My Battle to Give Up Soda

When I hear a soda pssssst, I think of all the times I studied in high school and college; often I think about certain chess moves. Soda has been part of my whole life. I don’t just think of soda as a drink; it is deep rooted memories and experiences. It was there when I was upset, annoyed, happy; it is often served at weddings, funerals, and other life events. Soda is everywhere and, because of this, it made me feel normal when I didn’t feel normal – everyone drinks soda so when I drink it I am normal.

Soda offers a lot of convenience over other drinks. For the price of a coffee, you get 12 drinks. They are portable, easy to open, and they contain just enough liquid for me to want more (and I always want more). The boxes they come in can be opened dispensary-style and the geometry of the cans auto-loads the next soda to the front. But, once you have to start reaching into the box to get them, you know it is time to re-up.

Sodas come in so many different flavors that Caryola can’t keep up. If there ever was a soda connoisseur, it was me in my teens and twenties. Even now I can still remember the hint of vanilla in Big Red, the tar-feeling in my mouth after a Coca-Cola (something that never seems to make their ads), how the last 3 sips of Vault, Surge, Mountain Dew, and Mellow Yellow have almost no fizz. I remember bouncing back and forth between Dr Pepper and RC Cola trying to determine which one I liked better before I realized I never had to choose. Jones Soda tasted guilt free because of their cane sugar vs high fructose corn syrup.

And more specifically, I remember developing a Sommelier attitude about Ginger Ales. It began when my grandmother on my mother’s side had a pack of Vernor’s next to her out-of-commission cast iron logwood stove. “Can I have one of those?” I asked because they featured my favorite color green on the can and a nice flashy yellow label. “No, those are for cooking” she said laying down a boundary. For years, I never even bought Vernor’s because I thought it was only for cooking. Yet, eventually, I became bold, bought some, and realized the ruse she put up. In college, I realized it was more than a ruse and that she likely had taken a course or two in mixology.

Regardless, Canada Dry, while popular, was not the best ginger ale (but still good). You see, if you want to really get into ginger ales, you have to judge them based on 4 characteristics:

  1. Taste
  2. Color
  3. fizz-staying power
  4. Aestheticism of bubbles in a clear glass

That last one is a big deal to me. I like perfectly clear glasses for ginger ale. Its golden color with bubbles dancing up the side of the glass and the gas escaping at the top just makes the whole experience more worthwhile. I mean, people who like champagne go through this; why not a ginger ale enthusiast? From my personal experiments, I would say the best ginger ales are as follows:

Schweppe’s
Canada Dry
Vernor’s
Jone’s Soda’s version

Such a list may betray my claim to be a Ginger Ale sommelier; but, I still felt I knew tons about it. I was obviously just wrong.

I also remember the Coke vs Pepsi debate. While I enjoy Coke much more, whenever I’d be in a place where Pepsi was the only option, I’d gladly drink the host’s mistake because my enjoyment of soda out weighed my dislike of Pepsi. Never having been big into sports, this was one of my more paid-attention-to rivalries. One of my good friends is a Pepsi guy while the other is a Coke guy. I know if we look at market shares Coke is winning. “Coke has the top three sodas” I remember saying in heated unimportant discussions.

During high school, I remember putting 2 – 4 Coca-Colas in my backpack per day. That is until I discovered Surge, which is the unrivaled best soda ever (see proof HERE). However, when that went away, they introduced Vault, which was equally as good and a near-perfect replacement. I remember the times I couldn’t start a class with a Vault were a little more annoying. To avoid this situation, I eventually started keeping 12 packs of soda in my locker at school.

I remember getting anxiety when my 12-packs would start getting low. Genuine, true anxiety: “What am I going to drink? I don’t have a car so how am I going to restock?” Eventually, I’d buy enough soda for the month. This always was a chore because I’d have to carry in all those drinks. Of course, 2 weeks later, I’d be back to the planning stages because I drank it all.

Not being a coffee drinker, sometimes I’d need that boost. Surge and Vault were my appropriately-named go to drinks. Jolt was a soda with so much caffeine it is rumored to have become illegal, and was eventually pulled from the market, was great but short lived (a google search shows me you can buy it again; however, I’d bet they lowered the caffeine amount). I remember learning about sugar crashes at one point and, like an alcoholic with a hangover, I’d drink more soda to fight the crash. That actually does work to a point but eventually the crash wins – kind of like the Thirst they always talk about in vampire movies: “The Thirst always wins!”

I remember being genuinely happy when someone would give me a wrapped up box of soda for my birthday or Christmas. It was always considered a joke gift but a happily accepted gift nonetheless. This happened on many different occasions. My guess is because I built myself a reputation for loving soda. Some people, at that time, likely didn’t have a memory of me without a soda.

