A Dietitian’s Story: My Diet Coke Detox

This blog post was inspired by a tweet from registered dietitian Elisa Zied (@elisazied), who several weeks ago began tweeting about her plan to stop drinking Diet Coke after years of addiction. The following is an interview with Elisa we held yesterday.

 

[Fooducate]  How long since you stopped drinking Diet Coke?

[Elisa Zied] I’ve been clean (and sober!) for 17 days.  Not that I’m counting!

 

[Fooducate] How many years have you been drinking diet soda?

[EZ] Since I was a little girl. First it was Tab, and then, when it came out in 1982, Diet Coke (I was 13). I would order it when I went to fast-food restaurants or at the movie theater. I absolutely loved the taste, even before they came out with the theme, “Just for the Taste of It…Diet Coke,” in 1987 (the year I graduated high school).

As an overweight teenage girl, I drank it guilt-free –  after all, it had no calories! — and I enjoyed every sip of it!

 

[Fooducate] And how many years have you been a dietitian?

[EZ] I’ve been a registered dietitian since 1996—for almost 16 years.

 

[Fooducate] Now, as an RD, what do you think of artificially sweetened drinks?

[EZ] Although I truly believe that small amounts of even artificially sweetened foods and beverages (diet soda, chewing gum, artificially flavored yogurt) can fit into a healthful diet, consuming more than one or two a day raises a red flag. Sometimes I had as many as 4 or 5 a day!

Diet soda is not a real food—it contains a chemical concoction, and emerging evidence suggests too much diet soda may contribute to various health problems. Last year, I wrote an article for msnbc.com about the link between diet soda and weight. While researching the topic, I found that there may be a link between diet soda intake and metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and kidney problems.

I’m not convinced diet soda makes you gain weight—though there’s research to suggest it may. Anecdotally, I’ve been able to keep off the 30 pounds I lost in high school, and at the same time, as my body weight has gone down, my diet soda intake has gone up.

 

[Fooducate] So despite potential harm, why did you keep drinking Diet Coke?

[EZ] Simple – Diet Coke is my drug.

I’ve never taken “real” drugs, have never smoked (except for that one puff of a cigarette when I was 15 years old), and seldom drink alcohol (I’ll maybe have one drink a year). I don’t drink coffee, but will have tea occasionally (especially when I have a cold—though dare I say I put a packet or two of the pink stuff in it).

Diet Coke is my vice, and it’s the only thing I consume that I have guilt over, knowing that the combination of artificial sweeteners, phosphoric acid, and other components that make up Diet Coke and other sodas may someday prove to be quite harmful-especially when you OD on them like I did.

I’ve tried to cut back a few times—once, while I had a cold, I went cold turkey for 10 days. I’ve made up rules, like not having it in the house, only having it while at a restaurant, and only having it during meal times only while on vacation—but I continually broke these rules despite my best efforts. I knew in my heart it would be a hard habit to break, but for a long time couldn’t justify breaking up with something I truly enjoyed, that helped me keep my weight down, and that I got a psychological (if not energy) boost from.

 

[Fooducate] What made you quit this time?

[EZ] A few weeks ago, I saw a security guard at my sons’ school—he was down the block smoking a cigarette. I told him “Now that I see you smoke, I’m going to be on you everyday until you quit.” (I felt comfortable enough with him to half-joke around like that).

I told him about my Diet Coke addiction, and challenged him to be my detox partner—starting Monday, I’d quit Diet Coke if he’d quit cigarettes.  So from that day on, I have not had even one sip of Diet Coke.

 

[Fooducate] Can you describe your physical and emotional state during this “detox”?

[EZ] Where should I begin? The first week was extremely tough. Since I have no other real caffeine source in my diet (minus my daily chocolate fix and occasional Excedrine at that time of the month), being off caffeine definitely took its toll on my energy level.

I was walking like a Zombie every day. I practically fell asleep on my friend’s sofa when I stopped over at her apartment one day before picking up my son at school. I was so tired by the end of the day I’d fall asleep close to 10 (usually I go to bed closer to 11). Fortunately, after about day 8 or 9, my energy level lifted somewhat.

I’m sure continuing my usual exercise routine helped on that end. But during the second week, my weight started to creep up – about a pound or two over the high end of my 2-3 pound range. I started to wonder if giving up Diet Coke would slow down my metabolism (because of the lack of caffeine), make me eat more, or both.

Would I gain more weight? I’m not a calorie counter but started to pay a little more attention to those in-between meal nibbles here and there—a piece of chocolate, a few nuts, a piece of fruit—and tried to make sure I was eating like I usually did (if not a few bites less).

