How I Battled my Addiction with Diet Colas

I am sitting on a table and trying to write this piece, but all I can think about is that six-pack of diet sodas hidden away in my bag. It is calling out to me. For the past few days, I have kept myself from looking at the cans but today, I am just drawn towards them like I have no control of my own. As I pour the bubbling sweet fizz into a glass filled with ice, my mouth is watering and my hands are shaking in anticipation.

Hi, my name is Natasha, and I am addicted to diet soda.

While many people might not recognise a diet soda addiction as an addiction, my story tells me otherwise. And it goes back to 2012.

Back then, I was in my second year of college. While everyone around me was discovering vices like alcohol, cigarettes and drugs, I wasn’t quite interested in them myself. I had witnessed how drug and alcohol abuse could destroy families and more so, I hated the lingering smell of cigarette smoke on my clothes. So while my friends smoked and drank, I kept myself content with a chilled can of carbonated caramel-coloured liquid, sipping it with pleasure, while surreptitiously looking down on my peers as they dabbled in what I thought were more dangerous, addictive vices.

This was also the year I went to a nutritionist for the first time ever. My terrible eating habits had led to me gaining a worrying amount of weight. So, when my clothes stopped fitting me, I found myself sitting in front of a nutritionist who looked at me pityingly. “You would be so pretty if you just lost some weight,” she told me. I nodded along amicably, not realising at the time the weight of those words, and the biases they emerged from. As I detailed the daily atrocities I put into my digestive system including soft drinks, the doctor took notes and told me how to rectify my diet. But she ended with one seemingly innocuous piece of advice which would go on to destroy my world. “Switch to diet soda,” she advised. “It will help in satiating your sweet tooth and prevent you from piling on the extra calories.”

That was a “Voila!” moment for me. I was worried the doctor would’ve told me to break up with my beloved soda. Instead, I could just get its zero calorie version, and I was safe! Or so I thought. The years went on and my dependency worsened. I would wake up and crack open a can, chugging till my throat hurt. I would walk to college (and then, work) with a can in my hand. Every hour, my friends would hear the familiar crack, pop and hiss, followed by thirsty gulping.

As my tolerance increased, so did my need to consume more diet soda. By 2017, I was kicking back six cans a day. By 2019, that number had risen to seven. At the start of this year, the number was oscillating between eight and nine.

But then the coronavirus lockdown was instituted, and my world fell apart. I could no longer source this bubbling fizzy delight. I began scrounging through food and delivery applications on my phone hopeful that one of them would deliver it. I pestered the neighbourhood shop into sourcing it from other shops. I surreptitiously made my way out of the house to nearby shops hoping to “score”. Shopkeepers would gaze in astonishment as I piled crate after crate into my bag. I kept reading about how alcoholics were struggling because the lockdown had made it impossible for them to get their hands on a bottle. Some had resorted to suicide because they had been unable to get their fix; some had even died because they had tried to substitute alcohol with hand sanitiser. “What fools!” I thought. “Don’t they have any self-control?” I, of course, conveniently overlooked the fact that I too was at the mercy of a chemical dependency. Do not get me wrong—I am not comparing an alcohol addiction to a dependency on diet soda. I am very well aware of the detrimental and spirit-breaking effects of alcoholism. I am merely pointing out my own obliviousness and lack of insight.

Over the years, friends and family tried to get me to stop consuming so much diet soda. There was never a moment when they saw me without a can. I justified it by saying, “You smoke 10 cigarettes a day! How is that any better?” or “At least I don’t drink and pass out every time we go out.” I would get angry and block people out, accusing them of trying to control me. I constantly defended my habit, claiming it was the least harmful of all the vices a person could have. But behind all the arguing, I was slowly beginning to question myself.

Over the years, even though I had managed to salvage and fix my terrible eating habits to some extent, my health had continued to deteriorate. I constantly had pain in my joints, headaches, dizziness and blurred vision—all of it taking a toll on me on an everyday basis. I was also getting fed up with always having to ensure that I had sufficient cans or bottles on me wherever I went.

It was getting heavy on the wallet as well. If I calculate correctly, in the year 2019 I must’ve spent around Rs 80,000 ($1,075) on diet soda alone. But I was no longer enjoying the drink, rather I was getting exhausted of needing it. I had always resorted to it since it was instantly gratifying, but I was no longer deriving pleasure from it. I was also very scared of not drinking diet soda. That probably doesn’t make any sense, but when you’ve spent a decade of your life drinking something every day, a drink which is so innocuous—it’s present everywhere and sold legally—not consuming it makes you feel like something is amiss. It was also frightening because I was not sure I could do it. Could I just… not drink it? Would I be at peace then? Would I spend the rest of my days waking up and going to bed with thoughts of how I should stop myself from drinking it? What if someone offered me a can? I felt like a prisoner, shackled by a mere can.

My wake-up call came when I got a blood test done in July this year. It revealed that my cholesterol was high, my kidneys were failing, my liver was packing up, my heart was in trouble, my joints were inflamed. I saw the report and then I saw the can of diet soda on my desk. It does not really take a genius to figure out that the systematic abuse I had put my body through for the past near-decade had resulted in my out-of-whack parameters.

Research says that the lethal combination of artificial sweeteners like aspartame, caffeine and fizz can make soda—both regular and diet—addictive. While some theories state that a propensity towards addictive behaviour is a genetic trait, others state that once tolerance has been built, the reward centres in our brain are left wanting more and more. Msora-Kasago, a registered nutritionist with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says that when you drink diet soda, it triggers your taste receptors (because of the artificial sweeteners), preparing the brain for a reward which is ultimately not received. This just leaves the pleasure centres in the brain overstimulated, causing you to reach out for another can. Diet sodas also dull our senses to naturally sweet foods like fruit, says Brooke Alpert, a registered dietician and author of The Sugar Detox. “Artificial sweeteners trigger insulin, which sends your body into fat storage mode and leads to weight gain,” said Alpert.

In my case, I was convinced that I was doing no harm to my body because of the “zero calories” tag. But while I was satisfied I did not put on weight, I never questioned the fallout of the other ingredients in my can. Though science has varying results on studies on diet sodas, some studies have linked it to diabetes, heart disease and increased risk of chronic kidney disease. The cola giants have also been slapped with lawsuits claiming how the very word “diet” itself is “false, misleading and unlawful.”

When I saw my test results last month, I finally made up my mind to wean myself off slowly. That lasted just two days before I was hitting the can full force again. So, I decided to quit cold turkey. That lasted just two days too. Then, I tried again. Now, I am a few days into it, substituting my fix with water and homemade lemonade. I am really scared of how this will go, but I am talking about my addiction with people around me and writing this piece so that I can be held more accountable. It’s helping.

In retrospect, I believe that my addiction has something to do with years of low self-esteem, anxiety and stress. I was made to believe I needed to lose weight, I needed to be calm, I needed to be relaxed. I could never just be me. I never took the time out to really understand where the underlying tension came from and how I could cope with it in an effective and healthy manner. I just dealt with it patchily through an instant gratifier: diet soda.

But I am trying now. Every day I am trying. I’ve been “clean” for a bit now, and feel fearful and hopeful at the same time. I sat down to write this because it is the only way I can make sense of my jumbled thoughts. The glass in front of me that I described at the start of this piece? The one that is filled with glossy fizz that is quietly beckoning me right now? I am going to flush it down the toilet.

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