I drank soda like a fiend for the first seventeen years of my life. Every time it was offered to me, I couldn’t say no. It was delicious! The tang and flavor of Pepsi, RC Cola, and countless others were sweet, bitingly carbonated, and complex. Every can felt like a miniature fiesta, and I explored varieties of soda with enthusiasm; trying to determine which paired best with mac and cheese and figuring out what would be the best compliment to the chicken or steaks my dad would make on baseball nights. Birthdays, sports events, even just sitting was made more pleasant by having soda within reach. I became so knowledgable, when I was eleven, my dad gave me a blind taste test of 8 different varieties of cola. I scored 100%.
How? If we first consider the obvious, caffein is addictive. But that’s something we’re taught in 5th-6th grade health class. Personally, the caffein and the carbonation wasn’t just addictive, it insulated me from feeling something much more important.
As a kid of a divorced household, I was regularly moving between two homes from the time I was seven, until I was seventeen. In my mom’s house we always made fresh food from scratch, even when she got home at 9 ‘o clock at night. She’s worked in the food industry of New York City my whole life, and the rustic, delicious, and surprisingly simple food she made was ever-present in my childhood. I’d pass up offers to eat at other kids houses or go out to eat around town because I knew that the best food around was waiting at home. This wasn’t necessarily untrue at my Dad’s house, but he had a more convenience-centered approach to daily meals. When I was younger, he lived far away, so commuting from Mom’s to Dad’s ended up being over an hour and a half each way. So any time my dad or I was hungry, we’d give in to McDonald’s glowing golden arches or Wawa’s on the sides of the Interstate, rather than waiting another 45 minutes to get where we were going.
I became a connoisseur of the Dollar Menu, expert on the rotating taquitos in 7/11, and a serious follower of every new release Taco Bell came out with (yes, the Crunch wrap Supreme is still the best), and no matter where I was, there was soda available to me at every meal.
This went on, until my dad found a place closer to home, and we began to eat healthier as Dad got back into the cooking-at-home groove, but the sugary beverages never left. I was an addict. At one point I became so enthralled with the sweet sin of a 1AM soda on a school night, I’d actually sneak downstairs to get one every night. It got so out of hand, that my parents gave up trying to ween me off soda, and my Dad started just packing them in with my homemade school lunches. While the sweet treat made lunchtime seem even more of a psychic release from the uninspiring prison of early high school, I couldn’t pretend it wasn’t affecting my body.
A few months before I went for my driver’s license, I went for my physical. My doctor had known me since I was six, and wasn’t afraid to be straight with my mom and I. He told us that if I didn’t make a change, my Body Mass Index (a weight-to-height ratio calculated by dividing one's weight in kilograms by the square of one's height in meters as an indicator of obesity and underweight) would tip from where it was at 29.3 to 30 by the end of the school year, making me, certifiably, “obese.”
I never thought of myself as a "fat kid"...
but in that moment, I instantly recalled all the sweatpants and baggy sweatshirts I would wear to cover up the way I fit into my clothes. I remembered the way it felt to look down at my swollen chest, to be “bean-dipped” by my classmates (scooping under someone’s chest to make the fat there jiggle, while shouting ‘bean-dip!”). I remembered
the way I’d constantly re-adjust my position in carseats so I wouldn’t feel the softer parts of me bounce every time we hit a crack. That same night, looking in the mirror with no shirt on (something I avoided whenever possible), I thought to myself, “no more. I cannot live like this.”
The soda was insulating me from the self-awareness of what my body was becoming. The months and years that followed were a flurry of intensity: I started going out for sports. I started tinkering with my consumption habits by trying to replace Soda with OJ, not realizing they have pretty much the same amount of sugar. Then I moved onto chocolate milk, not realizing I actually have a pretty low tolerance to lactose. Nothing was working.
This was incredibly frustrating, because even as I began track & field and martial arts, I wasn’t losing the weight in a visible way. I felt a little better after a workout or practice, but I pretty much looked the same. After a few brainstorming discussions with my parents and no small amount of introspection, I realized that the answer to my problem wasn’t finding a filler for soda, it was what caused me to reach for it in the first place.
So why keep drinking it?
The reason we drink soda is the same reason we might choose to drink alcohol or even to smoke: it makes us feel better. The active ingredients in all of these things are highly addictive, and if we allow our lives to be completely permeated by something as corrosive as soda or cigarettes, it will slowly chip away at our overall health; physically and mentally. But how do you stop yourself from doing something if your body feels instantly better by doing it? The answer: acknowledge that the relief it provides you isn’t just temporary, it’s fake.
No matter how deeply relieved I feel after a cold Mountain Dew, I recognize that those feelings are dwarfed by the disgust I felt every day. How am I supposed to enjoy this soda with my flabby, teenaged jello-body being such a distraction? I can’t!
It’s feeling hopeless that pushes people to resort to the easy way out. The “solution” to our problems we can buy at the corner store is much easier to get at than the one that takes a total adjustment to the way we live, but when we decide to commit to that change we start to see what really makes us feel better.
Creating a real solution to addiction takes personal consideration.
For me, the thing that makes me feel great everyday is active fun and good food. Running on the beach with my dog, grilling with my dad, swimming in the ocean with my mom, even gym class! Everything seemed a bit brighter and more vivid after I took soda out of my diet. I started drinking water with limes, lemons, mint, and any other fruits and vegetables that tasted good in a glass. I started carrying my refillable Nalgene™ everywhere, and my mom got a new routine out of passing me different things from her kitchen to add to my water everyday on my way to school or practice. Now, four years later, I’m sitting at my desk writing with the same scuffed, scratched, and sticker-covered water bottle, filled with cucumber slices and mint.
Life can be as rewarding as the things we fill it with. The same is true for our bodies. The fuel for the road ahead is as important as the road itself, so don’t sell yourself short. Put good shit in your water. It’s awesome.