I’m happy to say that my weight has been back to normal this last week. I do weigh myself daily, which has always kept me in check and has helped me keep weight off for many years. I don’t recommend daily weigh-ins for everyone, but it’s something that has helped me with long-term weight management.

But the biggest effect of my Diet Coke detox has been missing the companionship I had with Diet Coke. I realize that sounds silly, but I have missed picking up a bottle on my way home from my almost daily power walk, I miss sipping it at my desk while working, I miss having it when I watch my son’s basketball practices, I miss having it when I eat out. This past week, I had a cocktail party at our apartment and went to a bar mitzvah. In the past, I would have had a Diet Coke in hand at all times, but now instead drink water!!

Interestingly, in the 17 days since I gave up diet Coke, I’ve only craved the actual taste of Diet Coke just once, yesterday, but other than that have not missed drinking it! I guess maybe I just miss knowing I can have one if I want to—though I know that if I decide to, of course I can!

 

[Fooducate] What’s with the tweeting about the detox? 

[EZ] once I decided to give up diet coke, I took to twitter and FB. I thought putting it out there would make me accountable. And it has. I even have a sort-of virtual support group, and have used the hashtags #smallchanges and #nomoredietcoke in many communications about my progress.

I’m sure the Diet Coke people hate me, but I hope they know I’m not a hater..I will always have a special place in my heart for Diet Coke. But I just may not have a special place in my gut for it!! :)

 

[Fooducate] What would you recommend other people who contemplate quitting diet drinks do?

[EZ] I’d say only give it up if you are really ready to, and if you truly want to. If it’s only an occasional indulgence, I’m not sure there’s any real reason to give it up (unless you have a medical condition and have been advised to forego caffeinated or artificially sweetened beverages).

If, however, you consume several cans of any combination of diet soda, or other artificially sweetened beverages (like diet iced tea or energy drinks), it’s wise and prudent to cut back. Going cold turkey may be an option, but if you want to minimize headaches or other side effects, a more gradual cutback may work better for you. Maybe you can cut one can a day each week until you’re down to 12 ounces (the amount in a regular-sized can) each day, and it’s probably a good idea to have it at the same time every day, preferably early in the day to minimize effects caffeine later in the day have on your sleep.

You can buy smaller can or bottle sizes and vow to not keep it in the house, and you can choose instead seltzer with a splash of 100 percent fruit juice, have some unsweetened iced tea. If you’re looking to curb caffeine, replace your caffeinated diet sodas with caffeine-free versions. For me, cutting out Diet Coke was more about cutting back on artificial sweeteners and chemicals—it wasn’t about foregoing caffeine, which can be OK for most at levels of around  200 or 300 milligrams per day.

 

[Fooducate] So far so good, any chance you’ll relapse?

[EZ] Never say never! I have relapsed before. But for now, I’m not planning on going back any time soon—and I’m not a hater! Until it’s proven to be really harmful, I’m not going to tell consumers to stop drinking diet soda altogether—especially if it’s a once-in-a-while thing. But in all honesty, for me, I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to have a Diet Coke once-in-a-while (eg on my birthday or at a Yankee game) without getting hooked on it altogether again.

 

[Fooducate]  Which is better for once in a month –  a regular coke or a diet coke?

[EZ] If it’s once a month, I have no problem with either. They both have pros and cons. The important point is that one should look at the overall quality of their diets and decide what works best for them to help them achieve and maintain optimal health and a healthy weight. That’s what I’ve done, and it works for me, at least for now. I know that I’m healthier with no Diet Coke, especially because I’m drinking tons of plain water instead.

 

Elisa Zied, MS, RD, CDN is the founder/president of Zied Health Communications, LLC, based in New York City. She’s a registered dietitian and the author of Nutrition At Your Fingertips, and coauthor of Feed Your Family Right & So What Can I Eat. Visit her at elisazied.com

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  • Helen

    I’ve been addicted to Diet Coke for about 20 years. I used to drink tea in the morning and diet coke the rest of the day. This January 2 years ago, I quit cold turkey, after my dentist became worried about my teeth. He asked me if I drank a lot of soda, and when I confirmed this, he said it was basically melting my teeth. After that comment, I did a little research and learned all the bad things about diet coke. Before that I thought pretty much the same as everyone else: it’s got no calories, so it can’t be bad, right? Quitting diet coke is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. The first month was tough, but after that it became easy, and I felt so much better: I had much more energy! Oh yeah, and my dentist was very happy last year when I told him I’d quit! Now I drink tea during the day (black, green and herbal teas) and club soda (carbonated water) during the evening and that works for me. So hang in there, Elisa…give it a month or two and you’ll be just fine!

