Stacked cases of Diet Coke, showing the familiar red and silver cans. Diet soda can be addicting.Share on Pinterest
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There’s been a lot of buzz recently about people’s addiction to Diet Coke — in everything from op-eds to a TikTok user who has had 3 videos on this topic go viral. More and more, people seem to be recognizing that Diet Coke/diet soda addiction is a real phenomenon.

One New York Times writer reported that after 40 years of drinking 3 to 4 cans of Diet Coke daily, her body began to reject the soda. Only after she noticed severe stomach pains and a new unpleasant aftertaste was she able to quit cold turkey.

Another writer for the Guardian recounted her 27-year addiction in which she drank 5 to 7 cans per day. She also stopped only after developing a stomach condition that her general practitioner blamed on the overconsumption of Diet Coke.

While Diet Coke appears to be addicting across the board, people with type 1 diabetes (T1D) are especially susceptible, given that diet soda is the perfect “free food” because it does not affect our glucose levels. It’s almost become a joke in the online diabetes patient community that Diet Coke is our go-to treat of choice.

So this begs the question, is Diet Coke inherently addictive? And how problematic is it really for people with T1D who need to avoid other sweet treats?

When I was a kid with T1D (diagnosed at 16 months old), Diet Coke was the one thing I got as a special “treat.” To this day, I love it and almost always order it at restaurants because it reminds me of being a kid. I felt a particular ownership of diet soda… that was my thing.

Several of my close friends with diabetes have shared similar feelings. “It’s something that goes with everything in my opinion: burgers, pasta, Chinese food. I need a Diet Coke to complete my meals,” says my friend Ben, who has had diabetes for 18 years.

But many people with T1D go way beyond drinking Diet Coke with dinner. They may be consuming up to 10 or 12 cans per day, with constant cravings.

T1D community voices

We queried our DiabetesMine community via Twitter and heard all about T1D folks’ Diet Coke (and other diet soda) drinking habits. Comments included:

“6-12 cans a day for 37 years. Never had to experience not having it, because that would not be tolerated. I told all my Dr’s what I do and I don’t want their opinion on it. Everything about it is wonderful.” — Alton B.

“Nearly 30 years, and I typically have 3-4 per day :/ I haven’t had conversations [with doctors] about my indulging in diet sodas. I just feel thirsty if I don’t have one. If none available, I’ll do diet versions of lemon-lime soda or club soda w/twist.” — Jamie K.

“From time to time I contemplate installing a fountain and just buying the syrup. That’s the level of my Diet Coke addiction.” — GWSuperfan

“I don’t do coffee, so I’m good for 8-10 cans/day. I have never discussed with my provider and I despise Diet Pepsi.” — Rich H.

“But Coke Zero though. (1-2 a day for me. Sometimes more).” — Kendrac T.

“I was [addicted] but it started damaging my teeth” — Seafoam L.

“I was addicted to Diet Pepsi. Broke the addiction Jan 2021. Tried to stop before, and failed. Some how it worked this time.” — Richard W.

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Only a fraction of those who replied to our query about Diet Coke addiction said that they were able to quit it.

That’s probably because Diet Coke constitutes “the ultimate comfort food” for people with T1D, explains Gary Scheiner, Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist, owner of the practice Integrated Diabetes Services in Pennsylvania, and author of six books, including “Think Like a Pancreas.”

Scheiner tells DiabetesMine that after he himself was diagnosed with T1D in his freshman year of college, he found a particular affinity for the all-you-can-drink soda fountain, which of course served Diet Coke.

“When you’re first diagnosed you have so many restrictions and things that mess up and affect your blood sugar,” he remembers. “But with Diet Coke, I could have as much as I wanted, and it had zero effect on my blood sugar.”

OK, so people with T1D drink a LOT of Diet Coke. But what exactly constitutes an addiction?

One accepted definition of addiction is “a chronic dysfunction of the brain system that involves reward, motivation, and memory. It’s about the way your body craves a substance or behavior, especially if it causes a compulsive or obsessive pursuit of ‘reward’ and lack of concern over consequences.”

In terms of what makes diet soda so addictive, the coaches at Diabetic Muscle and Fitness post that “the secret combination of spices and the intense sweet taste of the artificial sweeteners served in a perfectly cooled carbonated can in the perfect quantity makes you feel intensely happy.”

And then the caffeine kicks in. They also talk about the “high” people get, knowing that they skipped calorie-rich snacks in favor of this “free” drink.

Some people also stress-drink Diet Coke, or rely on it for an energy boost throughout the day.

The New York Times reporter with four decades of Diet Coke dependency points toward aspartame and caffeine as the leading suspects for her addiction.

The Guardian reporter, in her story, blamed the drink’s carbonation for its addictive tendencies.

Most of the T1Ds who answered our Twitter straw poll didn’t address the question about how they feel when they can’t get their hands on a Diet Coke. The drink is so readily available that people can stock up inexpensively, or simply hit the nearest vending machine, convenience store, or restaurant.

Of course, it’s harder to break an addiction when the substance in question seems to be everywhere.

