One year without pop: how I conquered my Coca-Cola addiction
Author's note - 03.10.23: The popularity of this article has been humbling. I have received numerous messages from passionate readers, telling me how these words inspired them to take action regarding their own soda addictions. I'm incredibly grateful for your continued interest, support and engagement. Furthermore, by way of update, I'm happy to report that four years have now elapsed since I last drank Coca-Cola. My streak is alive and well, although I still take things one day at a time. Keep believing, people. It is never too late to change.
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Every day, 1.9 billion Coca-Cola drinks are served around the world. That amounts to almost 700 billion carbonated beverages per year, or nearly 100 for every person on the planet. Therefore, the typical human - not merely the soft drink behemoth - can refrain from drinking Coke for just four days at a time, on average. Thankfully, I have managed to buck that trend and break free from that cohort. I no longer participate in the monopolistic rollercoaster of hedonistic indulgence.
For many people, drinking Coca-Cola is a thoughtless treat. Their decision to guzzle an occasional soda is unmoored from pangs of self-loathing and guilt. They barely even consider it, and nor do they ponder the ethical implications of imbibing liquid sugar for weeks after the event. I am not one of those people. For me, drinking Coca-Cola is no longer an option, because for more than 20 years, I have endured a destructive relationship with my favourite drink, to the point of outright addiction.
However, after a hectic 2019 fuelled by the world’s most ubiquitous beverage, I have conquered the demon and mastered the habit. Twelve months have now passed since my last sip of Coca-Cola, and that brings a sense of accomplishment I want to share. More importantly, I want to unscrew the lid on my timeless battles with Coke and offer a few pearls of wisdom for those who are still routinely seduced by the greatest-tasting formula our species has ever concocted.
Admitting my lifelong Coca-Cola addiction
Strangely, I cannot remember the first time I drank Coca-Cola. Back then, on the council estates of Wirral, such extravagant experiences were events, but I struggle to pinpoint the exact date or year. If pushed, I would guess my first Coke came when I was seven or eight. Certainly, by the time I was nine, a terrible addiction was in full force, and there was no turning back.
Even in the mid-2000s, as I progressed through primary school, there was a social stigma surrounding Coke and its sugar-laden products. My school, Mendell, became a healthy-eating school, whatever that meant. In practical terms, it forbade the inclusion of crisps, chocolate and fizzy drinks in packed lunches. Still, I smuggled in cans of Cherry Coke every day, earning reprimands from the dinner ladies and quizzical glances from the middle class wannabes who nibbled carrots and sipped tomato juice.
In time, my parents struggled to keep up with my indefatigable demand for Coca-Cola. While keeping the electricity metre ticking was a daily chore, finding money for huge bottles of Coke became a common tic, as well. As a poor family on the breadline of working class Britain, this became a costly habit, but I could instantly taste any cheaper or alternative brands of cola. It had to be Coca-Cola, none of that 27p Co-op shite. Dr Pepper was occasionally welcomed, but drinking Pepsi in a world that harboured Coca-Cola seemed asinine to me. You should never settle for second best.
Between 2005 and 2009, aged 11 to 15, I drank litres of Coca-Cola per day. I remember we had colourful plastic beakers at home, and I would gulp down 10 or 20 of them filled with Coke every single day. Not just weekends. Not just special occasions. Every day, without fail. It is a wonder my teeth are still in my mouth. It is a wonder my mum was not arrested for purchasing weapons-grade quantities of the stuff. It is a wonder I’m not morbidly obese.
How I stopped drinking Coca-Cola for seven years
Then, during the 2010 FIFA World Cup – ironically, sponsored heavily by Coca-Cola – I happened upon a documentary about the effects of sugary soft drinks on our bodies. I had always been vaguely aware of the negative side effects and cultural inappropriateness of drinking Coke, but that film hit me like a train. It showed rotten teeth and rolls of fat. It showed brain scans of soda-addled hyperactivity. It showed the truth, and I was petrified.
