How to Quit Your Diet Soda Habit for Good

Frosty and fizzy diet soda may seem refreshing when the weather is hot, but diet drinks have been tied to weight gain, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and high blood pressure, according to an article published by a Purdue professor and researcher in the journal Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism, this week.  

Artificial sweeteners (such as aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin) present in trendy zero-calorie drinks, energy drinks, and diet sodas might seem like a smart alternative when compared to their sugary counterparts, but that’s often a false perception. “We’re taught that diet beverages are tools to help prevent health conditions such as obesity and diabetes, but the reality is, people who drink full-calorie soda have about the same health outcome of people who drink diet soda,” lead author Susan E. Swithers, PhD, professor of behavioral neuroscience at Purdue University, told .

Based her review of recent scientific studies, Swithers sees a ‘health halo effect,’ or an unhealthy pattern of thinking, in regular soda drinkers. “People often give themselves permission to indulge in fatty foods because they've consumed a diet beverage,” said Swithers. “But if they do it enough, they’ll develop consistent unhealthy eating habits.”

Artificial sugar also pulls a bait-and-switch on the body that changes the way it processes food. “Sugar isn’t always bad for you—for example, there are natural sugars in fruit and vegetables that benefit your body,” says Swithers. “When you eat real sugar, the body releases hormones that activate the metabolism, creating feelings of satiation, regulating blood sugar, and protecting the heart. However, when you consume artificial sweeteners, your body initially recognizes their sweet taste, then quickly gets confused, suppressing those hormones your body needs to function.”

What’s more, people who consume lots of artificial sweeteners actually alter patterns in their brain’s “pleasure centers” in response to them. According to Swither's paper, that process suggests that artificial sweeteners may not even satisfy one’s sweet tooth.

The takeaway, she said, is that public health campaigns for limiting sugar in soda and packaged foods should also extend to limiting artificial sugars. Recently, diet soda has been linked to a slew of health problems—the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that daily consumption of the stuff was linked to an increased risk for heart attack and stroke; also, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that drinking artificially sweetened beverages raises one's risk of type 2 diabetes.

But what if you can’t envision powering through the day without your afternoon diet soda? You would be in good company—according to an article published in the New York Times, Bill Clinton, Harvey Weinstein, and Elton John have all professed their love for Diet Coke. Victoria Beckham even reportedly told Newsweek that she drinks it all the time because she doesn’t like the taste of water. “The good news is, you don’t have to quit artificial sweeteners cold turkey," Patricia Bannan, registered dietician and author of Eat Right When Time is Tight told.

“It’s true: There’s nothing like the feeling of that first sip of diet soda, but when you taper off your consumption, you’ll be surprised at how many chemicals you taste if you even have one sip,” said Bannan.

If you’re drinking one soda per day, Bannan suggests slashing your intake to one every two days, and then one every three days and so forth. “You’ll feel uncomfortable at first but you can try various substitutes for diet soda,” said Bannan. 

For example, carbonated water offers the fizzy kick of soda but without the chemicals. “Adding a splash of 100 percent fruit juice or a lemon or lime wedge can also satisfy your sweet tooth,” she said. 

Another option: Brew tea. “People are often drawn to diet soda because of the caffeine, not necessarily the taste,” she says. “Black, green, white, and oolong tea all contain an amino acid called 'L-theanine' which sends the body into a calming yet alert state.”

Also, be aware that many habits are formed when people associate behaviors with their activities. If you  hit the vending machine daily for your diet soda fix, you could break your dependency by simply rejiggering your schedule: When the urge strikes, swap the vending machine visit for a walk around the block (walking releases feel-good endorphins that may quell your craving) or make a point to schedule a meeting during that time so your mind is otherwise occupied. 

Also, try this mind trick: “The next time you reach for a diet beverage, take a look at the list of ingredients on the back,” says Bannan. “The more ingredients a product has, the more artificial it probably is. If you can’t pronounce it, do you really want to drink it?"