  • http://www.theprofessionalpalate.com Regan @The Professional Palate

    So happy that Elisa has gone public with this. I kicked the can earlier this year (my addiction was a split b/n Coke Zero & Diet Dr Pepper). It was very, very tough… even at 1 month out I still felt like it was a struggle. But I’m happily diet soda free now for about 6 months. I realized that what I craved about soda, was not the actual taste. For me, it was the “fizz.” I now happily substitute club soda, sometimes with a lime wedge. And very truthfully, if I had them both in front of me right now, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose the club soda. The taste of a diet soda or even a regular soda just isn’t appealing to me any more… either too sweet or too artificial. 

    My main motivator – my kids. I have a 5 yr old and an almost 2 yr old. Neither child has ever had soda, and I want to keep it that way as long as I can. As an RD, I know this for certain – you (the Mom or the Dad) are the biggest predictor of what your child will eat/drink. I knew if they saw me order Diet Dr Pepper with every meal, they were going to want to do the same. 

    • Jada

      Same with me! I’ve been soda free for two weeks now and though it’s a struggle I also have noticed I really only enjoy the “fizz” of soda. Most soda I drink I actually don’t like the taste lol. But it’s still hard cause even as I type I’m like I need it, I need it I need it. Hopefully as time goes on these urges will fade. Any soda addicts out there struugling you can do it!! Don’t give in :)

      P.S. To all the ones who say this is not an addiction you haven’t felt the breathless feeling of needing to take just a sip of it, you haven’t became figidety & unfocused because you wanted it so bad, you haven’t felt the need in the pit of your stomach. So please don’t judge something you know nothing about :)

  • Ben

    “Until it’s proven to be really harmful, I’m not going to tell consumers to stop drinking diet soda altogether…”  This statement, when you stop and consider it, is totally illogical.  Not to pick on Elisa here because most of us apply this logic to sunscreens and water bottles and everything else we use without even thinking about it, but seriously, “until it’s proven to be really harmful”?  When you consider how important health and well-being is to all of us, a better approach might be: until something is proven not to be really harmful, the best advice is that it be avoided.

    • Elisa

      Hi Ben, I replied to Silvagirl17 with my response to your comment below.

  • Ben

    “Until it’s proven to be really harmful, I’m not going to tell consumers to stop drinking diet soda altogether…”  This statement, when you stop and consider it, is totally illogical.  Not to pick on Elisa here because most of us apply this logic to sunscreens and water bottles and everything else we use without even thinking about it, but seriously, “until it’s proven to be really harmful”?  When you consider how important health and well-being is to all of us, a better approach might be: until something is proven not to be really harmful, the best advice is that it be avoided.

  • Cartoonguy_99

    Drank it for 20 years. Believed the bullsh…er hype and quit for a year. No discernible quality of life/health benefit from drinking nothing but water. Drink my Diet daily now. No discernible quality of life/health problems.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=725525204 Jim Cooper

    But you have presented no scientific evidence for your hypothesis. No evidence of addictive properties, no evidence it causes any health problems, and as you note in your linked article, no evidence it causes weight gain. So this confessional seems a but pointless.

    • John D. O’Brien

      Seek elsewhere. The data IS available. You’ll need to look for it.

  • Silvagirl17

    No offense, but I would never pay to see this dietician. Someone trained/educated in the field of nutrition but who still uses artificial sweeteners has perhaps not continued her education and research. Props to her for detoxing from Diet Coke. But there is so much research available that proves artificial sweeteners are harmful. It’s a bit hypocritical to preach nutrition to your clients when you don’t follow best practices yourself.

    • Elisa

      no offense taken–well maybe a little. I eat a very ehalthy overall diet, exercise and am extremely active just about every day, and yes- do enjoy my indulgences. I do not drink alcohol or coffee. Nutritional science is an evolving science. Some RDs and other health experts advocate butter over margarine, some say to avoid both, some say to choose only organic food over conventionally produced and the list goes on and on. We all take what the science and evidence shows, and then make decisions about how to take that into account in our personal and professional lives. If you dissect each and every food and make all your decisions about that, chances are you’ll have little left to eat and will take all the fun and other aspects out of the eating experience–which is not just about nourishment. I have what I feel is a balanced approach to nutrition–both in the choicies I make for myself and in how I raise my children. I am at a healthy body weight and am active and fit as is the rest of my immediate family, and I’m sorry that my brutal honesty makes you judge me as a practitioner. You’re entitled to your opinion but I assure you that anyone would find fault with the eating or other habits of anyone willing to share their story. I won’t retract my statement because, again, I’m not convinced until I see more research that artificial sweeteners can’t be a small part of people’s diets if they choose them. Of course moderate intake would, in my opinion, be ideal, and because my Diet Coke habit was not a moderate one, I chose to give it up altogether.
      I do appreciate your comment and don’t mean to sound defensive, but I stand behind my statement. And by the way, today is Day 20 with no diet coke OR artificially sweetened foods or beverages. :)