I remember going to my friend’s house fairly often one particular summer – I practically lived there. They often bought grape soda, which I hadn’t had before at the time. I am quite certain I still owe them restitution for the amount of grape soda I drank. It got a bit out of control probably. I remember buying some 24 packs of soda to replace what I had drank but I always made sure not to buy grape soda when doing that for fear I’d just drink it all again. Foreshadowing my eventual fight with soda, I eventually swore off grape soda because even I realized at that time its power over me.

People always talk about how well wines pair with certain foods. Well, soda pairs very well with video games. I can remember it being 2 AM and I’d realize “Yea, I need to stay up all night playing this video game” and I’d crack open a soda gaining permission from that pssssst noise to stay up longer. While alone at those moments, I knew gamers across the country were doing the same thing. A genuine pssssst community, we were.

At the height of my soda drinking I began moving into energy drinks. I only ever tried three energy drinks but they were supremely amazing: Monster Energy and NOS ended up being my favorites. They were reminiscent of Surge and Vault but gave me energy like Jolt and they came in taller cans. This is when I developed my caffeine addiction. The main problem with energy drinks? They work… but at a cost.

As you can tell, soda was a big part of my life in many ways. I really could go on and on but I want to get more to the point of this article.

I suppose the beginning of me giving up soda occurred when I first began to seriously consider how much money I was spending. First, I began by looking into off-brand sodas because they are around 40% cheaper. My off brand of choice was Big K (from Kroger groceries), who makes the addicting Grape Soda previously mentioned. I generally didn’t buy grape soda though, just their Cola flavor and occasionally their Mountain Dew equivalent Citrus Drop.

However, I quickly learned price was not really the issue as sodas regularly go on sale. “Oh? My favorite soda is on sale for $2.50 for a 12 pack if I buy 10 instead of one at $5.29? Sure.” It is pretty amazing how a good deal can get a person to look past the idea that soda companies likely know their pricing gets people to try other, cheaper, sodas. So, they find ways to bring it down to re-hook you. A lot of psychology goes into pricing which people often don’t know or think about.

My first big attempt to give up soda was a cold-turkey style aversion. This lasted approximately 5 or 6 months before I relapsed. The most difficult thing about this process was “What do I drink?” I tried all manner of drinks. It was difficult not being able to replace the idea of an easily accessible drink for me to grab when going out of the door. That convenience, apparently, became a life ritual and an expectation for me anytime I went somewhere. It was the most difficult thing to overcome. I liken it to a smoker who quits but doesn’t know what to do with their hands when they are in a conversation – that’s how I felt.

What was essentially going on was I was trying to replace an addiction of soda drinking and a physical-social type of addiction with something new. The physical addiction is the idea that having a can in hand or nearby gives a sense of “any time I am thirsty, I can solve that issue.” But, without soda, I never really found a drink that was as convenient other than bottled water.

One of the most difficult things to do for an avid soda drinker is to switch to water. I did try, multiple times, to only drink water. It’s like ceasing all use of spices when cooking. The food becomes bland and less interesting. That’s how I felt about water. Remember, for me, drinking soda is as much about drinking a drink as it is an experience. Water did not bring an experience to me and so it was a poor substitute for an addiction.

Another year went by before I attempted again and failing again another 8 months later. I remember thinking at that rate of “success,” I’d be buying soda until I died never really giving it up. However, my third time giving it up was the most successful – a full 2 years before relapsing. What happened was I discovered sparkling water. On its own, it is disgusting to me. But, grocery stores have entire walls of drink inserts that have the power to turn water into a party.

Most people pour these inserts into bottled water, which is convenient because it is a pre-measured amount of water ready to go. I tried them out in soda water. This trick was a big deal for me bridging my soda habits and cravings into a more diverse pool of drink options. Had I not discovered this trick, I may still be hooked on soda.

This is when I began to learn about artificial sweeteners. I looked into each one with a lot of curiosity. “Diabetics drink diet soda; so, there must be a safe and good tasting sugar alternative” was my line of thinking. This reasoning contributed heavily to my relapse after 2 years.

Essentially, once I accepted that sugar substitutes were totally fine, I discovered Diet Rite soda. It is one of my very favorite sodas and likely the only diet soda I enjoy. The can is silver, which is “clear” in terms of soda branding. It has blue and white fizzy bubbles on its artwork, which is “water” in soda branding. It also says 0 Calories, 0 Carb, and 0 Caffeine on the can, which is soda branding for “guilt free.” I literally said the phrase “It’s like drinking nothing!” I had found a drink that satisfies my addictions that is “not bad” for me. (NOTE: I do enjoy the “Bad” vs “Not Bad” vs “Good” spectrum in terms of rationalizing if something is good for you and settling on “Not Bad” as an acceptable psychological answer.)

