One writer shares her shocking seven cans of Diet Coke a day obsession

How I kicked my Diet Coke habit: As Rishi Sunak admits he was a total Coca-Cola addict, one writer shares her own shocking seven cans-a-day obsession

  • Sirin Kale reveals she cannot remember when she wasn’t addicted to Diet Coke 
  • She buys 24-can crates from the supermarket to keep the costs of drink lower
  • Sirin estimates that she has drunk a massive 11,315 litres of Diet Coke in 31 years 
  • Now, she has not drunk Diet Coke for a month after a difficult journey to quit 
  • It comes after Chancellor Rishi Sunak proclaimed himself as a Coca-Cola addict

The greatest love story of my life has been with a carbonated beverage. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t addicted to Diet Coke.

Some memories: I am sitting at the kitchen table at my grandmother’s house, screaming because my mother won’t refill my glass. I am four or five. 

My grandmother looks on, disturbed, as I wail disconsolately. My mother does not give in.

I am a teenage anorexic. After a long day starving myself, I walk to the corner shop and reward myself with a bottle of Diet Coke. (My mum won’t buy it for the house any more, because of my addiction.) My low blood sugar makes the artificial sweetness taste euphoric.

It is my 30th birthday. I am at work. My boss brings in an eight-pack of Diet Coke, with a candle stuck in it. I am delighted.

So when a video emerged last week of Chancellor Rishi Sunak proclaiming himself a Coca-Cola addict, I sympathised. ‘A total Coke addict,’ he told schoolchildren interviewing him — so much so that he even collects ‘Coca-Cola things’.

Sirin Kale (above) reveals she cannot remember when she wasn’t addicted to Diet Coke and would buy 24-can crates from the supermarket to keep the costs lower

Although, after drinking so much when he was younger that he gave himself seven fillings, Sunak has cut back. ‘I’m only allowed one a week now,’ he said.

For me, that is the dream. I drink Diet Coke from the moment I wake up until I go to sleep. Five cans on a good day, seven on a bad day.

My boyfriend jokes about my morning routine: wake up, pad to the kitchen. The sound of a can cracking; a hiss. Glug, glug, glug. Yes, every morning.

I estimate that I have drunk 11,315 litres of Diet Coke in my 31 years on this Earth. That is more than 11,000 litres of caramel fizz, fermenting my insides, bathing my liver.

I really want to stop drinking Diet Coke — and not only because I spend £500 a year on the stuff. It is embarrassing and bad for me. 

I get anxious if I don’t have any in the fridge as bedtime approaches; I run to the shop in the night to ensure there is a cold can waiting in the morning.

I recently spent a year on prescription medication for a stomach condition almost certainly triggered by overconsumption of Diet Coke, according to my GP. 

If enduring an endoscopy won’t stop you drinking fizzy drinks, you know you are addicted.

To keep the costs down, I buy 24-can crates from my supermarket. The staff know me and remind me if I forget to pick up a crate. This is mortifying, but helpful.

I have to quit. I quit smoking in my 20s on my first attempt. So I set myself a target. I will be Diet Coke-free. If I am being honest, I didn’t think I could do it.

My attempt to quit Diet Coke does not start well. The night before, up drinking with my boyfriend, I deliberately finish my stockpile, suckling from a two-litre bottle like a baby drinking from the teat.

The next day, I wake up hungover and watch TV in bed. We order pizza. ‘Add a can of Diet Coke,’ I instruct my boyfriend. ‘I thought you were quitting?’ he replies. 

Sirin estimates that she has drunk 11,315 litres of Diet Coke in 31 years, but decided to quit due to the negative effects on her health (stock image)

My head is pounding; only the caramel smack of Diet Coke will do. ‘Order it,’ I say, my tone leaving no room for discussion. When it arrives, I down it.

The following day is worse. I find myself craving Diet Coke in an alarming way. I envisage a tiny part of my brain — parallel with my tongue and upper palate — that won’t become activated unless I drink Diet Coke. I know my headache won’t go away otherwise. I feel horrific.

This — according to Dr Sally Marlow of King’s College London, a specialist in addiction and mental health — is because I am in physical withdrawal from the caffeine. The average can of Diet Coke contains 42 mg, the equivalent of roughly one-third of a shot of espresso.

Caffeine is a medically recognised addictive substance that, when taken in excess, activates the brain’s reward circuitry.

‘The caffeine will be stimulating neurotransmitter pathways, including dopamine,’ says Dr Marlow. ‘Your brain has become used to having a certain amount and, when you take that caffeine away, you go through withdrawal.’

Dr Marlow confesses something unexpected: like me, she is a Diet Coke addict. ‘I managed to stop drinking it four years ago, but had to go cold turkey,’ she says. It took her four attempts to kick the habit.

It is validating to hear an expert tell me that my Diet Coke addiction is just that, rather than a bad habit.

‘Oh, it’s real,’ Dr Marlow laughs. She explains that addiction has biological and psychological components.  

The biological component is your body’s physiological craving for an addictive substance, such as caffeine, nicotine or alcohol.

 ‘The minute you get that substance into your body, your brain knows about it and gets a hit from it,’ she says. ‘Over time, you develop a tolerance for the substance.’

Dr Marlow speculates that the bubbles in Diet Coke may increase its addictiveness. 

‘This is only a theory, but we know that, when a person drinks champagne, they absorb the alcohol faster than if it were wine, because the bubbles increase the area that delivers alcohol into the bloodstream,’ she says. ‘I wonder whether the bubbles in Diet Coke make you absorb the addictive substances in the drink faster?’

