I was raised in a pretty health-conscious environment. My parents were both active; sleep was prioritized; and healthy, nutritious, and locally grown food was the norm—I vividly remember being introduced to, and quickly learning to love, Brussels sprouts at age 2.
Desserts and heavy foods were typically reserved for special occasions, and overall, my diet as a child and teenager was pretty clean. But I came of age in the late '80s and early '90s, which coincided with the advent of diet soda. Both of my parents enjoyed it, thinking nothing of imbibing the calorie- and sugar-free beverages, so I developed a taste for the chemically charged soft drink.
I drank diet soda often from my late childhood onward through college, my mid-20s, and fairly regularly up until a few months ago. Though I was raised in a healthy environment and have always been aware of what I put in my body, I rarely thought about the chemicals my favorite diet beverages contained.
Sure, I was vaguely aware that some research pointed toward some potentially harmful effects associated with aspartame, but I really didn't concern myself that much with it because I'd been drinking diet soda for many years and sprinkling blue, pink, and yellow packets of white powder on my oatmeal for as long as I can remember. I was healthy, didn't drink alcohol, and worked out a lot. In my opinion, I was doing just fine.
But a few months ago, for reasons that are still a little foggy to me, I started to clean up my diet a bit more. I suddenly became more cognizant of the uneasiness I felt sprinkling little packets of strange chemicals on my cereal, and so I started eating it plain. I started to choose unsweetened iced teas and club soda over Diet Coke when I went out to eat. I started reading labels more closely than ever, and I realized that I just didn't feel quite content over consuming bizarre, unnatural food entities.
None of this was really a concerted effort. I didn't wake up one morning and think to myself, OK, self. That's it. No more chemicals. I really just developed a heightened awareness of what I was putting into my body.
And then a very strange thing happened. A few weeks after half-heartedly beginning this experiment, I was at a restaurant and they were out of club soda. As if on autopilot, I ordered a Diet Coke. When it arrived, I took one sip and it tasted horrible. Like, spit-it-back-into-the-glass horrible. This, from a girl who, at the height of her Diet Coke consumption, would return home from a 20-mile marathon training run craving a Diet Coke. Upon that miserable sip, I instantly realized that I had overcome an addiction I didn't know I had.
Now, I know a thing or two about addiction. I have been sober for over three years, and as with many addicts and alcoholics, I've worked through my fair share of "replacement addictions,"—excessive candy consumption, fantasy-vacation planning, binge-watching Netflix, the list goes on.
So, suffice to say, I know the symptoms of withdrawal, and one of those symptoms for me is an extreme aversion to the substance or behavior if I should return to something I've abstained from for a period of time. It's really like an allergy; my body and mind reject
the substance and behavior and I feel physically ill and repulsed.
And that is exactly what happened when I took that sip of Diet Coke. Since this realization, I've finally started reading some of the research backing the theories surrounding the negative effects of aspartame. Not only am I appalled that I put that stuff in my body for so many years with very little consideration, but I'm also amazed and intrigued to learn that it appears to stimulate the dopaminergic pathways (the reward centers in the brain) in the same way that real sugar, alcohol, and other drugs do.
The difference with aspartame is that unlike real sugar, it doesn't provide the full dopamine effect, and thus we continue to drink it because the sweet taste alerts our senses that a sugar high should be coming but never actually does, thus we keep drinking diet beverages and consuming calorie-free packets of powder because our brains mistakenly believe that the sweetness is going to lead to reward. And hence, the addiction cycle is created.
Now that I no longer consume aspartame, I've noticed several other pleasant side effects. The main one is that food tastes better and I've come to enjoy the natural flavors of things that tasted bland to me before—like oatmeal, plain yogurt, etc. Fruit also tastes sweeter and tends to win out over ice cream or other sugary and more calorically charged treats for me more often than it used to.
I also just feel cleaner and healthier. I like knowing what I put in my body, and I like knowing that I'm no longer addicted to something I didn't know I was addicted to.
It's empowering and exciting, and if you are a person who consumes diet sodas, I encourage you to try to go without it for a couple of weeks. See how you feel. You may just realize that you, too, have an addiction you were unaware of.
Here's to continued awareness.