Catherine Gregorczyk says she's an addict -- a soda addict, that is.
"It's hard going out with friends who are more health-conscious than I am and who drink water all the time when all I ever want is a Coke," says Gregorczyk.
Gregorczyk says she even had "a bit of a panic attack" while in Europe one summer, because her beloved Coke is harder to find in some countries "and is way more expensive." She was happy to pay the extra price, though, for the "sugar boost" the soft drink gives her. But is Gregorczyk really addicted to sodas? Not in the clinical sense, says Elisabetta Politi, MPH, RD, CDE, nutrition manager of the Duke University Diet and Fitness Center.
Liz Marr, MS, RD, agrees. "People have an affinity for certain foods, and they develop food habits, but that's not the same thing as an addiction," says Marr, a principal with Marr Barr Communications, a Colorado-based public relations firm specializing in nutrition and health issues.
Still, soft drink lovers will testify that it can be awfully hard to give up the fizzy stuff. One reason is that when we consume something sweet, the taste triggers our brains to release chemicals called opioids -- which make us crave more pleasurable tastes, says Politi.
So why would anyone want to swear off soft drinks? Experts say that, while soft drinks have few useful nutrients, it is among the many sources of excess calories contributing to the U.S. obesity epidemic. Several recent studies bear out the idea that drinking too many soft drinks can affect your health:
- Research presented at an American Diabetes Association gathering showed that women who went from drinking less than one, non-diet soda a day to one or more daily sodas were nearly twice as likely to develop type 2 diabetes over a four-year period as women who drank less than one soft drink a day. (The women who drank more soda also gained more weight over the same period.)
- A study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism suggested that fructose, a sweetener found naturally in fruit juice and typically used in concentrated amounts in soft drinks, may induce a hormonal response in the body that promotes weight gain.
- Soft drinks, especially light-colored drinks, and canned iced tea appear to "aggressively" erode teeth enamel in laboratory tests -- and it didn't matter whether they were diet drinks or regular ones, according to a study published in General Dentistry.
All this is important because soft drinks are a significant part of the American diet. Of the $80-billion-a-year beverage industry in the U.S., about $64 billion is spent on carbonated soft drinks, says John Sicher, editor and publisher of Beverage Digest. Regular soda accounts for 72.6% of those sales; diet soda for 27.4%.
Sales of diet soft drinks have been on the rise in the last few years, says Sicher. But growing even more quickly are bottled waters and sports drinks, he says, observing that consumers are looking for beverages that fit in with their health goals.
No Need to Go Cold Turkey
Soda is certainly not an ideal drink from a health standpoint -- it offers no nutritional value and can be high in sugar, sodium, and caffeine. But the good news, experts say, is that if you truly love it, there's no need to give it up completely.
If you generally watch what you eat and are reasonably active, a soda or two a day isn't going to derail your efforts, says Tavis Piattoly, RD, director of performance enhancement at Ochsner Clinic's Elmwood Fitness Center in New Orleans.
But if you regularly drink two, three, or more cans a day, the added sugar can pile on the pounds "unless, of course, the soft drinks are planned into an overall diet of moderation, variety, and of course, exercise," says Dee Sandquist, RD, manager of nutrition and diabetes at the Southwest Washington Medical Center in Vancouver, Wash.
Keep in mind that when you're trying to adopt a healthier diet, it's not a good idea to completely deprive yourself of treats, Marr says.
"A very Spartan diet without some of your favorite foods is not sustainable," she says. "I encourage people to figure out how to include their favorite foods into their diet."
The Skinny on Diet Sodas
If you're trying to cut calories but don't want to give up soda altogether, switching either to the new lower-calorie sodas or to diet sodas is a good option, says Sandquist.
But even with diet drinks, it's not a good idea to overdo. Researchers suggests that artificial sweeteners might interfere with the body's natural ability to count calories based on a food's sweetness. This could make people who consume artificially sweetened items more likely to overindulge in other sweet foods and beverages, say the authors of the study, published in the International Journal of Obesity.
What if you simply don't like the taste of diet drinks? Here are some suggestions from people who have made the switch:
- Try different brands to see which you find most palatable.
- Serve it ice-cold.
- Try adding lemon or lime to spark up the flavor.
- Take it slow: Start out by pouring a small amount of diet soda into your glass of regular soda, then gradually increase the proportion of diet soda until you get used to the taste.
Even better, try some non-soda alternatives. Water is the perfect no-calorie beverage, and you can dress it up by adding citrus slices or a sprig of mint. But when it just won't do, try:
- 100% fruit juices (while not necessarily lower in calories than soda, these contain important nutrients, Marr says).
- Nonfat milk, which will also give you a calcium boost.
- Unsweetened tea. Try green tea (which also contains potentially cancer-preventing phytonutrients) or herbal tea.
- Seltzer water with a splash of juice. Try orange, grapefruit, cranberry -- even mango or guava.
- Homemade lemonade -- made with lemon, water, and a small amount of sugar or artificial sweetener.
- Coffee, black or with skim milk and artificial sweetener. Try it iced in hot weather.
Making Better Choices
More important than eliminating soda, nutritionists say, is adding more nutritional choices to your diet.
"Soft drinks are bad for the diet only when they replace foods that contain beneficial nutrients," says Sandquist, who is also a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
And if you can't kick your "addiction," don't beat yourself up. Gregorczyk, for example, says she's striving for moderation, not perfection.
"I will never be able to go cold turkey," she says. "The most I've tried to force myself to do is cut back, so, for example, I'm currently trying to have no more than two Cokes a day.
"Eventually I would like to get down to one Coke a day, but I'm not sure how easy that will be. As long as I limit myself right now, I tell myself that I am heading a step in the right direction."