I began drinking the heck out of Diet Rite. After about 3 weeks of drinking it, I started having fall-off-the-toilet painful stomach cramps. That may be too much information; however, it was extremely intense. But, because it has “nothing” in it, I kept blaming various meals I had eaten. This persisted on and off for a month or so before I realized what was going on. Immediately upon giving it up, the cramps went away.

Back to square one, I realized I needed to create a “quit soda plan” because these off-hand decisions were not leading anywhere. At this point I can say that soda finally became my opponent. It was no longer specifically about getting healthy or paying attention to what I was consuming or replacing addictions. It was about beating an opponent, and industry, who knows how to exploit me physically and psychologically better than I know myself. Here was the plan:

Step 1 – I can’t trust myself not to drink soda
Having this thought has allowed me to avoid soda a bit more often. The truth is without this thought, I probably would drink more soda. But, I like soda so much that I know I’d relapse if I didn’t hold myself accountable. Often, when I want a soda, I think of a large steel shield in my mind between myself and the soda – that’s it. A simple mind trick to help me walk away because when I see that shield, I am not seeing the soda.

Step 2 – I need to be able to walk passed the soda aisle without looking
This was a huge step. Every grocery in America seems to have a soda aisle. Soda sells, so groceries carry it. Looking down the aisle does do harm to me. It forces me to think of all the experiences and memories I have; the soda aisle is a happy place. The act of not looking means I can defeat the soda industry. I don’t see their eye-catching ads and my memories do not come up. “The only way to defeat the beast is to deny it battle” so I refuse it battle.

Step 3 – I need to bring drinks with me where I go or I may be trapped into drinking soda if that is the only available option
Most people I know have soda in their homes and most events I go to either have alcohol (like at a wedding) or sodas on hand for everyone. Soda is American culture. People don’t talk about it that way but it is true. Soda is as American as football, baseball, hotdogs, and the national anthem. I wonder if there are more soda cans / bottles than there are pencils. So, I can hardly blame people for having soda on hand – that is the norm.

Step 4 – I need to be open to drinking soda in certain ways (more later)
Giving up soda 100% has been clearly too difficult for me. So, I picked a few ways that I can enjoy soda without feeling too bad about it. The key is that these ways are fairly rare. First, I believe Sprite is the best drink with Chinese Food and Mexican Food (specifically, the Americanized versions). So, if I feel like it, and often I don’t, I’ll have a Sprite with those kinds of meals. Secondly, I strongly feel Root Beer is the best drink with the chili I make; therefore, when I make chili I will buy a root beer to enjoy with it. Finally, I will drink soda if there is no possible alternative, a scenario I have found myself in more often than you might think possible, if I feel thirsty and cannot wait. These exceptions have helped me quite a bit.

Step 5 – Recognize Soda Drinking has 3 Addictions for Me
There are 3 addictions going on for me: (1) The physical addiction of having a can near me at all times, (2) the psychological addiction of “What do I drink?”, and (3) the sugar addiction that I have never acknowledged.

The most difficult part about giving up soda has been the fact that it has permeated American culture so deeply as I hint about in step 3 above. For example, when I go to a restaurant I ask for a water with my meal. The waiter or cashier might say “But you can have a soda at no additional charge, it comes with the meal.” Declining, I often get a wide eyed look.

Now, I know these people are often taught and trained to push soda because it increases sales. But, I don’t believe training is involved in some of these scenarios. The cashiers are often trying to tell me that I get a soda, not a water, with my drink. I very often get the impression they feel they are doing me a favor by telling me I don’t need to settle. I’m not sure the whole “You know you can get a soda instead of a water?” line is training. It feels much more like ingrained culture to me. It’s like we are all trained to implicitly understand that soda is a ‘better deal’ than water and water should be the ‘second or third choice’.

The point is that when giving up soda, a person must understand that soda is everywhere. It is everywhere because it is now part of our culture, because the sugar lobby pushes it, and because water is always branded below things like soda, gatorade, powerade, etc… It is a difficult fight but one anyone can win.

My goal with this article isn’t necessarily to make the reader feel guilty or anything. It is just sharing part of my life story. Putting it in writing helps me continue to keep soda out of my life and to continue my battle against the sugar lobby. Maybe something in it will help you if you are trying, but failing, to give up soda. In the future, I will be writing about my battle with giving up caffeine. There is some overlap between that story and this one; however, that story picks up where I started drinking energy drinks.

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