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.