Right there and then, I decided to go cold turkey and quit drinking sugary drinks entirely. It was difficult because, like most high schools, mine was rife with fizzy drinks. It often felt like the whole place would grind to a halt if Fanta was banned, and every year group had a go-to urchin who sold Red Bull from a backpack. I even remember a few lads who funded their early experiments with marijuana by selling Lucozade like mini Al Capones. Somehow, I managed to avoid those pitfalls and finish school without resorting to Coca-Cola.
In fact, for the next seven years, the only fizzy beverages to pass my lips were alcoholic, and even my relationship with those was cautious and cagey. My days of drinking Coca-Cola were over, until they were not. I was on the wagon for thousands of days, only to fall off in the stupidest of ways.
Inside a Coca-Cola relapse
In 2017, I started a new job, my first full-time office role after a few years in freelance journalism. Anyone familiar with my work will know how fucked up that place was, and one of its more inane destroyers was a decadent lunch culture that zapped afternoon productivity. Seriously, within a few months of working there, I was eating fast food – mainly Nando’s and YO! Sushi – three or four lunchtimes per week. And with that came the resurgence of my predilection for Coke.
Ultimately, Nando’s was the killer. For £2.90, the chain gives you a ‘bottomless’ glass, which essentially means you are free to refill it as many times as you want in a sitting. I hammered that refill machine for years, knocking back three or four Cokes in an hour. I gradually fell back into my bad old ways outside the chicken emporium, too, buying bottles of Coca-Cola at Tranmere matches and other social occasions. Most days involved a sugary fix, followed by the inevitable crash of grim agitation.
There is a rush to drinking Coca-Cola, you see, and it can be hard to ignore. That first slurp of the day can be magical, birthing notes of satisfaction and relief in a predictable burp. You think clearer for 20 minutes after drinking Coke. You attack that fearsome to-do list. There is a spring in your step, a sparkle in your eye. In this regard, Coke is a performance-enhancing drug for the everyman, converting warn-out cubicle faces into high-functioning corporate wasps. Except the effect is temporary, the illusion omnipotent. The bottom always falls out, and there is always a speedy slump to even deeper depths than before you cracked open the can.
Coca-Cola, depression and anxiety – exploring links between soft drinks and mental health problems
Forty minutes after drinking Coke, its exorbitant caffeine content settles in the system, sending your blood pressure through the roof and forcing your liver to dispense more sugar into the bloodstream. This, in turn, leads to a flood of dopamine, sparking a rave of pleasure inside your head. Yet, barely 20 minutes down the line, the brain and body react to this unusual stimulation by overcorrecting its excess. The diuretic properties of soda soon kick in, flushing all water from the product, along with vital nutrients. The result is a sudden pang of irritability, drowsiness and psychological smog.
During a mental breakdown in 2018 - when I was diagnosed with depression, generalised anxiety disorder and OCD – I evaluated a lot of my instinctive behaviours and habits, embracing minimalism to recalibrate my miserable existence. Despite mountains of adverse data and research, Coca-Cola never came in for much scrutiny, however, because I liked it so much. Sure, it fed the demonic oscillation of mood that destabilised my world, but it was always there, non-judgmental and soothing. It was my crutch through the hard times, even though it was a co-author of those hard times as well.
While detailed research into the psychological side effects of drinking Coke is frustratingly sparse, a 2013 study by Dr Honglei Chen of the National Institute of Health found that people who drank more than four cans of soda per day were 30% more likely to develop depression than those who drank no soda at all. That seems significant, and it speaks to a toxic relationship between soft drinks and mental health that often gets overwhelmed by discussions of diabetes, dentistry and obesity.
Such capitalist ambivalence is nothing new, of course. In fact, as far back as 1902, Coca-Cola actively marketed its produce as a positive force in our daily battles with stress and pain. “When the brain is running under full pressure,” said one periodic advert. “Send down to the fountain for a glass of Coca-Cola. You will be surprised how quickly it will ease the tired brain – soothe the rattled nerves and restore wasted energy to both mind and body. It enables the entire system to readily cope with the strain of any excessive demands made upon it.”
Later adverts went even further, branding Coke as the intellectual drink of temperance, making not only a “delicious, exhilarating, refreshing and invigorating beverage, but a viable brain tonic, a cure for all nervous affections – sick headache, neuralgia, hysteria, melancholy, etc.”
