Having worked in marketing most of my adult life, I knew Coca Cola professionally as one of the greatest marketing machines in the world. And personally as my best friend. Created in 1886, Coca Cola was originally sold in pharmacies, and developed by a pharmacist, so why are there questions around the health implications of the drink? Well, my own experience is what has driven me to doubt this thirst quencher. Coca Cola is a household name, but the more you start to look into the empirical and clinical evidence, the more you wish you'd never fallen down the rabbit hole.
Before we get lost in the health implications of my Diet Coke habit, let's rewind a bit and take a look at how it started.
Growing up, fizzy drinks were really just for special occasions. Not something I had often, and not something I craved. It was at university that I started to drink Diet Coke. As someone who doesn't like the taste of coffee or black tea, Diet Coke was really my only source of caffeine. It saw me through long nights studying, and was the only thing that could make the taste of rum palatable to me on a night out. At this point in time, my relationship with Diet Coke was simply win win.
I had always been active, but I really got into working out at university, and would run for 2 hours on the treadmill at the gym on a Saturday in training for half marathons. Not surprisingly, I lost quite a bit of weight with my new exercise regime, and started to pay more attention to what I ate. Within a few months, I was eating 1000 calories a day, and not compensating for the hours of exercise I was doing. I was in the best shape of my life, had lost a stone and Diet Coke fit into my life like a long lost friend - no calories, a sweet taste, and an appetite suppressant. What could go wrong?
Fast forward to my first job in a big office in London and I was feeling pretty pleased with myself. A great job, a fancy flat, and skinny thighs. The tiredness of long nights studying was soon eclipsed by long days working, but I loved it. Often I would be working until midnight, and, as my adult taste for coffee hadn't kicked in, Diet Coke was all I had.
I would have a can as soon as I got to work, and several times during the day. But with all the advertising of Diet Coke being the ideal accessory for a 20-something working woman, I felt right at home.
My job left little time to exercise, though, and more and more sugar was creeping into my diet to keep my energy levels up. Even on weekends after a chance to catch up on some sleep, I needed Diet Coke to pick me up in the afternoons thanks to the sugar roller coaster I was on. I still managed not to overeat, though, so wasn't really gaining weight, but the percentage of my diet that was pure sugar was getting scarily high.
I soon felt the effects of this with bad skin, bloating and depression. And at the same time, my personal life seemed to be falling apart, but with my thighs still skinny, I didn't have the motivation or time to change my ways.
My next London job was far less hectic but my bad habits were already in place. I now had time to focus on my exercise regime and worked on toning up. I still couldn't ditch the sugar, though, and my behaviour was more and more resembling that of an addict. A typical day? No breakfast because I was atoning for my sins of the night before. Lunch would a soup or salad but by mid-afternoon the deprivation would take it's toll and I would snack on ice cream, doughnuts, chocolate and pastries. Dinner I would try and skip but it wouldn't be long before I would be eating Nutella out of the jar.
Despite working out 4 times a week, I was gaining weight. I was a stone heavier than before I started dieting at university, and two stone heavier than the weight I was when I left university. And my Diet Coke habit was getting worse too. I was up to at least 4 cans a day and it all seemed a little less glamorous than the adverts made out. I began to question if it wasn't a little dangerous just how much I needed it.
Worse still, I was getting ill. Seriously ill. I had to pull out of the marathon I was training for as I couldn't shake a viral infection. I was 'under the weather' for months at a time. It got to the point where I would pass out asleep as soon as I got home from work everyday. I started to see a counsellor to help me with the difficulties in my personal life, and she tried to help me eat properly, but I couldn't give up the dieting and would lie in my food diaries about just how little I was eating overall, and just how much of my diet was sugar. I didn't even dare write the words 'Diet Coke' on there.
I tried over and over again to give up sugar, but I was trapped. I was addicted. It took me a long time to reach the conclusion that was starring me in the face. The sugar was the symptom, not the cause. I knew it was a way to numb the emotional pain but that's not what made it addictive. The crux I had held onto for years now, the Diet Coke, was not my best friend. It was that friend who makes you do things you really regret doing later. It had to go. I decided to give it up then and there.
So I did. And yes it was hard. But that just proved to me how addicted I really was. I vowed never to have it again. Not a sip, not as a mixer, not in a dessert. Nothing. And I haven't.
It took a long time to clean up the rest of the mess I had made of my body. The binge eating, the yo-yo dieting, the nutritional deficiencies, the depression, the anxiety, the complete lack of self confidence and self belief. But I did it. I had tried to give up sugar before, but without Diet Coke it was a whole lot easier.
I had been kidding myself that Diet Coke was sugar free and so had nothing to do with my increasing addiction to sugar. But the artificial sweeteners in Diet Coke are far worse than sugar in my opinion. There are plenty of studies out there, but the most important one to me is the study I put my own body through. And the results? The aspartame in Diet Coke is addictive and dangerous.
I remember reading that our bodies don't get on with artificial sweeteners because our brains can't make sense of the sweet taste without the calories to accompany it, so go in search of food to compensate. I read that and I actually thought to myself: 'That's for people with no willpower'. I thought I could out-smart the chemical response of my brain. Two stone of weight gain says I couldn't.
So where am I now? I'm back to the weight I was before any of this started. But with 4 strength workouts a week, my body composition is a whole lot better. Exercising is not a punishment or a chore. I genuinely love it. It's something I do for me.
I moved out of a city that made it all too easy to feel anonymous and inconsequential. And I left a job that didn't inspire me.
Over the last few years, I've learnt a hell of a lot about nutrition and exercise, and practice what I preach in terms of looking after my mental wellbeing.
I don't drink Diet Coke (obviously!). I avoid artificial sweeteners where I can. I avoid sugar too, but luckily the odd slice of birthday cake or biscuit at work is a lot easier to manage.
My diet is pretty clean. I don't stress about savoury indulgences, and find it pretty easy not to overeat. I crave natural, healthy food and for dinner last night threw together a salad of roasted butternut squash with halloumi, capers, tomatoes and walnuts. I wouldn't eat a spoonful of Nutella if you paid me.
And my personal life? Old wounds have healed. I met someone who found a way to be there for me during the darkest parts of this story. And I found a way to be there for myself.
My advice to anyone trying to kick a sugar or Diet Coke addiction? Get out. Reclaim your body and your life. Read Sweet Poison. It is an amazing, eye-opening book. It will change your life.