If you follow me on Instagram or Facebook, or you read my blog, then you know I’m not a big fan of counting calories. I think focusing on calories — rather than food type, food quality, meal timing, and a person’s individual needs — is missing the forest for the trees.

Your body is not a furnace, it’s a dynamic living organism, and it’s not going to react the same to eating a pack of Twinkies as eating a four ounce grass-fed ribeye steak, even though they have roughly the same number of calories.

This mistaken focus on the calorie has led to some questionable, and even dangerous, eating and drinking habits. Case in point, the diet soda.

On its face, the promise of diet soda is quite appealing: a sweet beverage with no calories. After all, most people are drinking soda for the taste (and maybe the caffeine as well), so diet soda seems like the best of both worlds. As a teenager in the 80’s and a twenty-something in the 90’s, I felt a strong social pressure towards diet soda. Simply put, it was what young women drank!

But we’re now starting to learn just how harmful artificially sweetened beverages can be, particularly for middle-aged and older women.

The recently published study (https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/abs/10.1161/STROKEAHA.118.023100) looked at the health histories of over 80,000 postmenopausal women (age 50 to 79 years) who participated in the Women’s Health Initiative Observational Study. They compared the outcomes of women who drank diet drinks twice or more a day with those who drank them less than once a week.

They found that the women who drank the artificially sweetened beverages twice or more per day were:

  • 23 percent more likely to have a stroke
  • 31 percent more likely to have a clot-caused stroke
  • 29 percent more likely to develop heart disease
  • 16 percent more likely to die from any cause.

The results were even worse for some groups of women:

  • Those without no history of heart disease or diabetes were 2.44 times as likely to have a common type of stroke caused by a small arterial blockage in the brain.
  • Women who were obese but had no history of heart disease or diabetes were 2.03 times as likely to have a clot-caused stroke.
  • African-American women with no previous history of heart disease or diabetes were 3.93 times as likely to have a clot-caused stroke.

In the face of evidence that a particular thing you’re putting into your body is REALLY bad for your health, why keep doing it?

“I like it” is probably the reason most soda drinkers would give in response, and I totally understand. I used to be a fiend for Diet Coke. I drank at least several cans a day, and I gave myself a pat on the back for doing so — I was getting the taste I liked, but without the calories!

So “I like it” is certainly what I would have said if someone tried to get me to give up Diet Coke twenty years ago. (I probably also would have added a few choice words about how that someone should mind their own business and not tell me what I should or shouldn’t drink!)

Fortunately, I got to a point where I knew that the path I was on just wasn’t working, and I began paying more attention to the food and drink I was consuming, and how it impacted the way I felt on a day-to-day basis. I learned that I was allergic to most dairy products, and had a pretty significant gluten intolerance. After I cut those things out of my diet, my complexion improved, my digestion improved, and I stopped getting migraines.

As I cleaned things up, I decided to give up my beloved Diet Coke, just to see what would happen. After a week (and it was a tough week), I noticed that my taste buds became more sensitive to everything else I ate; food just tasted better. And I was saving money by drinking water instead of soda.

Here’s the kicker; about a month after giving up my Diet Cokes, I bought a bottle because I was craving one (or so I thought). You know what? I hated it. I had two sips and threw the rest of it away. After letting my taste buds readjust to real foods and natural flavors, the artificially sweetened soda tasted metallic and gross.

The same thing happened twice more in the coming months when, after having a particularly crappy day, I sought comfort in something I used to enjoy in my past. I bought a bottle of Diet Coke, had a couple sips, and threw the rest away because I just didn’t like it anymore.

It turns out that I didn’t necessarily like the taste of my diet soda; I had just become accustomed to it. It was a habit, and the familiarity of the taste (along with me thinking that I was doing the right thing by cutting calories) was the thing that my body came to crave. My beverages today are pretty simple and basic. Water, coffee, unsweetened but flavored carbonated water (like LaCroix), and the occasional margarita.

And you know what, I rarely feel like I’m missing anything. Even when I’m feeling nostalgic for my youth, and how it felt to be 25 years old and drinking my Diet Coke, all I have to do is taste one again to know that I’m done with it. I’ve moved on.

What do you think? Would you be willing to give up artificially sweetened drinks for two weeks to see if you can break the habit?

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