However, if truth be told, Coca-Cola is not good for our mental health, nor has it ever been in its long and turbulent history. Every can of Coke contains 10 teaspoons of sugar, which creates artificial peaks and troughs of dopamine, the feel good chemical that helps human beings feel pleasure. By drinking Coca-Cola to excess, we short-circuit our natural dopamine cycles and manufacture manic states of transient euphoria and prolonged dejection. That wild swing of emotion, beholden to a cup of soda, is incompatible with positive or consistent mental fitness.
Contemporary medical dogma holds that depression is caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. If a person has an inadequate supply of the neurotransmitter serotonin, for instance, they will typically feel gloomy and listless. Antidepressant medications work by moderating the levels of specific neurotransmitters in the brain. Accordingly, those who are already subject to painful fluctuations of brain chemistry should avoid drinking Coca-Cola in vast quantities. A problem relating to chemical inequity cannot be solved by drinking a can of chemical inequity. You must be careful, folks. Think before you drink.
Why I decided to quit drinking Coca-Cola one year ago today
Admittedly, as with any addiction, it can often feel impossible to convert the irrefutable logic of Coca-Cola abstinence into natural and consistent action. I continued to drink a lot of Coke in 2019, even though it was evidently bad for my mental health. Patrycja and I moved into our first apartment together, and a few bottles of the fizzy stuff tended to fall into my basket while doing the weekly shop. For the first time since the waning days of my adolescence, I began to drink Coca-Cola at home, not just at restaurants or in pubs.
My problem reached critical mass in early autumn last year while Patrycja and I enjoyed a holiday in Rome. Indulging in the native tipple, I often caned a large Americano coffee and a pint of Coca-Cola with my meals. Sure, it put me in a good mood, for all of an hour, before transforming me into a vexed curmudgeon who could not be arsed traipsing around ancient monuments. At that point, I made a stark realisation: Coca-Cola fuelled my life, and I was a lazy sloth without it.
Once again, I decided to quit. Once again, I went cold turkey. Upon arriving back home from Italy, I vowed to stop drinking Coke. The withdrawal symptoms were bad – headaches, cold sweats, manic cravings – but I powered through, taking each hour as it came and rejecting the black stuff. I have immense willpower once focused on a project, and foregoing Coca-Cola became something of a hobby, as sad as that sounds.
Why not just drink Coke Zero or Diet Coke? I hear you ask. Well, they are not the same things, really, and anybody who says they are is a liar. To me, the thought of drinking Coke Zero when Coca-Cola literally exists is like attempting to cross the Atlantic on a wakeboard when there are ample airplanes that make the journey infinitely more pleasurable. No, I had to give up totally. There was no other choice in the playbook.
Why is Coca-Cola so addicting? A potted history of manufactured addiction
The physical act of quitting Coca-Cola, beyond the prosaic theory, is incredibly difficult because the product is so addicting. Moreover, it is designed to be that way, so that the company continues to make obscene profits. To conquer the addiction, you have to unravel the product. I had to educate myself about the constitution of Coca-Cola, and the outpouring of negativity would take care of everything else.
Coca-Cola was founded in 1886 by John Pemberton, a pharmacist in Atlanta, Georgia. Yes, a pharmacist. Not a cocktail maker or a bartender. A guy who literally wore a white coat for a living, selling legal drugs to those in need of immediate relief. In hindsight, that gives the game away, but there is more to the addicting temerity of Coca-Cola than initially meets the eye.
Once devised, Coke was originally mixed in the soda fountains that were a quaint staple of small town drugstores. In those early days, literal chemists concocted Coca-Cola on the spot, tailoring it to the preferences of each customer. A drop of cherry, perhaps, or a hint of lime. Other, harder substances were known to fall into the elixir, as well, not all of which were necessarily legal.
Pemberton was wounded while fighting in the American Civil War. Racked by chronic chest pain, the whacky chemist experimented with various forms of self-medication. He became addicted to morphine at one stage, marvelling at the versatile genius of coca leaves, before taking cocaine as a ‘non-addictive’ weaning alternative. Alas, trace amounts of cocaine were occasionally found in early Coca-Cola formulas, affirming its addictive tendency. Such practices were outlawed in 1903, and Coke towed the line, but it never shirked an innate proclivity for risqué experimentation. Likewise, the concept of Coke as a sinful drink never quite went away.