She shared her journey to quit drinking Diet Coke after Chancellor Rishi Sunak (above) proclaimed himself as a Coca-Cola addict in a recent video

In a statement on its website, Coca-Cola denies that its products are addictive. 

‘Regularly consuming food and drink that taste good and that you enjoy is not the same as being addicted to them… Caffeine is a mild stimulant, and if you have it regularly and then stop abruptly, you may experience some headaches or other minor effects. But most of us can reduce or eliminate caffeine from our diets without serious problems.’

Then there is the psychological pull, something Dr Marlow knows first-hand. 

‘I would crack a can open and it was almost like Pavlov’s dog,’ she says. ‘I’d anticipate having the drink in my mouth. That’s the psychological aspect of the addiction.’ She tells me it takes 17 days to begin to kick an addiction. ‘The first few days are very intense,’ she says.

I don’t have the fortitude to go cold turkey, so I decide to taper myself off: two cans a day for the first week, one a day for the second week and no cans thereafter. I run to the shop and purchase an eight-pack. My mouth is watering as I carry it home.

How did I get to the point where I am umbilically attached to a sugar-free carbonated drink?

L ike many women, I was cruel to myself in my teens. I grew up in the 2000s, when the body-positivity movement was nonexistent. Models spoke about subsisting on cigarettes and Diet Coke. 

‘Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels,’ said Kate Moss in 2009. I internalised that message completely.

Every girl at my school aspired to be as thin as possible. At lunch, groups of dieting girls, myself included, would skip food to buy Diet Coke, which filled you up and had zero calories.

Diet Coke was launched in 1982, seven years before I was born. I grew up watching the Diet Coke Break adverts, featuring a group of businesswomen ogling a topless hunk. 

‘It tapped into the zeitgeist of its time, which was professional women making their way in the workplace, looking good and feeling good,’ says Professor Robert Crawford, a marketing expert at RMIT University in Melbourne and the co-editor of Decoding Coca-Cola.

In the 2000s and 2010s, Diet Coke was heavily associated with the fashion world. More recently, as the body-positivity movement has gained traction, Diet Coke has pivoted away. But as someone who grew up associating Diet Coke with skinny models, the imprint remains.

I ask Aisling Pigott, of the British Dietetics Association, to tell me why drinking so much Diet Coke is bad for me.

‘It will cause tooth erosion and lead to fillings,’ she says. While it doesn’t contain sugar, it is acidic.’

Pigott adds: ‘You’re at increased risk of gut ulcers, as well as irritable bowel syndrome. There are links between carbonated drinks and reduced bone density, meaning you’re more at risk of getting fractures as you get older.’

Although I was concerned about the health risks of aspartame, the sweetener in Diet Coke, Pigott tells me not to worry. ‘Aspartame is a heavily tested sweetener,’ she says. ‘There is no strong evidence linking it to any health consequences.’

In the scheme of things, Pigott says, Diet Coke isn’t terrible. ‘It’s the amount you’re having that is potentially harmful.’

I join a Facebook group for Diet Coke addicts wanting to quit. I find the positivity from strangers very moving. ‘If I can do it, anyone can,’ one recovering addict says. 

Another tells me she had to get colitis (a long-term condition where the colon and rectum become inflamed) to quit. Week two starts OK, but on day two I snap and drink four cans.

I hide them in the recycling, hoping my boyfriend won’t notice, but he had counted the cans in the fridge that morning. Rumbled.

It is humiliating, but the accountability helps keep me in check. I stick to a can a day after that, but only by drinking more tea than I ever have in my life. I wonder if I will get to the point where I like water.

Now, after joining a Facebook group for Diet Coke addicts, Sirin has not drunk the fizzy beverage for a month (stock image)

Week three: a week without Diet Coke. I anticipate this like a cervical smear, only with less enthusiasm. On my first day, I feel I am going to cry. I miss Diet Coke.

Hypnotherapist and addiction specialist Jason Demant probes the connections I make when contemplating a Diet Coke.

‘Do you often feel like you have to toe the rules?’ Demant asks. ‘Do you always do the right thing?’

Yes. I work hard, I try to eat well and to exercise. Diet Coke is the one thing where I think: stuff it. I am going to do what I want, which is drink gallons.

Jason explains Diet Coke is triggering my inbuilt reward system. ‘It’s a break from the obligations of life. 

What you need to do is find something else that gives you that feeling. What about, instead of rewarding yourself with Diet Coke, you could do things for yourself that felt loving?’

I incorporate small gestures of self-care into my day. I spend more time with my cat. I watch trashy TV. I read in the bath. At bedtime I listen to the hypnotherapy recording Jason sent. ‘You have no need to drink Diet Coke,’ Jason intones over gentle piano. Yes, I nod. I don’t want it.

Something miraculous starts to happen. I stop thinking about Diet Coke. There is no longer any in my fridge and it is OK. To my surprise, I lose a kilo. 

This suggests the artificial sweetener was triggering my appetite for sweet things (studies have shown a link between drinking diet drinks and higher sugar consumption).

Most of all, I feel peaceful. ‘When you’re addicted to something, your brain is always thinking about where you’ll get the next hit,’ says Dr Marlow. ‘Drinking five cans of Diet Coke takes up brain space.’ She is right: it doesn’t consume my thoughts like it used to.

Jason explains I must always be on guard, so I don’t revert to old habits, and Dr Marlow agrees. ‘With most addictions, people relapse when they think they can have just one,’ she says. ‘My advice is: don’t think you can just have one can. It’s not worth it.’

It has been a month now and I no longer drink Diet Coke. When I take out the recycling, it doesn’t sound like a steel band.

I drink water in the morning — and I like the taste. I have swum out of the foaming caramel tide into an ocean of clear, clean sea.

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