When working with clients, personal trainers are likely to come up against lifestyle habits that need to change, one of which is very problematic and difficult to quit: Soft drink consumption. Those clients who may drink a six-pack of Coca-Cola daily or admit to running to the grocery store at midnight upon realizing the soda reserves are empty may very well suffer from a soda addiction. What might we suggest to clients looking to “kick the habit”?

Discerning a Developing Addiction

Addiction, a mental and physiological disorder, involves the continued use of a substance, regardless of the individual acknowledging its negative effects. Soda addiction doesn’t have an official “category”, and not enough evidence exists to proclaim it a true disorder; however, the problem exists for many Americans of all ages. The combination of sugar and usually caffeine serves as a double-whammy with regard to physiological dependence: dopamine release is affected and surges of caffeinated energy are provided.

Dependence on soda can start slowly or come on with expediency. Any personal or familial history with prior addictions, as well as one’s unique brain wiring, determine how exactly the addiction will progress, and hence, how the challenging tapering/quitting process will unfold.

The Science of Addiction

As is the case with any caffeinated beverage or high-sugar content item, consumption elicits the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine from the brain. Dopamine induces pleasurable feelings, the outcome of which may lead to additional dopamine-seeking by drinking more and then, to addiction in some individuals.

For some, soda addiction bears a great likeness to caffeine addiction or alcoholism: while two drinks used to cause the desired sensation of a relaxed and mellow state of mind, over time, the brain gets accustomed to the cycle of regular alcohol consumption. Soon, it takes 4 or 5 drinks to induce the same pleasurable feelings; this is how a physiological addiction develops.

The more one consumes soda, the less one derives pleasure from the dopamine response. This leaves the individual craving more. Continuing in this mode, chasing the satisfying dopamine sensation despite knowing the craving cannot be sated, leads one to develop a dependence.

Soda, Calories, and Poor Health Outcomes

According to a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, in this country alone, calories from beverages comprise 21% of the total daily intake by individuals over the age of 2. The associated health risks with such a statistic do not seem to vary whether the soda contains sugar or not.

Scientists have linked frequent soda consumption with an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Just consuming one diet soda a day led to a 36% increased risk of metabolic syndrome and diabetes, reported by a research team at the University of Minnesota. Studies out of Columbia University and University of Miami report that indulging in a daily diet soda may elevate one’s risk of a heart attack, stroke, or other vascular complications.

Phosphoric acid, another component found in large supply in carbonated beverages, will over time lead to a disruption in the body’s delicate calcium/phosphorous ratio. This causes calcium to leach out of the bones. Excess soda consumption can result in osteopenia and/or osteoporosis, thereby increasing the incidence of fractures and broken bones.

As the body senses a lack of calcium, it begins pulling magnesium from its largest storage bank, the muscles. This in turn sets off a cascade of muscle pain, cramps, and fatigue.

Breaking the Cycle

Anyone who has ever attempted to break a long-standing habit – whether this involves excess shopping, smoking cigarettes, or late-night television – knows the difficulty associated with the process. The mindset must demand a firm commitment, notes Michael Jacobson, Executive Director of the advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). Having patience with oneself goes a long way as well. “It takes a few weeks to truly forget the craving,” says Barry Popkin, PhD, Director of the Interdisciplinary Obesity Program at the University of North Carolina.

Kicking the soda addiction by “going cold turkey” does not work for everyone. While it definitely shortens the period of acclimation, this method comes with a host of withdrawal symptoms which may include irritability, fatigue, headaches, and/or mild depression. Some severe “soda junkies” report a thirst that never gets satisfied with any other beverage.

Slow and Steady

Tapering one’s soda consumption may effectively help break a soda addiction for some, although the process takes a bit more time. Most individuals do not experience withdrawal symptoms nearly to the extent of those attempting “cold turkey” abstinence. One method that yields great success involves drinking soda from a glass instead of the bottle or can.

This allows the consumer to add ice cubes to the glass along with the soda, thereby diluting the beverage as the ice melts. It also forces one to drink much more slowly than gulping or guzzling directly. Over time, adding more ice and less soda eases the quitting process, while still allowing the brain and taste buds a little pleasure. Drinking from a straw, too, slows down the consumption rate.

Another idea that works requires the purchase of a large bottle of carbonated water, without sugar if possible. As the level of the ice cubes/soda in the glass goes down, add a commensurate volume of carbonated water. Over time, shifting to a mix of ¾ carbonated water to ¼ soda helps the palate readjust itself.

Enhancing the Flavor of Water

For another creative alternative to soda, try adding fresh fruit, herbs, raw veggies, and spices in any combination to a pitcher of water. You might also consider purchasing a specific water bottle designed with an inner vessel where the fruit, etc. goes. This inner part contains holes so that the flavor can seep into the water but not the fruit itself. Regardless of your chosen method, allow the vessel to infuse in the refrigerator overnight. For more potent flavors, allow an additional day to “marinate”.

Some popular combinations which might tempt one’s palate include the following ~

  • lemon + mint/cilantro
  • lemon + ginger
  • cucumber + lemon + lime + mint/basil
  • cucumber + grapefruit
  • cucumber + watermelon + mint
  • carrots + apple + lemon + ginger
  • carrots + pomegranate + sage
  • blackberries + raspberries + strawberries + mint
  • grapefruit/mint/basil

Always choose from seasonal favorites, when the stores and farmer’s markets offer an abundance of the freshest produce.

If carbonation and the sensation of bubbles satisfy as much as the flavor, adding club soda, or other mildly-flavored soda water to any of these combinations works perfectly well.

The Final Word

If you have clients attempting to quit their soda addiction, remind them that this process might require days, weeks, or even months to fully accomplish. Highlight how the body needs to adjust its tastes, just as the mind needs time to realign its expectations. They may initially miss the sugar/caffeine “high”, but gently remind them that the end result will feel like sweet success.





Cathleen Kronemer

Cathleen Kronemer is an NFPT CEC writer and a member of the NFPT Certification Council Board. Cathleen is an AFAA-Certified Group Exercise Instructor, NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer, ACE-Certified Health Coach, former competitive bodybuilder and freelance writer. She is employed at the Jewish Community Center in St. Louis, MO. Cathleen has been involved in the fitness industry for over three decades. Feel free to contact her at trainhard@kronemer.com. She welcomes your feedback and your comments!