans of soda a day had finally caught up with him: Lab tests showed his blood sugar was at prediabetic levels.
“In the back of my mind, I knew it was an addiction, but because I felt healthy, I just kept at it,” Daniel tells me. “Even after hearing on the news studies that warned about too much aspartame, diet soda, etc., I just ignored it because I felt fine. Very naive, I know.”
Daniel had tried to cut down on his soda consumption before, but never made it longer than two days without relapsing. He was unable to power through the headaches and irritability that greeted him within 12 hours of his last soda. This time, however, felt different. “I was freaked out, and knew something needed to change,” he says.
So on January 2nd, 2018, he had his last drink (of soda). “I decided to go in head first and quit cold turkey,” he explains. “It wasn’t even just the caffeine that I’d become addicted to; once I had that first drink, my head felt better and I felt better overall. I just felt happier and more at-ease knowing there was a soda within arm’s reach.”
Laugh if you must, but the underpinnings of Daniel’s addiction to soda aren’t much different than a drug addiction, says Sal Raichbach, director of clinical services at the Ambrosia Treatment Center. While soda doesn’t necessarily carry the intense physical dependency that alcohol or heroin might, there is a behavioral aspect that engages the brain’s reward system. “Consuming sugary foods and drinks releases dopamine, which is a chemical directly tied to the brain’s reward system,” Raichbach explains. “When you drink soda, you’re engaging those reward pathways, which makes you more likely to reach for a soda next time you’re thirsty.”
Thus, this type of addiction presents “a whole different set of challenges where the individual is forced to change their relationship with their consumption, rather than just staying away from it,” Raichbach says. In other words: Where heroin addicts are addicted to the physical high, people addicted to soda have formed a behavioral addiction, like chewing ice or video games.
So what is it like to have such a behavioral addiction — and to soda, of all things? To be diagnosed with pre-diabetes or have multiple cavities, but not able to kick the habit? I talked to Daniel and three other men to find out.
‘If there were a soda that had one-eighth of the sugar, I’d probably drink that till I die.’
Ryan, 31, Omaha, Nebraska: I never classified it in my head as an addiction until I thought about it like alcohol. If I replaced each ounce of soda with alcohol, people would call me a raging alcoholic — and they’d be right. I have 12 cavities, but I’m surprisingly only 50 pounds above my standard weight, probably because I eat well and go to the gym three times a week.
I enjoy Dr Pepper Cherry, Sunkist and regular Dr Pepper, in that order. These days, I drink at least one 20-ounce bottle in the morning, maybe a 12-ounce can over lunch and another for dinner.
The thing you have to realize is how available soda is. It’s literally everywhere — hospitals, schools, my place of work. Even my dentist offers soda in his waiting room. It’s a running joke in his office, and he has a sign that says, “Thank you for your business,” with a soda can next to it. You literally cannot go into any business without being assaulted by a soda offering. Plus, it’s cheaper than water in many cases, so getting my fill is never really a problem. I just scrape some change together from my car, and I’m good to go.
I’ve tried to quit, but haven’t made it longer than a week. I tried switching to zero-calorie Monster, but it started giving me heart palpitations so I stopped. I’ll be honest, too: The only reason I want to quit is because it’s so bad for me. If there were a soda that had one-eighth of the sugar, I’d probably drink that till I die.
‘I’ll go through an entire 24-pack in one sitting, while my friends split a 12-pack.’
Andrew, 27, Florida: I’ve always been attracted to sugary things, especially soda, since it was “taboo” in my household growing up. Plus, addiction runs in my family, so it wasn’t too shocking when I developed a behavioral dependance on soda. It’s bad enough that, if left unchecked, my soda consumption consumes me.
Having friends over for a Dungeons & Dragons session, I’ll go through an entire 24-pack in one sitting while they split a 12-pack. I used to hang out at RaceTrac with my friends and have a 64-ounce “barrel” next to me. I’d get it refilled at least three times, and sometimes upward of eight times.
When I learned I was a type 1 diabetic, I simply switched to diet sodas, which I’d been used to drinking in times of “drought” from the regular stuff. Opening a new bottle or can makes me less anxious, and I don’t want to deal with the headaches of quitting. I willingly admit that it’s an addiction, but I’ve never seen a need to quit.
‘I really wish I’d quit sooner, because I don’t miss soda or crave it one bit.’
Daniel, 42, California: At my peak, it was just too much — about 256 ounces per day, which is four 64-ounce drinks a day, give or take. It wasn’t rare for me to drink a 12-pack of Diet Coke in a day, and it didn’t matter if it was from a can, a two-liter bottle or a fountain.
I’d get an extra-large fountain drink in the morning on the way to work, one for lunch and then one on the way home from work. That doesn’t include if I were to ever stop to buy a couple of grocery items, when I’d also get a bottle of soda. I’d literally buy one every chance I could get, despite having a ton at home.
I’ve had a number of cavities and other problems, which I’d attest was caused by all the soda. I also grew some belly fat, which I’ve been working on losing here and there. Considering how active I was during much of that time, as a cyclist and occasional runner, that’s probably my only saving grace from being in worse shape. But the blood test made me realize that even if I felt fine, it didn’t mean everything was fine under the hood.
In just a couple of months, it will have been two years since I quit soda. I’m now drinking a lot more water and feeling so much better. The closest thing I’ve had to a soda is a single root beer float, where I just had the ice cream and didn’t drink the root beer.
I still can’t believe I’ve accomplished this. Even five years ago, I would’ve thought a week without soda would’ve been an incredible goal. But I really wish I’d done it sooner, because I don’t miss soda or crave it one bit.
‘I love the sound when the can opens. It reassures me — like, “Things will be okay.”’
Rick, 28, Sydney: It dawned on me about five years ago when I tried to stop for the first time that I might have a problem. I was stressed with work and not sleeping well, so my doctor suggested cutting out caffeine. I figured it’d be easy, but it wasn’t. I lasted about five days. Since then, every attempt to stop drinking Diet Coke has similarly failed.
Before that, my friends would tease me about it, but I didn’t consider it an addiction. On peak days, I’ll drink around 10 cans a day — and always cans. I just love the sound when it opens. It reassures me, like, “Things will be okay.”
I crave Diet Coke most in the morning and when eating. There have been times when we’re at a restaurant and order food when I realize they don’t have Diet Coke. I either want to leave, or I’ll just run over to a convenience store and get some. I try to avoid that now by checking the menu beforehand.
When I was under 21, I didn’t have any symptoms. But now that I’m 28, I feel like the physical effects have gotten worse. The headaches are especially bad around 2 to 5 p.m. because of the withdrawals that kick in later in the day. It’s also not good for my teeth; my dentist keeps reminding me, too, that drinking Diet Coke makes me eat more than I should, as a can with lunch or dinner will make me eat beyond being full, which obviously impacts my weight.
I’m trying to drink more water, but other than Diet Coke, the only other thing I drink is alcohol. Every time I try to quit, it’s dinner that defeats me. It’s hard to explain, but I get really upset if I don’t have it with dinner.
I want to stop, but I just can’t. Maybe it’s time to look into professional help.