How Can I Stop Drinking So Much Soda?

Got a soda habit? Here's some advice on how to cut back.

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

Soda -- it's everywhere! Even if you wanted to drink something else, you'd be hard-pressed to find it as prominently displayed in vending machines, at fast-food chains, and supermarket checkouts. You might not realize how ubiquitous Coke, Pepsi, and the like are in our society until you try to stop drinking soda.

For some people, drinking several sodas a day is a fierce habit. You know drinking soda is a habit when you find yourself going to the grocery store at 10 p.m. because your refrigerator is tapped out, or you feel like having a tantrum when the drive-through attendant tells you the soda machine is broken. If the idea of drinking one token soda a day is unfathomable, you just might have a serious soda habit.

Why Stop Drinking So Much Soda?

So why would you want to make the effort to kick the soda habit? As the beverage industry out, soft drinks, in and of themselves, aren't necessarily a dietary "don't."

"All of our industry's beverages -- including regular or diet soft drinks -- can be part of a healthy way of life when consumed in moderation and as part of a balanced lifestyle," says Tracey Halliday, a spokesperson for the American Beverage Association.

The problem, say many health experts, is that Americans don't always drink their sodas in moderation. Many believe we should cut back on our intake of the two sweeteners used in sweetened soda: fructose (like the high-fructose corn syrup often used in sodas) and sugar. Calories from beverages make up 21% of the total daily calories consumed by Americans over 2 years old, according to a 2004 article in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. And the proportion of calories Americans consume from sweetened soft drinks and fruit "drinks" has tripled between 1977 and 2001.

"Many people either forget or don't realize how many extra calories they consume in what they drink, yet beverages are a major contributor to the alarming increase in obesity," Barry Popkin, PhD, director of the University of North Carolina Interdisciplinary Obesity Program, says in an email interview.

In 2006, a panel of experts assembled by Popkin developed the first Healthy Beverage Guidelines, which recommended people should drink more water and limit or eliminate high-calorie beverages with little or no nutritional value.

So is simply switching to diet soda the answer? Not necessarily, some experts believe.

Popkin has said there's no proof that artificial sweeteners are bad for you, but because the data are slim, the Beverage Guidance Panel was uneasy about recommending them.

Michael Jacobson, executive director of the advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), suggests that people who drink diet sodas should choose those sweetened with Splenda when possible.

Of the alternative sweeteners used in soda, CSPI gives the "avoid" label to Acesulfame-K, aspartame, and saccharin, but the "appears to be safe" label to sucralose (Splenda). All these sweeteners have received FDA approval. And, in a 100-page report published in Critical Reviews in Toxicology in September, an expert panel said it was confident aspartame poses no health risks. But CSPI believes those on its "avoid" list need more or better testing.

Still, while Jacobson believes "less is better" when it comes to alternative sweeteners, he concedes that drinking diet soda is better than gulping down the equivalent of 10 teaspoons of sugar -- which is what you'll get in a can of regular soda.

And just how do you go about kicking a soda habit? If you want to stop drinking so much soda, it basically comes down to four steps, according to the experts:

1. Make Up Your Mind. You have to make up your mind to give it up, notes Jacobson. Even if you're just trying to cut back on your soda consumption, it can take a firm commitment to make it happen.

2. Switch to Diet Sodas. Gradually make the switch to diet sodas, suggests Paul Rozin, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. "Just make a small decrease at a time, like one sugared soda a day," he says in an email interview. If you're drinking much more than one soda a day, work toward decreasing the amount of diet sodas you drink as well -- eventually.

3. Go Caffeine-Free. Popkin and Jacobson believe that caffeine, and the fact that it is mildly addictive, is part of the reason soda is such a hard habit to break. Look for caffeine-free soft drinks, and gradually decrease the number of caffeinated drinks you have each day as you work toward kicking the soda habit completely. If you're addicted to the caffeine in soda, you're really kicking two habits -- the soda habit and the caffeine habit. "It takes a few weeks to truly forget the craving," Popkin says.



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