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  • Crystalnjosh2011

    I am a true diet pepsi addict. I switched from regular to diet 10 years ago and it has helped maintain my weight. But I started to notice my face started breaking out with cysts that would stick around for months. Proactive, medicated cream, pills, etc nothing was working to clear it up. But over the last 2 weeks my face has cleared. But then I slipped and drank a diet pepsi…… I broke out again that night. So I guess i found my problem.

    • Crystalnjosh2011

      I forgot to mention that I stopped drinking it for 2 weeks and was only drinking unsweet tea.

    • Crystalnjosh2011

      I forgot to mention that I stopped drinking it for 2 weeks and was only drinking unsweet tea.

  • Cindy

    Since I am writing on this site it’s because I am a diet coke drinker and have been for about 10 years. I am concerned about the artificial sweetener. I switched ti caffeine free diet coke and had no problem with side effects but I love the carbonation and it curbs my appetite. I quit smoking 7 years ago, cold turkey so I figure I can quit this, too. My last vice! Like cigarettes, diet has been my buddy but a true buddy is a danger so. . .bye, bye diet coke! Even if there is no proof that aspartame can have unhealthy effects on the body, why take the chance? I know this will not be easy but I know I can do it.

  • Cindy

    Sorry for the typos! I MEANT to say true buddies are NOT a danger! :)

  • MeHauf

    This is pathetic. 4 or 5 diet cokes a day is an addiction? Hey Lady, there are people out there with REAL addictions.   How about a liter of Wild Turkey a day, or some Methamphetamine. What you have is some sort of weird guilty conscience over doing anything that gives you pleasure.   And as for the evidence that people who drink diet soda are more prone to strokes and heart attacks, maybe its because they are FATTER than the rest of the population.  Oh, how was mislead with lame statistics.

    • John D. O’Brien

      If you believe that you can’t live without it, then yeah, it’s an addiction. Oh, how we Fail at reading comprehension.

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  • http://www.sotari.com/shopping/mango-peach.php Diet Drinks

    I have some health problem of weight so thanks for your article 

  • Kims

    Thank you so much for sharing. I too have ” quit” diet coke- 4 times with each pregnancy and nursing, only to welcome my love back with a vengeance every time. I can drink a whole 2 liter a day, tried not having it in The house, but then forget and it comes home in the groceries. ( sigh). I think I will challenge a friend, as I am very competitive and perhaps will be able to stay away THIS time.
    Again, thanks for letting me know I’m not alone!!!

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  • Larry

    I decided there was more to life than soda. So I quit. After 1 day, I had really bad headaches and then realized something was wrong. I searched the internet and saw that the feelings I was having were withdrawal. I never thought I had a soda “problem”, and now realize that if you drink something that eventually gives you withdrawal symptoms when you stop drinking it, why drink it? I am disgusted at the fact that I ever drank the stuff altogether…

  • Ava

    Ya that’s what they say about it right now. Like when they told us not to eat eggs because they were bad for you and then changed their minds and now it’s ok. Please, it’s all ridiculous. Nothing in this world will ever make me stop drinking Diet Coke. I live on that stuff and its the only thing I drink 24/7.

  • Heather

    Congrats!!) I gave up Diet Coke two weeks ago and I agree; only give it up if you want to because otherwise you’re setting yourself up for failure. The first few days I had “withdrawal”: slight headache with waves sound in my head (Like listening to the ocean in a seashell), somewhat tired and unfocused, but I never ‘craved’ wanting a Diet Coke once I decided to leave it. I drink lots of water, fresh squeezed oj, and skim milk, all of which are better for me. I didi this for myself and somewhat to be a role model for my children as they have fallen into some ‘bad habits’. Now, I can relate as they give up their unhelathy choices. :) Go go girl!

  • Joanne Boudrias

    I realize this is old, but I’m reading it now, and it just comes off as a big fat endorsement for Diet Coke. If you didn’t think it was harmful, why even give it up? BS. You talk about possible links to health problems, then turn around and basically call them unsubstantiated. What gives? Do you actually sell aspartame? ‘I’m a registered dietitian taking the pink stuff in my tea’. ‘I’m quitting Diet Coke, so here’s all the things I love about it!’