While Pemberton founded Coca-Cola, its merciless expansion is largely attributed to Robert W Woodruff, company president between 1923 and 1954. It was Woodruff who encouraged the company’s aggressive marketing ethos, which meshed with the zeitgeist of Prohibition to make Coca-Cola a household name. So good was Coke’s advertising acumen, some historians even credit the brand with creating Santa Claus, or at least the rotund, cuddly, crimson-suited caricature we know today. That classic depiction became a recurring tool in Coke’s yuletide propaganda machine, and it is still working today.
Just as crucially, Woodruff also finagled a deal to make Coke exempt from sugar rationing during World War II, protecting its commercial growth. Indeed, with shrewd and opportunistic marketing, Coca-Cola became an essential morale booster for American troops, with Woodruff vowing that soldiers would be able to find a bottle of Coke wherever they fought. More than 60 bottling factories were built around the world, making good on the promise and spurring talk of global domination.
When the troops returned home, they revered Coca-Cola as a token of American resilience. More pertinently, in the 1950s and 1960s, Coke became the world’s single most distributed product, regardless of genre, and it morphed into a synonym for the American Dream. Around the world, people were told that they, too, could buy a small piece of that grand American dynamism. One’s nationality no longer mattered. Liberty and power could be swallowed.
Naturally, Americans became fiercely proud of their greatest export, ushering it into a sacred echelon of patriotic trinkets. A person’s right to get fat by drinking Coke was all but written into the constitution, and cottage industries sprang up majoring in Coca-Cola merchandise, history and general jingoistic appreciation. The world could not get enough of this timeless Georgian tincture, and that was bound to end in tears.
Accordingly, when Coca-Cola tweaked its fabled formula in 1985, the inevitable protests were so vehement that the decision was reversed within three months. Loyalists wrote to Coke headquarters saying they would rather have been told god was not real than be subjected to such formulaic alterations. One protestor even stated a preference for somebody burning an American flag on his lawn over somebody changing his beloved beverage. Coke learned a valuable lesson of capitalism from the debacle: do not fix that which has people addicted.
Nowadays, Coca-Cola is infamously cagey about its ingredients, masking potential horror with generic marketing spiel regarding unique blends and secret formulas. The company’s official website, a trove of unexpected solipsism, states that original Coke is 90% water, carbonated using purified carbon dioxide. The remaining 10% is comprised of sugar, caramel colouring, phosphoric acid, caffeine and natural flavourings. Yeah, because that sounds convincing, right?
Of course, there are whole internet tomes and feature-length documentaries dedicated to decoding the classic formulation. Depending on who you ask, those ‘natural flavourings’ could be syrup, vanilla or cinnamon. Some say they are all mixed together, producing a unique hybrid of sweetened bliss. Ultimately, I guess we will never truly know, so the conspiracy theories will continue to rage.
However, from empirical tests, we do know that a 12-ounce can of Coke contains 39 grams of sugar and 34 milligrams of caffeine. The only reason you do not throw up from the sweetness is because the phosphoric acid cuts through and acts like a peacekeeper, allowing you to keep it down. For comparison, drinking that 12-ounce can is the same as washing down two Mars Bars with a grande hot chocolate from Starbucks. No wonder you want to run through a brick wall after downing a Coke. You probably could, and the agony would not arrive for approximate 64 minutes. Try it one day. I dare you.
On a serious note, however, there is also an addicting quality to the Coca-Cola lifestyle, not just to the consumption of its signature product. There is a coolness to Coke. It makes you seem fun, edgy and carefree. Meanwhile, we can often feel peer pressure to drink Coke, especially at younger ages, because it is a predator that pretends to be harmless. Coca-Cola hides its nefarious side effects really well, to a point where society has all but swept them under the carpet as insignificant.
What is so bad about Coca-Cola, and what are the consequences of drinking it every day?
