February’s Challenge: Giving up Diet Cola

Where I use (hopefully) the last few weeks of lockdown to quit the one remaining pleasure I had left.

I did a monumental thing this February; I quit diet cola.

I’ve been dependant for around forty years, to a greater or lesser degree.  

On its website Coke deny that their product is addictive (well, they would wouldn’t they?) They equate it with a guilty pleasure such a watching daytime TV; ultimately pretty harmless and a nice little treat to break up the day.

I get it. I’m not sure either where something stops being a pleasure and becomes a problem.  It’s a bit like going from enjoying a glass of wine with dinner to grumpily elbowing people out of the way on the commuter train so that you can get home and open that bottle of wine (yep, been there too and now I rarely drink alcohol, or travel on commuter trains for that matter).

A lot of the websites I looked at suggested that cola addiction is simply caffeine addiction and there is no harm in the sugar substitutes and chemicals specific to diet drinks.  

However I believe that my addiction stems from a combination of the two and it’s things specific to the diet drink (actually to all ‘diet’ products) that is the main cause of my personal addiction.  This post is about my personal experience.

If it were true that it was simply the caffeine then I’d be able to satisfy my cravings with other sources of caffeine.  Full fat cola does not satisfy me.  Cola in a bottle doesn’t work for me either; I need a can (or at the very least a small bottle) so that I can get my ultimate fix of bubbles.  Cola in large bottles is too flat. 

Nothing beats the click and fizz of opening a cold can of cola first thing in the morning.  I don’t drink tea of coffee. I don’t like water, or really any flat drinks. The first thing I reached for every morning was a can of cola.  

A brief history of my cola drinking

I used to drink diet coke, but in the past few years I switched to Pepsi Max.  Diet Coke tastes slightly sweeter and has a bit of an aftertaste that I’m not keen on.  However I am happy enough with Coke if that’s all there is (this often happens overseas where Coke has cornered the market). 

As a young woman, always dieting and always striving to be thinner and thinner, I used diet coke as a substitute for food.  For years my lunch consisted of a diet coke and a cigarette. 

I’ve long since quit smoking but the coke habit has remained, although these days I drink it with my food rather than instead of.

Diet Coke arrived in the UK in the early 80s; before that there was a sugar-free cola called Tab, made by the Coca Cola company.  I dabbled with Tab but it was diet coke that really hit the spot.  It was marketed well, often aimed at young women to drink as part of a ‘healthy lifestyle’ (for healthy read slim). 

Why I quit

Favourite coke addict moments that indicate a dependance rather than simply enjoying the product: 

1. Arriving late at night at some far flung corner of the world and having to track down an all-night store to get my fix, so that I’ll have a can for the morning. Not having a can of cola waiting for me when I wake up was unthinkable. I worry if I’m arriving somewhere unfamiliar late at night in case there isn’t a shop open for my drink.

2, Living on benefits and spending my last £3 on cola rather than food; I’d rather go without food than be cola-less when forced to chose.

Reasons for giving up 

I’m not sure about any real health concerns with it; to be honest I’ve been using for so long that it’s impossible to tell.  There are all kinds of links between cola consumption and bone density, tooth decay and stomach problems.  Certainly drinking cola is never going to be good for your health, but I can’t link it to any specific health concerns.

My main motivation was the inconvenience. Right now this is mainly the inconvenience of buying them. Cola is heavy and I don’t have a car, meaning that if I buy cola I can’t carry any other shopping and have to make two trips to the supermarket.  

Also looking towards the future (if we ever do get to travel again) I really don’t want to arrive in a new place and have to track down a late night supermarket as soon as I get there or have to worry about the supply of my chosen drug all the time.

Environmentally coke is not good.  It uses a lot of water and then produces a lot of waste in the form of plastic and aluminium. It’s embarrassing me looking at my recycle bin, jiggling away with cola cans.

