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Making Healthier Choices: A Guide to Quitting Soda

Whether you reach for the caffeine-and-sugar hit of Mountain Dew midafternoon, enjoy the way a Coke pairs with a burger and fries or grew up drinking root beer with your grandparents and still love the taste, you may adore the fizzy, refreshing flavor of soda and soft drinks.

But you’ve seen the headlines and you know that these drinks are loaded with added sugar, artificial sweeteners and empty calories. Soda has been linked with health problems from weight gain to diabetes to tooth decay. You’ve committed to your health — should changing your sipping strategy be part of your plan? How can you make the switch?

Lindsay L’vov, a registered dietitian with Banner Health, shared her thoughts and strategies for kicking the soda habit and making more nutritious choices.

To start, she points out that healthy choices are more attainable when you think about your obstacles, strengths and values. “If soda is someone’s only treat, I really don’t want them kicking that,” she said.

How soda may impact your health

If you want to dial down your soda habit, it can help to remind yourself of the health risks. Drinking too much soda may put you at increased risk of:

  • Weight gain and obesity
  • Insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Kidney disease
  • Liver disease
  • Gout
  • Arthritis
  • Weakened bones
  • Dental problems like cavities and gum disease

Many think they are avoiding these risks by drinking diet soda. But diet soda has its own set of drawbacks. While it doesn’t have the sugar and calories of regular soda, it may change your gut microbiome, cause gas and bloating and make you crave sweets.

Overconsumption of soft drinks can harm your health. Still, it can be a challenge to cut back or quit. Food isn’t just fuel — it’s a full sensory experience linked with cherished memories and other emotional associations. Here are some strategies that can help cut down or quit, starting with being mindful.

Really think about soda

Start by thinking about what you like. “Get your favorite soda and mindfully enjoy it. Think and drink. Is it the bubbles? Is it the flavor? Is it a childhood memory? Lean into that,” L’vov said. That can give you information so you can make a different choice for hydration. 

Next, think about what you might like to drink instead of soda. You might like the bubbly sensation of seltzer, the richness of mineral water or the flavor of infused water or herbal tea. Taste lots of alternatives to see what you like most.

L’vov said she grew up drinking diet caffeine-free soda. “One day, I sipped mindfully and realized that there wasn’t much flavor there at all. It was the essence of flavor. And I was in it for the bubbles. I switched to seltzer and never looked back.”

Look at how much soda you drink at a time and how often you drink soda. It might be helpful to note how much soda you drink, so you can see where and how much you can cut back.

Set realistic goals

Quitting soda cold turkey might not be the best idea. You might just find yourself frustrated, fighting cravings and feeling deprived. Instead, make small, gradual changes.

“The best method might be to reduce soda consumption slowly,” L’vov said. Your body gets used to having a certain number of calories, so as you reduce your soda consumption, make up for some of those calories with nutritious food or drinks.

If you’re drinking caffeinated soda, your body might be dependent on the caffeine. You might get caffeine-withdrawal headaches, so slowly tapering off of soda may make this less likely and more manageable. 

Find a strategy for swapping out soda

L’vov encourages people to focus on what they’re adding, not taking away. Water is a great choice, of course, but many people find it too bland or boring. You can try drinks like seltzer and unsweetened iced tea, and look for ways to make water fun.

“Water comes in all kinds of varieties: iced, cold, room temp and hot, as well as infused with lemon, cucumber, mint and strawberry. Get a beautiful water cup, and you’ll appreciate it every time you pick it up. If water isn’t your thing, you might enjoy a smoothie or an Indian lassi,” she said.

You can also try mixing a little bit of sparkling water or seltzer into your soda. Experiment with ratios of soda to seltzer, squeeze in a bit of fresh lime and create your perfect beverage.

Try small changes mindfully and see how you feel. Maybe you switch from a large soda to a medium, or you delay the first soda you have every day. “It’s OK to enjoy the things we like. When we focus on enjoying them when we have them, we often don’t feel deprived when we make other choices,” L’vov said.

Celebrate when you meet your milestones. For example, if you cut back the amount of soda you drink in a week, you choose another drink at a party, or you discover a delicious new beverage to add to the rotation, treat yourself to an episode of your favorite show or podcast, a facial mask or time to play a game on your phone or computer. That can help you stay motivated.

Look for triggers

When you find yourself reaching for a soda, pause and ask yourself mindfully what’s behind your desire. Pay attention to your thoughts and emotions and watch for the patterns pushing you to drink soda. 

It could be habit — maybe it’s your go-to drink with lunch and dinner. You might reach for a can when you’re feeling stressed or bored. Or you might share soda with family and friends when you’re socializing

Knowing when and why you drink soda can help you address your triggers. Then, you can look for alternatives. For example, if you know you crave soda when you’re stressed, you can take other steps to reduce stress, like deep breathing, spending time outside or meditating. 

In social settings, you might find you just want something to sip on, and switching to flavored water or seltzer meets that need. If friends or family question your choice, you can explain that you’re on a journey to try some new forms of hydration and ask if they have any tasty ideas.

Build healthy habits

When you’re cutting soda, it can help to focus on other good lifestyle habits. Healthy habits help you feel better and may make it easier for you to fight cravings and stick with your goals. Try these tips:

  • Choose nutrient-dense foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats for more energy and better well-being.
  • Make sure you stay hydrated with plenty of water, herbal tea or infused water. Try adding citrus fruit, berries, herbs or cucumber to your water.
  • Get regular physical activity. Exercise can improve your mood, energy levels and health.

Stay the course

It’s natural to have setbacks. Don't give up if you find that your old soda-drinking habits are creeping back into your life. Remember that health happens in habits. See each day as a set of opportunities. Set yourself up for success with preparation, and if things don’t go as planned, it’s OK. There is another opportunity right around the corner.       

“Go easy on yourself. If you see this as win vs. lose, you’ll lose every time. Every morning you wake up with 1,020 minutes full of choices before bedtime,” L’vov said. You can make a bad choice here and there. You’re still on the path to success.

The bottom line

If you want to stop drinking soda, it can be a smart move for your health. But the transition can be difficult. It can help to think about why you enjoy soda, create a strategy for making a change, watch for triggers and don’t stress about setbacks. 

If you would like expert help on finding ways to kick the soda habit, reach out to a Banner Health registered dietitian or provider.

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