For all the indignant handwringing, it can be easy to lose sight of why Coca-Cola is so bad. The list of charges heard by our hyper-liberal cancel culture overlords grows larger every day, from huge plastic wastage and subpar labour conditions through to insensitive marketing and exorbitant pricing. While those quixotic concerns should be analysed, it is arguably more important to remind ourselves of the facts behind Coca-Cola’s inarguable destruction of the human mind and body.
While researching for this project, I was shocked at the verbosity of the Coca-Cola website, which mixes self-aggrandizement with self-delusion. Among the ephemera, there is a blog post entitled Can I become addicted to Coca-Cola? Here is a passage, presented without alteration:
“Food and drinks, like chocolate, for example, can trigger what scientists call ‘reward centres’ in the brain, but so can other things like music or exercise. Regularly consuming food and drink that taste good and that you enjoy is not the same as being addicted to them."
Pretty amazing stuff, huh? In all seriousness, though, the extent to which Coca-Cola diverts blame for the damage caused by its products is unsavoury at best and scandalous at worst. Along with the generic corporate flim-flam about their zero-sugar ranges and sustainability commitments, the whole thing seems fudged, quite frankly. Coca-Cola profits immensely by creating and peddling a damaging substance. No amount of collaborative brainstorming will produce a yarn to the contrary, and they should just embrace their reality at this point.
Depending on your source of medical research, the long-term consequences of drinking Coca-Cola every day – otherwise known as being bloody well addicted to the stuff – include increased susceptibility to heart disease, diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure. In turn, each of those problems can catalyse further complications, and that is before we even mention tooth decay, weight gain and bouts of acne.
Admittedly, there is a paucity of solid, focused and committed investigation into the effects of drinking Coca-Cola every day. Yet, empirically, we just know this stuff is not good for us. Yes, it can be enjoyed as part of a balanced diet, as per the stump speech of any Coke spin doctor, but how many of us have balanced diets? Anybody who drinks Coca-Cola in the first place probably does not, and that renders the whole argument futile.
Why is it so hard to quit drinking Coca-Cola?
I have given up a lot of things in recent years – gambling, drinking alcohol, scrolling social media on my phone, and excessive photography. I have sharpened up my diet, minimised my wardrobe and deleted dozens of apps across multiple devices. Yet, out of all those projects, quitting Coca-Cola was the hardest challenge of all. It is the only vice that still creates a twitch of excitement in my heart whenever I encounter it.
To a certain extent, rejecting a mere soft drink is even more difficult than rejecting an alcoholic drink. You can go into a pub and not order beer, but going into a pub and not ordering anything fizzy is a cardinal sin. It is logically redundant, in fact. An oxymoron. You have never known true social ostracisation until you have ordered a pint of water in Birkenhead on a Friday night. That is a true existential crisis, dear readers, and there is no proven strategy for overcoming it.
In addition, the sheer ubiquity of Coca-Cola stokes the probability of encountering, buying and consuming it. If you go to 191 of the world’s 195 sovereign countries, you will find Coca-Cola. The only exceptions are Cuba, North Korea, Burma and Sudan. There are 2.8 million Coca-Cola vending machines on the planet, while studies suggest 94% of the global population can identify the famous brand. That is truly amazing, and also ever so slightly scary.
In the US, soft drink manufacturers have even gone so far as to negotiate exclusivity agreements with schools and universities, hardwiring consumer ubiquity into the curriculum from an early age. Coke will often monopolise vending machines on campuses, for instance, agreeing to invest in new facilities and projects as part of the deal. What chance do those students have of avoiding Coca-Cola and its damaging consequences? Very little, in all honesty, and that is a worrying trend.
Indeed, never before has a manmade substance reached such levels of universal saturation. If every drop of Coke ever produced were put in 8-ounce bottles and laid end-to-end, they would reach to the moon and back 2,000 times. This makes Coca-Cola the most valuable brand in the world, valued at $71.9 billion. With annual revenues of $32.27 billion, if Coca-Cola were a country, it would rank 97th in national GDP. The company makes more money per year than the entire nations of Jamaica, Georgia and Belize combined.
Furthermore, every year, Coca-Cola spends $4.25 billion on advertising. That is more than Twitter spends on everything. Aside from its headline soda, Coca-Cola now has more than 500 different brands in its portfolio, 20 of which generate at least $1 billion in annual revenues. Therefore, other than moving to Havana, it is going to be difficult to avoid Coca-Cola in everyday life. There is no easy way to escape.
