If you regularly drink full-sugar soda, getting out of that habit is one of the simplest ways to improve the quality of your diet. It’s a wonderful first step towards a Paleo or keto way of eating, especially if you want to make a positive change but you’re not sure which approach really right for you. Everyone from the strict vegans to the calorie-counters to the all-meat carnivore tribe can agree that soda is sugar water with no nutritional value.
Soda is also an easy target because it’s very easy to understand and recognize. This isn’t some new and complex diet strategy where you have to learn about and understand different kinds of foods. Everyone knows exactly what Mountain Dew is, and everyone knows how to stop drinking it. Quitting soda is completely free (no special health food to buy), takes a minimal amount of time to accomplish, and doesn't require any hard-to-find resources.
It’s simple to understand. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to do. Below are some tips for getting off soda with a minimum of headaches, grumpiness, and cravings.
Set yourself up for success
The environment around you has a huge impact on what you eat and drink - much more than you probably realize. In the long term, choosing your environment is at least half the battle of choosing what to eat. Anyone can resist environmental cues for one or two meals, or even a week, but it takes a lot of cognitive effort to keep that up. Most people eventually start unconsciously picking up on the “instructions” from their environment.
When it comes to soda specifically, the big environmental factor you can control is availability. Research shows that the more easily available soda is, the more of it people will drink. If the urge to grab a Coke idly crosses your mind, and the Coke is right there in the fridge, you’ll probably grab it. But if grabbing the Coke entails putting on all your winter clothes and walking two blocks through the cold to the corner store, and then spending $2.50 before you walk back...it’s a lot easier to decide that you’d rather keep your pajamas on and do without the Coke.
What you can do right now: stop buying soda. Take it off your grocery list. If you have any at home, pour it down the sink. Even if you still go out and drink it at restaurants or from vending machines, you’ll be reducing a lot of passive habitual consumption, which is huge! This is a great first step to a life without soda.
Finding Paleo/keto-friendly substitutes for soda
Some people just don’t like the taste of plain water. Maybe they had bad water growing up; maybe they’ve trained themselves to expect sugar every time they drink something; it doesn’t actually matter why they hate it. The point is that if you force yourself to do something you hate, 99 times out of 100 it won’t stick. More pain doesn’t necessarily mean more gain. If there’s a less painful way to accomplish the goal (in this case, quitting soda), jump on it.
The concept here is to make the change stick using the method with the best realistic chance of results. For most people, that's the least painful, least disruptive, least unpleasant method. If you don’t like drinking water, don’t try to force yourself cold turkey onto plain water. That’s a great way to spend one miserable week drinking water and then go running back to Dr. Pepper the first time you’re too tired or upset to resist.
For flavored drinks, try:
- Hot or iced tea, either straight from the tea leaves or fancied up like this peach green iced tea or pomegranate green tea
- Homemade flavored water, like raspberry-lime flavored water or citrus and watermelon flavored water
- Sparkling water, with or without a flavor (you can find some Paleo-friendly brands at most health-food stores, or just add a splash of pure fruit juice to plain sparkling water).
If you’re craving caffeine, try:
- More sleep, or maybe a nap in the middle of the afternoon
- If you’re restricting food, try eating enough to meet your body’s energy needs.
- Coffee, black or with non-dairy milk/coconut oil/butter
- Yerba mate tea
- Hot or iced tea
Mix and match substitutes to taste. Make them very available in your house all the time - this is basically the reverse of making the soda hard to access. You want to drink more flavored water and tea, so make them easy to grab all the time.
What about the Stevia-sweetened sugar-free sodas like Zevia? It’s not ideal from a purist Paleo perspective to be using artificial sweeteners, even Stevia, to recreate root beer or Coke. But this is real life and perfection just isn’t always attainable. Most of these sodas are less sweet than “normal” soda, so this might be a good bridge to a totally soda-free life. Think of them as training wheels - if it would be helpful to have a few weeks easing off the full-sugar stuff into this, then use them as a tool.
Managing and minimizing sugar cravings
The one part of soda you can’t find a Paleo substitute for is that massive dose of liquid sugar. Here are some tips:
- Eat lots of protein at every meal.
- Don’t be hungry. Eat enough to feel satisfied and full. If you get hungry between meals, eat a snack.
- Sleep 8 hours every night. Sleep deprivation, fragmented sleep, and poor quality sleep all increase sugar cravings and reduce self-control.
If you’re lonely, stressed, bored, sad, or in any other negative emotional state, and the sugar cravings pop up, try this: don’t say “I want a Coke to feel better, but I can’t have one.” Instead, say “I want a Coke to feel better, but before I decide on that, I’ll do one thing to make a positive change in my situation.” Even a tiny change counts. Nothing is too small.
For example, if you’re stressed, ask someone else to take one task off your plate. If that felt good or brought some relief, why not put off the soda again and try another change - like giving yourself 10 minutes to take a walk and let go of some tension. Try to build a habit of looking for the proactive solutions before turning to sugar. You might find that when the problem feels more manageable, the sugar cravings get way easier to manage.
Tracking your progress...without a scale
Self-weighing is so fraught for so many people - it can really suck folks down into an unhealthy mindset where every half a pound of weight gain is a sign of complete failure (hint: it’s probably just a sign that you ate something salty and you’re retaining a bit more water than usual). So instead of relying on the scale, here are some other options to track your progress and stay motivated:
- For every bottle or can of soda you don’t buy, put the money into a jar and at the end of the month, spend it on something fun. If you never use cash, make a chart on the wall (maybe with a big thermometer like nonprofits use for fundraising campaigns) and track it that way.
- One can of Coke contains the equivalent of 4.5 tablespoons of sugar. One vending machine-sized bottle contains about 7.5, and a 2-liter contains about 28. Based on that, calculate how many tablespoons of sugar you normally drink in a day or a week just from soda. Get yourself a big container and start spooning sugar into it every day to track how much sugar you’re not putting into your body. In a few weeks, that pile of sugar is going to look terrifying - and amazing, since it’s in the container and not in you!
- Get a calendar and mark each day that you don’t drink soda - give yourself some kind of non-food reward for each 2-week or 1-month streak.
What’s your secret?
If you successfully kicked the soda habit, how did you do it? If you tried but didn’t succeed, what got in your way, and how could you deal with it better next time?