Then there’s the money. A pack of 24 cans of Pepsi Max currently costs around £7. I was drinking four a day (I’d cut down already to arrive at that figure).  This is around £425 a year (and that is probably a very conservative estimate of what I actually drink).  

The logistics of quitting

When I decided to quit I had 12 cans in the house.  My plan had been to drink just one can a day, first thing in the morning (that’s when I really appreciate my drug) for twelve days to prepare myself for the grand uncoupling.  I drank my 12 cans in 4 days (yep, I have no self control), making day five my first day without.  

I substituted my cola consumption with plain soda water.  The bubbles helped with the intense thirst that only a cola can quench.  

When I realised that this still left me needing to carry back heavy bottles from the shop, I invested in a Soda Stream machine.  I now chill tap water in the fridge (if you leave the bottle open in the fridge it helps to get rid of the dreadful chlorine smell that is a feature of British tap water) and then I spritzed it in the machine before drinking.

At some point in the future I will attempt to wean myself onto plain water, simply because if we ever do get to travel again I won’t be carrying my soda stream with me.  

Physical symptoms of cola withdrawal

(note these are personal to me, not a summary of what happens to everyone who quits)

My physical symptoms started with itchy, runny eyes, like an allergy.  This began almost immediately (within 24 hours) and lasted 4-5 days. Not only did I feel rotten but I looked ill.  My eyes had sunken into my face and I looked as if I had been crying non-stop for a week. I couldn’t put any creams around my eyes, even my specific eye cream, because it stung like mad.  

The headaches arrived on the third day.  I might have delayed them simply by sourcing other forms of caffeine for the first few days.  

Every morning was like a hangover; I woke up with a headache and it took a couple of painkillers before I could even think about moving.   This was the point where I normally thought oh I’ll go and get a can of coke later, when I’m well enough to walk to the shop.  Luckily, by the time the painkillers kicked in I’d managed to fight off the urge.

After a few weeks each day is up and down.  Sometimes I still wake up with overwhelming caffeine headaches and other days I feel ok and it’s just the psychological cravings that I have to deal with. My skin is still a little blotchy (I never normally get skin problems) but I have convinced myself it’s a good thing and it’s the Cola toxins leaving my body.  

Beyond February

I have never said I’m quitting all together, simply that I’m going to quit for February and see where we take it from there (if you’re going to quit anything for a month then why not pick the shortest month of the year?).  

I do like a future where cola consumption forms some part in my life, maybe as something nice to drink on a hot day from time to time.  I just don’t want to be dependant on tracking down supplies every day.

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6 replies »

  1. Hello Sarah. I am pleased you have addressed this as any addiction can be a lonely and expensive place to be. I hope it has all settled down for you now and that you decide to keep off it permenantly and above all else you feel better for it. Fingers crossed we get back to some sort of normality soon. Stay positive xx

    • Hi, yes it goes up and down. I’ll give it a while longer and see how it goes. hope you’re finding a way to get through the lockdown and hopefully we’ll be out of it before summer. xx

  2. Brilliant! 3 cheers to you- keep up the great work.
    This is an excellent piece, should be a health magazine piece, though I doubt they’d want brand names. I know others whose personality has changed with that very same dependence.
    Well done on a brave expose

    • well I have prepared a different version of this to send around a few mags (it’s on the list for next week). But you’re right you do have to be so careful with Coca Cola because they’re notoriously litigious.

  3. Excellent! Had a good chuckle at the midnight scampering for a hit 🙂 Compliments for kicking this habit, and for the piece as well. Reading it makes dealing with a habit one might want to break seem almost doable! Should I try this with chocolate? I really hope it pays off for you, especcially after reading about all the withdrawal symptoms. Here’s to hoping you won’t have to face those again! *grabs glass of bubbly water* cheers!!

    • yes one memory is walking through Belize City (not the safest place) at 10pm in a rainstorm looking for a shop that sold the diet version of coke

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