It’s no secret that we shouldn’t be drinking so much soda. Study after study has linked the sweet drink with obesity and Type 2 diabetes, spurring many to switch to artificially sweetened drinks. But even diet sodas have come under fire, with a 2014 study in the American Journal of Public Health suggesting that diet soda isn’t promoting weight loss or helping people take in fewer calories.
Worse yet, new research suggests that drinking diet soda may speed up brain aging and increase the risk for stroke, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. A recent study of nearly 3,000 participants over age 45 examined whether the consumption of diet and sugary beverages was linked to stroke and dementia risk over a 10-year period. The study, published in the American Heart Association journal Stroke, found that participants who frequently drank artificially sweetened beverages (such as diet soda) were more likely to suffer from cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, stroke and dementia than those who frequently drank sugar-sweetened beverages.
That doesn’t mean you should reach for a regular soda. Other studies have found that both regular and diet soda increase the risk of stroke.
Whether you’re drinking regular soda or diet, you could be increasing your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. Although that’s a health concern on its own, we also know that people with Type 2 diabetes are at about a 60 percent greater risk of developing dementia than those without the disease.
So how do you kick the soda habit, whether you’re hooked on regular or diet?
Set a goal
Fight the cravings by reminding yourself of your goal each morning. Write it down on your to-do list, put your desire to quit soda and your reasons on a sticky note, and put it on your computer – and another one in your wallet so you’ll see it when soda cravings strike.
Start a healthier habit
If you fall prey to the 3 p.m. call of the vending machine, replace your routine with another, healthier habit. This is the time when many people feel a slump in their energy level. Bring a nutritious snack with you, go for a walk, or buy a tea or sparkling water. What you’re really craving is the caffeine or sugar to boost your energy, or a break from your workday. Give yourself these things in other ways.
Take baby steps
For my clients who are drinking lots of soda, slowly cutting down can be easier than going cold turkey. Cut your soda intake in half and replace it with water or another alternative. Stick to that for a week and reward yourself with a massage or a new book. Then cut down a bit more the following week and set up another reward for yourself. Building on success and breaking a goal down into smaller goals can make it seem less overwhelming.
Train your brain
The fascinating thing about the brain is its plasticity. With your behavior, you are shaping your brain and creating automatic responses to stimuli. For example, if a looming deadline has you chugging soda, find some space between the stress and the soda. In that space, you have the power to say no, choose to drink something else or take a break (also great for your brain). And the best part is that every time you don’t give in to soda, you’re weakening the connection in your brain until you don’t even think about it anymore. The reverse is also true. Each time you give in, you’re feeding the beast and strengthening your addiction.
I encourage my clients to try drinking plain water or, to get the fizziness they crave, sparkling water, while avoiding sugars and sweeteners.
If plain or sparkling water doesn’t appeal to you, here are a few other soda substitutes:
Infused water: If you need more flavor than plain water, try mixing in fruit, cucumber or fresh herbs to add taste without sweeteners. You’ll also get the benefits of antioxidants and, if you eat the fruit, fiber.
All you need to do to make your own infused water is to place your ingredients in a jug or water bottle and top with water. You can keep it in the fridge for up to two days or carry your bottle with you and sip it throughout the day.
Some of my favorite combinations are sliced peaches with a sliver of fresh ginger, sliced cucumbers with fresh basil and mint, or sliced strawberries and watermelon.
Infused carbonated water: You can find an array of flavored sparkling waters on store shelves. For the most natural approach, ensure that there is no added sugar or artificial sweeteners in the ingredients list. The ingredients should include only carbonated water and natural flavor from fruit. (Note: Flavored waters that contain citric acid and other fruit acids can damage your tooth enamel, so it’s best to go for plain carbonated water and sip it through a straw.)
One of my favorite infused-carbonated-water recipes is a “fauxjito” (the virgin version of a mojito). Mash up fresh mint and lime in the bottom of a glass using the back of a wooden spoon, add ice and pour in some sparkling water. Just a squeeze of lemon, lime or orange can take plain sparkling water up a notch.
Kombucha: The fizziness of kombucha comes naturally from fermentation, rather than added carbon dioxide, and you can find it in a variety of flavors to keep things interesting.
Because it’s fermented, kombucha provides probiotics that are great for your gut health, which has a positive impact on brain health. Look for kombucha that has 5 grams of sugar or less per bottle.
Iced tea: Iced tea is one beverage that’s easy to make yourself. That way, you have control over what’s in it, and you’ll save money on beverages.
Brew some green or black tea and, once steeped and cooled, transfer it to a large jug and top with more water and some lemon slices. If you’re worried about overdoing it on caffeine, create another jug using herbal tea. Some of my favorites are rooibos tea and strawberry green tea.
As a bonus, the flavonols and polyphenols in tea have been shown to have the opposite effects of sodas, supporting cognitive function and brain health.
Brissette is a dietitian, author and president of 80TwentyNutrition.com. Follow her on Twitter @80twentyrule.