Dr. Jennifer Shine Dyer, a pediatric endocrinologist in the Columbus, Ohio, area, is a self-proclaimed Diet Coke addict recently trying to quit. “I was drinking about 4 to 5 diet cokes per day, so [quitting] has required a pretty big behavior change. I seem to be feeling OK but really miss the taste of an ice-cold Diet Coke,” she tells DiabetesMine.

“I actually am experiencing grief about no longer drinking Diet Coke like I have lost an old friend,” she adds.

Although research regarding the effects and risks of diet soda is still in its preliminary phases, current publications do not forecast good news.

One 2015 study suggested that diet soda increases the risk of obesity across the board — not just for people with diabetes.

A review published in 2019 concluded that those who drank more than 7 glasses of diet soda a week were nearly twice as likely to develop kidney disease as people who drank less than 1 glass.

More research suggests that individuals can face an increased risk of alteration to their gut microbiome, explaining the gastrointestinal discomfort that some people experience.

It is important to note, however, that it’s unclear whether the population that was studied was already at risk for developing health issues. Also, some studies were done in animal models and in vitro. There is a need for more research conducted directly with humans.

Other research suggests another negative side effect that those who consume a lot of sweet-tasting beverages may experience heightened cravings for sweets in general, even if the beverage’s sweetness is of the calorie-free variety.

Dyer agrees with this, saying, “The aspartame in Diet Coke confuses our bodies with the sweetness it has. Although it has no calories, it still requires an insulin response which then… stimulates appetite.”

For her young, still-growing T1D patients who drink large quantities, she’s concerned about increasing insulin resistance, which calls for higher insulin doses. “Plus, the carbonation can be damaging to developing bones and can reduce bone density, which worries me too,” she adds.

Despite all that, Scheiner says that most healthcare teams aren’t typically worried about T1D patients’ consumption of diet soda. “Addiction to diet soda is so far down on the list when we consider diabetes management because there are so many other things we have to do and worry about.”

With diabetes, diet soda can feel like a panacea. It’s a tasty cold drink with no effect on our blood sugar. It’s also calorie-free, so no need for immediate worry about weight gain.

For many people with T1D, drinking Diet Coke helps them feel happy and satisfied, and avoid cravings to snack on unhealthy or unnecessary foods.

“Diet Coke feels good,” says Josh, who’s had T1D for over 18 years. “Sometimes I want something other than water, most of the time in fact… But regular soda, alcohol, and juice drive my blood sugar too high which is when diet sodas come into play. No matter how I’m feeling, high, low, in-range, I know that I don’t have to worry about what happens after I drink a can of diet soda.”

Like with most things, moderation is key when drinking diet soda. Having a daily drink or even two is not considered harmful by most experts. There are a few individual cases of people developing allergies or adverse reactions after heavy soft drink consumption, but this is quite rare.

The good news is that quitting is not nearly as difficult as with most substance addictions, according to experts.

“Most people I know with diabetes are able to stop drinking diet beverages if they choose to and they don’t typically experience symptoms of withdrawal,” says Scheiner.

Here are some tips, culled from various experts, on how to kick your addiction to the curb:

Start off slowly. Although some people can quit cold turkey, most of us probably can’t, so when you decide to stop drinking diet soda, do it gradually. For instance, if you’re currently drinking several cans per day, try to reduce the number of cans each day, one by one — over several weeks if necessary. Set realistic goals and try to stick to them, but also remember that changing habits can be challenging and takes time so it’s important to be patient with yourself, too.

Extra sleep may help. If you find yourself addicted to diet soda, it may be the caffeine you are craving. Withdrawals from caffeine often cause headaches, mood swings, and tiredness. If you are experiencing these symptoms, you could possibly use another caffeinated beverage, like coffee or tea, as an alternative for your typical diet soda consumption. Avoiding caffeine consumption after 2 p.m. can help you sleep better, and additional sleep can help curb your cravings.

Find an alternative to diet soda. As noted, if it’s the caffeine you have an affinity for, consider reaching for an occasional cup of coffee or tea instead. If you love the carbonation and fizz, try switching over to flavored seltzers that are becoming popular healthy alternatives to soda.

If you are experiencing symptoms of withdrawal, such as fatigue, irritability, or headaches, try to find ways to mitigate these experiences. Typically, withdrawal symptoms can last anywhere between 2 to 9 days. They’re more likely to happen when you quit cold turkey, so it may help to ween yourself off soda on a day-by-day basis.

If you feel like you are addicted to Diet Coke, know that you are not alone. As of now, some research points toward negative health outcomes from heavy consumption of diet drinks, but this research is still in its early stages.

Whether you have an addiction to Diet Coke or learning about ways to quit, it can be helpful to try cutting back by having a full glass of water before — and between — each diet soda that you drink.

Unlike diet soda, water keeps your body hydrated. Drinking up to 8 glasses of water a day can help prevent a variety of health problems, like dry skin and urinary tract infections.

The bottom line is that diet soda can be a part of your meal planning if it’s consumed in moderation — so go ahead and enjoy… in controlled quantities!