Diet Coke Addiction with Type 1 Diabetes: Its a Thing

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?

The diabetes connection

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.

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

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.”

Addiction

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.

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.

Health risks

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.

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.”

Upsides

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.

Tips for quitting

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!

This content is created for Diabetes Mine, a leading consumer health blog focused on the diabetes community that joined ishonest Media in 2015. The Diabetes Mine team is made up of informed patient advocates who are also trained journalists. We focus on providing content that informs and inspires people affected by diabetes.

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