I love Coca-Cola, but drinking it is no longer an option for me
Ultimately, though, I do not hate Coca-Cola. I do not want its factories burned to the ground, and nor do I view it as a force for evil, ruining lives and creating an underclass of sugar-addicted kids. I’m fascinated by Coca-Cola, more than anything, and I appreciate its grandeur.
There is something truly iconic about Coca-Cola. I admire the brand on a deeper level than merely drinking its eponymous brew. I’m bewitched by the poignant iconography. I’m spellbound by the peerless marketing. I’m intrigued by the evocative bottle. Then you have the colour scheme, the culture, the tradition, the inimitable taste and the flowing script. There is a hypnotising magic to the Coca-Cola brand, arguably the most successful ever devised. Every business development theory is brought to life and turbocharged inside its humongous dynasty. At times, that is irresistible.
I can only marvel at Coke’s cultural saturation and respect its intoxicating heritage. If people are able to enjoy the brand responsibly, that is great. I cannot, and so I must abstain. I’m resigned to a life of idle admiration, therefore, because the consequences of participating are too great for me – mentally, physically and spiritually. I need to look after myself, and foregoing Coke is one way of doing that.
In all honesty, I would love to sit here and tell you that, one day down the line, you will find me in a pub nursing the occasional Coca-Cola on a special occasion. You know, just the one. Unfortunately, I cannot see that happening. Like the classic addict, there is no off switch once I start drinking Coke, and delving into its trough of despair in return for transient pleasure is no longer a tempting proposition.
How to stop drinking Coke
So, how can you stop drinking Coke, just like me? Well, as with any addiction, plotting a recovery is complicated. I went cold turkey because that is the way I tend to do things. That works for me. However, if you have a more aggressive dependency on Coca-Cola, cutting down gradually may be more advisable. You should even consult your doctor, if things are really worrying you.
What happens when you quit Coke? I’m asked that a lot. Without doubt, it is an unpleasant experience, and the body can recoil in a state of shock if deprived of its Coke fix rashly or incorrectly. I certainly missed drinking Coca-Cola in the short-term, and I still do today, but remembering the rationale behind my original decision to abstain usually keeps me going.
For some people, moving on to Coke Zero or Diet Coke can work. Call it a substitution. Call it weaning. Call it placebo. Whatever. If you can gradually reduce your consumption of Coca-Cola, you will almost certainly feel better than if you continue to guzzle indiscriminately. Even having the inclination to drink responsibly and consciously is a positive step in the right direction. This shit is hard, so do not beat yourself up if the habit sometimes wins.
What I have learned from one year without drinking Coca-Cola
In the time that you have spent reading this article, around 27 million Coca-Cola drinks have been consumed around the world. That juggernaut will never stop whirring, but the ways in which we react to it, and the degree to which we are beholden to it, are optional. We control the substances that enter our bodies, and we harbour the ability to modify those selective tendencies.
Over the past 365 days, I have deleted Coca-Cola from a life already bereft of alcohol, nicotine and illegal drugs. Some people will consider that boring or overly cautious, but they do not know how my body works, nor how my brain ticks. I feel stabler without drinking Coca-Cola, somehow more grounded and less prone to exhausting swings of mood. Rather than a rollercoaster of euphoric highs and crushing lows, my life now follows a flat, predictable pattern, and that is strangely satisfying.
Nowadays, I only drink black coffee – in regulated doses – and water. I have even eradicated artificially sweetened cordials and genetically modified juices from my cupboard. I have learned to practice mindful drinking, stripping things back to the basic need for hydration and unstitching my learned expectations of liquid hedonism. I’m happier, in general, and that feels good.
It is my birthday on Sunday, and there will be temptation to drink Coke amid an improvised celebration, but I know how to politely reject those advances and plough on through the discontent. My work colleagues kindly gave me an Amazon voucher today as a birthday gift, and I have just used it to grab some new books. What did I buy? Why, a copy of For God, Country and Coca-Cola by Mark Pendergrast, of course. After all, you may well conquer the addiction, but the intrigue never dies.
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