Jonesing for my Coke high

Why can't I make it through a day without my diet soda fix?

Published September 30, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

I have four cases of soda in the trunk of my car. It's all diet, and except
for one case, it's all caffeinated. Each case has 12 cans. So I am driving
around with about 600 ounces of carbonation in my trunk. I'm taking the
curves slowly today.

About this soda: I'm not having a big party or buying in obscene bulk to
split with friends. Nor am I sustaining a family of four or a troop of
thirsty boy scouts.

No, it's all for me. These four cases are my stash for the next two or
three weeks. After about 10 years of guzzling about four or five cans a day, I am
a confirmed, unabashed diet cola addict.

And this is my story -- of how I got here, what I've learned about soda,
and how I tried, for one measly week, to kick the habit.

But first, can a person truly be addicted to soda, in the same way a person
is addicted to cigarettes or painkillers? "Well, it depends on how you
define addiction," says Sharron Dalton, Ph.D., associate professor at New
York University's department of Nutrition and Food Studies. "A physical
addiction means that there will be withdrawal symptoms when the substance is
taken away." Critics of the caffeine in most carbonated beverages claim that
these symptoms can hit hard. And after going a week without my fix, the word "hard" doesn't even come close to describing my soda woes.

However, my habit goes back to my teens, when I first discovered my taste for the bubbly and my need for the bubbly -- cruising through the rest of adolescence on a carbonated wave. Whenever my mother started buying it, I started drinking it. I
littered the house with cans of Diet Rite, Diet Pepsi, Diet Coke. Like my
mother, I too, am somewhat of a soda slut -- meaning I have little brand
loyalty. Given a choice, however, I'll usually take Diet Coke.

Other than a few summers in Maine -- when I was forced to go to a camp that
banned junk food -- I'd estimate that the longest I've gone without a
soda is about three days. Sure, I've been temporarily stymied, but I've
always gotten my fix. And oh, the things I've done for a soda!

When I lived in Paris, I'm ashamed to say how much money I spent on Diet
Coke (or Coca-light, as its called there). At some cafes, I'd forgo the
fois gras and I'd plunk down 25 francs (roughly $5 at the time) for a
measly glass bottle you rarely find in this country.

And at work, I am known as a soda fiend. On a particularly "bad" day --
when it's 10 a.m., for example, and I am already reaching for my third one
-- I am forced to get sneaky, to save face with colleagues, family and
friends. When no one is looking, I replace an empty with a fresh can and
quietly relegate the empty to the recycling bin. (A brief coughing fit
disguises the distinctive pffftt of a can being opened.)

But even my own fanaticism has its limits and one night I started thinking.
Can this virtual cola I.V. drip be doing serious harm? A knee-jerk
reaction condemns soda as an unequivocal dietary evil. It's very easy to
call soda names. Simply take a look at the ingredient list, says the Center for Science in the Public
-- a Washington organization that has famously bashed
Americans' love affair with junk food -- in a 1998 report that derides soda
pop as "Liquid Candy."

But should we?

Because I had to find out if some fanatical group was unnecessarily
disparaging my best friend, I abstained from diet soda for one whole week.
I thought it would be a good exercise in self-control and a chance to do
some digging. Maybe a full week of caramel-colored cleansing would leave me
feeling renewed and healthier. I'd spend that week researching soda, trying
to find out exactly what is bubbling in the great American beverage.

Now, I must admit that I went on a bit of a binge in the days immediately
preceding the appointed day. And although there were plenty of times when I
almost fell off the wagon, I made it.

But it was hard. There were many stumbling blocks. Consider the plight of a
diet soda addict: Soda is just about everywhere. It seems like every street
corner has a mini-market or vending machine. And to make things worse, at
my office, the fridge is perpetually stocked with soda. It's free to all
employees. Needless to say, a workplace perk to others was my
personal hell this week. I felt like an alcoholic assigned to work in a
bar. The cooler mocked me wickedly.

Part of the reason the week was so hard is that I don't really like other
beverages. For starters, I hate milk, and as for juice, tea and coffee --
none of them do it for me on an everyday basis. In my experience, they all
deposit a bitter, almost rancid aftertaste on my palate. Others, however,
contend that diet sodas actually have a bad aftertaste, due to the
aspartame used to sweeten them. And is this artificial sweetener really
going to give me cancer, or worse, as the fanatics at argue?

No. Aspartame, found in both NutraSweet and Equal brands, is made of two
amino acids: aspartic acid and phenylalanine. We consume these same amino
acids in foods every day -- from milk and fruits to vegetables. Regardless
of the source and of the amount consumed, the body simply digests them.
(Although there are some people who lack the necessary enzyme to do so.
For the one in 16,000 people born with this serious condition --
phenylketonuria, or PKU -- foods with phenylalanine can cause mental
retardation and seizures. All foods or beverages containing aspartame bear
labels warning about this ingredient.)

But since 1967, more than 200 studies have been conducted on aspartame.
While there have been false alarms along the way, all of these studies have
boiled down to one thing, say the folks at NutraSweet: The sweetener is safe --
even for pregnant and breast-feeding women.

And many reputable organizations agree. While they are hardly handing out
diet colas, the American Medical Association, American Cancer Society,
National Cancer Institute, the American Diabetes Association and the Food and Drug Administration all consider aspartame a safe sugar substitute.

