Posted: 03 Feb 2015 07:00 AM PST
A habit is considered a routine behavior that is acted upon unconsciously, typically unnoticed by those practicing the behavior. Addictions are similar to habits in that they are consistently practiced; however, the addiction is often performed from an awareness that is usually absent from everyday habitual practices. One of the most hidden addictions known today that crosses all ages, races, and cultural barriers is to diet soda. This addiction is not only keeping people from achieving their weight loss goals, it may also be deteriorating their mental health and emotional wellbeing.
The Basics of Diet Soda Addiction
An addiction to diet soda may seem silly to most people, many of whom have been tricked into thinking that calorie-free soda is the healthier choice compared to traditional carbonated beverages. Since it's calorie free and sugar free, most people who are dieting will choose diet soda as a beverage of choice at meals and snacks. Due to its highly-addictive nature, diet soda is often consumed in excess, often replacing pure water.
The most common brands of diet soda include these ingredients:
This is a toxic cocktail of chemicals that are known to cause changes in brain chemistry, cellular communication, and basic metabolism. Aspartame is one of the biggest health culprits in diet soda, not to mention a host of other processed foods. It is probably the key ingredient associated with addiction.
Why is Diet Soda Addictive?
Aspartame, the chemical sweetener used to replace high fructose corn syrup in diet soda, activates the reward centers in your brain.  The trouble is, because aspartame doesn't provide any calories (energy), the body misses out and makes it crave more. It's your body's way of basically "reaching out" for fuel when it's missed the calories from the first hit of diet soda consumption. Diet soda is trying to trick the body, but the body rebels and makes you want more and more to satisfy those reward centers in the brain and provide energy for cells.
Brain chemistry is also tampered with when aspartame is ingested. Aspartame is comprised of two amino acids and a methyl ester, and these compounds can affect the dopamine system in the brain linked to positive reinforcement.  Alcohol and drugs can cause similar effects, but at different levels of severity. The caffeine in diet soda–not to mention in regular soda, coffee, and energy drinks–is considered a drug, and an addictive one at that. Caffeine is a psychostimulant, and, when combined with aspartame's dopamine effects, increases addictive behavior. 
One of the classic ways to prove whether or not you're addicted to diet soda is to abstain from the product for one to seven days and see if you experience withdrawal symptoms. First and foremost, caffeine deprivation after a prolonged period of consumption will bring about headaches, irritability, and mood disturbances. Psychological issues may also result as a side effect of eliminating aspartame, as the sweetener can impair the transport of tryptophan which helps produce serotonin. 
How to Fight Diet Soda Addiction
The only way to be free from diet soda is to make a deliberate choice not to buy it the next time you go to the grocery store. Don't order it at restaurants, and pass if a friend offers it to you at your next social engagement. Going cold turkey is the only way for most people; however, extreme cases may need appropriate psychological counseling and behavioral therapy to fight addiction. If you can't go cold turkey, just start reducing one can or glass of diet soda per day, replacing it with pure water.
You can try replacing diet soda with coffee or tea, but you will still have the caffeine issue. While these beverages are certainly healthy (without sweetener), you may wish to try herbal tea initially. Rooibos tea is a fantastic antioxidant-rich herbal tea that is also free from caffeine. I also advise looking at your food labels and abstain from purchasing anything that has aspartame anywhere in the ingredients list.
Have you experienced a diet soda addiction? We'd love to hear how you combated it! Please contribute your thoughts, opinions, or questions in the comments!
-Dr. Edward F. Group III, DC, NP, DACBN, DCBCN, DABFM
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