“You know diet soda is the worst thing you can put in your mouth.”
I looked down at the plastic bottle I was holding. It was the third diet soda I’d had in the past week, an occasional break from the six to eight bottles of water I drink every day. I walk more than five miles a day and try to eat healthy, so I’d never felt guilty about my three-times-per-week diet soda habit.
I looked at the woman who had criticized my drink. She was holding a cigarette in one hand and a sugary soda in the other. Disregarding the cigarette, I explained to her the difference between what I was drinking and what she was drinking. I cited studies that have shown both are equally bad, not realizing that there were official studies that actually called sugary sodas worse than diet sodas.
I couldn’t help but wonder when things had so dramatically changed. I grew up in the ’80s when sugary sodas were “the thing.” “Water” meant taking a glass over to the sink, turning on the faucet, and filling up the glass. It tasted rancid, so if you had discriminating taste buds you chose drinks like Kool-Aid. When you were out with friends and your parents weren’t watching, you loaded up on soda. The more sugar, the better.
I was in college when I discovered I could save 400 or so calories a day by switching to diet. I didn’t like the way it tasted, but for 400 calories I could eat a cupcake. Sorry Coca-Cola, but I’d rather have a cupcake.
For 10 years, I lived on diet soda. I lost weight and kept it off. I drank diet soda whether I was walking three miles in 100-degree heat or sitting in an air-conditioned office. And then one day I discovered those flavor enhancers that turn a bottle of water into lemonade with a few squirts. Diet soda became something I only occasionally drank.
These days, I’m surrounded by people who would probably tell me even those flavor enhancers are evil. I should squeeze fruit into my bottled water and enjoy it with a hefty serving of spinach and kale. That way, I can cheat death like everyone else is.
The big debate about diet sodas is the artificial sweeteners they contain. The body isn’t built for artificial chemicals, say opponents, and as a result, drinking diet sodas could cause a person to gain weight. However, that fact has been hotly debated by experts. Whether or not diet sodas cause weight gain, though, there’s no denying water is better for us than just about anything we could drink. It just seems extreme to say it’s the worst thing you can put in your body.
But then it seems extreme, in general, to police what everyone else eats and drinks. Instead of reminding someone they shouldn’t smoke or lecturing someone on the dangers of eating processed foods, perhaps we should trust each other to make our own decisions about what we put into our bodies. As the person who lectured me while holding a cigarette proved, few of us are completely free of unhealthy habits. Those who are have my complete respect.