I drank at least four cans of Diet Coke every day for years. I’d heard that it could wreck my blood sugar control, boost my risk of prediabetes by 20 percent and trigger weight gain. I’d also heard that it could damage my teeth and cause mood swings, chronic headaches and even bone thinning. I didn’t care. The soda was my treat. I loved it, I craved it, and I had no intention of giving it up.
Then I found out that a sensitivity to Aspartame—the sweetener in my beloved beverage—could be the reason I was struggling with daily bouts of diarrhea, bloating, gassiness and belly pain. It was time to quit. So that Friday, I chugged my last Diet Coke and switched to water. No problem, right?
Wrong. I spent all day Saturday lying on the cold concrete floor in our basement, trying to numb the killer migraine that was threatening to destroy the left side of my head. By Sunday night, the headache had finally started to fade, but I was so crabby, queasy and tired that my kids wanted to be nowhere near me.
On Monday, I snapped. I pulled a big tub of cookie dough out of the freezer and used a screwdriver to break off chunks so I could eat them raw. I was looking for something—anything—that would help me feel human again.
It took two weeks to shake the worst of the withdrawal symptoms and at least six months before my daily Diet Coke cravings eased. My intestinal problems disappeared when I went cold turkey, but I still cringe when I think back to how miserable I was during those first long weeks.
Turns out cutting down—or even quitting—Diet Coke doesn’t need to be that traumatic. Here, the tricks that can make this task a whole lot easier:
I thought going cold turkey would be the best way to get Diet Coke out of my diet, but UCLA researchers say making small changes (like cutting out one glass or can of soda weekly) can double your odds of long-term success. “Small diet tweaks are easier to adjust to, and they can turn this health goal into a permanent, lasting lifestyle change,” says Tom Kersting, Ph.D., author of Losing Weight When Diets Fail.
Add whey protein to your breakfast
Just starting your day with a high-protein breakfast can cut your withdrawal symptoms in half within 48 hours, say University of Cincinnati researchers. Protein slows carb absorption and improves your ability to convert blood sugar into fuel, and that helps reduce cravings, brain fog, fatigue and other symptoms, explains David Heber, M.D., Ph.D., author of The L.A. Shape Diet. Why whey? According to a Dutch research team, this milk byproduct can boost your brain’s production of serotonin, a mood-steadying hormone that shores up your ability to say “no” to temptations. One that gets five-star reviews: EAS’ 100% Whey Protein Powder ($24.54 for two pounds at iHerb.com).
Part of the reason giving up Diet Coke makes people miserable is because a daily treat has suddenly disappeared and nothing good has been added in its place, says Kersting. So whip up a delicious, filling breakfast smoothie that you can look forward to (don’t just choke protein powder mixed with water). Start with eight ounces of milk and two ice cubes, then add your favorite ingredients and blend well. Some tasty picks:
Tropical fruit smoothie: Add two scoops vanilla-flavored whey protein powder, one cup frozen pineapple chunks, 1/8 teaspoon coconut extract and 1/4 teaspoon orange extract.
Cafe mocha smoothie: Add two scoops chocolate-flavored whey protein powder, two teaspoons instant coffee crystals, 1/2 banana and a dash of cinnamon.
Banana bread smoothie: Add two scoops vanilla-flavored whey protein powder, 1/2 ripe banana, 1/8 teaspoon black walnut flavoring, a few drops of vanilla extract and a dash of cinnamon.
Sneak in an extra cup of Joe
Don’t be a hero. Ditching Diet Coke can cause brutal caffeine withdrawal, but with a little preplanning, you can skip that misery altogether. According to researchers at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, substituting four ounces of coffee for every 12-ounce can or glass of Diet Coke that you cut out of your diet can prevent those nasty symptoms entirely. Even better, while Diet Coke does nothing whatsoever to improve your health, coffee is a nutrient-rich herb with a long track record of proven health benefits. Sip two or three cups of java daily, and researchers at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University say you’ll cut your risk of diabetes, depression, colon cancer and Alzheimer’s disease by 30 percent or more.
Sweeten with real sugar
If you’ve been chugging Diet Coke to kill your sugar cravings, that could be the reason you have such a yen for sweets in the first place! According to Stanford University researchers, artificial sweeteners often prompt people to keep refilling their glass, because fake sugar actually fuels your brain’s desire for the real thing. Rx: Sip a mug of coffee or tea flavored with one teaspoon of real sugar, and that annoying cola craving could fade in as little as 20 minutes.
Fizz up your juice
Diet coke is more than just caffeine and Aspartame. There’s that bubbly, mouth-watering, nose-tickling fizz that you just can’t get from a glass of plain water. To make an at-home treat with an effervescent kick, pour four ounces of your favorite juice over ice, then top with four ounces of seltzer or club soda.
Try natural soda
Never heard of it? It’s a natural soda available on Amazon.com and also in many whole foods stores (log onto blueskysoda.com to find the one nearest you). It’s caffeine-free, and doesn’t contain any artificial sweeteners, colors, flavors or preservatives. Incredibly, Blue Sky Cola still tastes like Coke (although it has a much lighter, smoother flavor), and if what you crave is that nose-tickling fizz and refreshing, cola taste, this could be the perfect substitute for you!
Respect your routine
Do you absolutely love sipping a Diet Coke at lunch or crave one mid-afternoon when your energy levels lag? Pinpoint the vulnerable times in your schedule, then make smart trades, instead of simply depriving yourself, suggests Kersting. This is the perfect time to make your juice spritzer and natural cola swaps. When your energy levels nosedive mid-afternoon, reach for tea or coffee.
Have an evening cocktail—That's right. Drink up!
Enjoying a five-ounce glass of chilled wine or a 12-ounce frosty beer each evening can cut your late-day yen for a soda by 25 percent or more, say Harvard researchers. The reason? Wine and beer are both rich in antioxidants that tamp down production of cortisol, a troublesome stress hormone that fuels—and worsens—cravings. Cheers!
A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.