So NutraSweet is not going to kill me. But what about dehydration? I drink
so much soda and so little water that I worry my blood may be more brown
than red. But with all due respect to Mother Nature, water bores me.

Anyway, there's plenty of water in soda, right? (It's the first
ingredient, after all.) That rationalization was quickly shot down. It's
both carbonated and caffeinated. While there is nothing inherently bad
about carbonated water, said Edith Howard Hogan, a nutritionist and
spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, it does have a
propensity to cause bloating and gas.

Suffice it to say, I know a bit about bloating. I spent my week anxiously
awaiting the appearance of my simply stifled washboard abs. Not only did I
cut out carbonation, but by virtue of doing so, I actually ate less salt.
To me, the two are inseparable. So without a diet coke, I had little
appetite for pretzels or chips, to say nothing of the ultimate combination:
popcorn and soda. You don't see them selling guava juice at the movies, do

But at the end of the week I still had that paunch. And I still felt a tad
bloated. Perhaps my stomach just looks like that. Maybe I should just do
some sit-ups. What's more, said Hogan, the caffeine in most sodas has a
diuretic effect that pretty much negates all that water. (She also told me
that if I really want a flat stomach I would not only stretch daily, but
I'd start wearing better "foundations." A girdle, I thought, does not
constitute an organically flat stomach, but Hogan was insistent that a
simple panty with support paneling would do me a world of good.)

I expected a terrible caffeine-withdrawal headache, but it was only on the
third day that I felt a slight one. But the whole caffeine issue doesn't
end with headaches. Over the years, caffeine has been linked to myriad
health problems, from cancer and cardiovascular disease, miscarriages and
other fertility problems to aggravated PMS symptoms and migraine headaches.

While the stuff about PMS and migraines seems to be true, many of the more
dire reports have been discounted, or have unreplicated findings at best.
In fact, even experts at the prestigious Mayo clinic admit that "if you are
going to a have a vice, [it] is probably one of the least harmful. As long
as you drink it in moderation."

But we don't. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, teenage boys drink an average of three
sodas a day, and girls don't trail far behind. As a whole, Americans drink
about two times as much soda as milk, and six times a much as fruit juice.

And who can blame them? But still, I was curious: How much caffeine are we
really getting every time we crack open a can? Turns out that just one cup
of drip coffee can have about 140 milligrams of caffeine, whereas a diet
soda usually has about 45. So even if I drink five caffeinated cans, I'll
still be getting less caffeine than if I had two eight-ounce cups of coffee.
And these are not the overflowing grandes most people knock back these

But having too much caffeine -- even if it is less than the amount in
coffee -- is not the only drawback to soda. The phosphoric acid used in
most dark colas, added for taste and acidity, can double-cross you.

Here's how, explained NYU's Sharron Dalton: "Phosphorus and
calcium are both critical minerals for bone growth and maintenance. In
healthy bones, there's an equilibrium of the two. Get too much phosphoric
acid in the body, and calcium reserves are called in to neutralize the acid and
restore the balance."

But the nefariousness of phosphoric acid doesn't stop there. The kidneys
(in my case, probably already craving water) must bear the brunt of all
this work. What's more, some studies have linked soda drinking, and the
surfeit of minerals tumbling through the kidneys, with the formation of
kidney stones.

More than "brittle bones" or "hip fractures," "kidney stones" are two words
that terrify me. Having kidney stones is one of the most painful experiences
possible, I hear. They'll bring you to your knees, victims warn. While
there's been sparse research on the precise relationship between kidney
stones and soda, it seems significant to me that the National Institute of
Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
relegated sodas to its "to be avoided" pantry.

So Hogan tried to strike another deal with me: "Why don't you, every time
you drink a soda, also have a glass of water." If I follow Hogan's advice
I'll spend my weekend in the bathroom. Trying to wrestle with a girdle, no

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

I wish I could say that when I woke up on the first day after my diet soda
detox, I didn't think about soda, but the truth is, I did. And around 11
a.m., I opened my first can of soda in one week. The sound was a decidedly
melodious hiss, followed by a joyful, crisp POP. And the taste was equally splendid.
But then something funny happened. I guess I got distracted, because the
next thing I knew, it was hours later and I hadn't touched it. Now that is
surely progress, right? Perhaps the week had chipped away, if only just a
little bit, at the force of my habit.

But come Monday, I noticed myself easing right back into my old
chain-drinking ways. So I sent a quick e-mail to the person in charge of the
bulk junk-food supply at our office.

"I have a special request," I began. "Could we get some diet Sprite or diet
7-Up in our next shipment?" (Neither of those contain phosphoric acid or
caffeine.) "No problem," she said. "Expect delivery by next week."
And, at Edith Howard Hogan's suggestion, I've started to sneak more water
and milk into my day. I now mix hot chocolate packets with water, and if
there is any milk around, I dump some of that in, too.
It may be my only vice, but I am trying to rein it in.

But, at the risk of being an overzealous spokeswoman for either Coke or
Pepsi, I will always, always appreciate the tremendous Joy of Cola, and the
unparalleled taste of the Real Thing.

By Liz Krieger

Liz Krieger is a writer at Health magazine in San Francisco.

MORE FROM Liz Krieger

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