Sweet Addiction Influences of sodas and stories of attachment to them

By Jasmine Lee, Emily Xia and Claire Yang

MVHS history teacher Bonnie Belshe woke up in a hospital bed. The world was spinning and there was a pounding pain in her temple. Across the room, she heard the bustling of nurses and doctors and the beeping from her own monitor. When she adjusted to her surroundings, she remembered she had just undergone a knee surgery.

The door creaked as it opened, and a pristine doctor walked into the room, stethoscope around her neck.

The doctor asked her how she was doing.

Belshe felt no pain in her knee, but she couldn’t dismiss her pounding headache. The doctor seemed confused. Then Belshe remembered. The day before, she had been fasting for her surgery and hadn’t been able to eat or drink anything for 24 hours. She then responded to her doctor, assuring her that it wasn’t the surgery, but rather, a caffeine-withdrawal headache.

“Don’t worry,” Belshe said. “I just haven’t had my Diet Coke.”

Belshe has been drinking three to four cans of Diet Coke per day since college, consuming it on a daily basis in order to stay awake.

“I hate coffee,” Belshe said. “I don't like the smell, I don't like the taste, I don't like anything that is coffee flavored at all. So when other people are drinking coffee, first thing I do in the morning is drink a Diet Coke.”

Belshe is not the only one who drinks soda on a daily basis. In fact, soda is one of the most common beverage in the United States. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 63 percent of children consume sugar-sweetened beverages on a given day, contributing to a total of 143 calories consumed only from those drinks. On the other hand, 49 percent of adults drink sugar-sweetened beverages on a given day.

Over the course of 20 years, the Pew Research Center found a 54 percent increase in the number of Americans who attempt to “pay attention to a healthy diet.”

Registered dietitian Madeleine Holloway, who works for Professional Food Coaching LLC, says that there is no nutritional value in sodas. According to Holloway, the artificial sweeteners and simple sugars in the sodas can dull one’s perception of sweetness and negatively affect the microbiome, which are microorganisms in our bodies.

“Sodas are what I would call empty calories,” Holloway said. “They're high sugar, and they're low in other nutrients like protein, vitamins and minerals. They pack a lot of sugar, but they don't pack a lot of other nutrition aside from sugar. It's glorified sugar water.”

Although sodas are known to be low on nutrients, Pew Research Center also revealed the large consumption of carbonated, sugary drinks, mainly sodas, are disrupting many people’s habit of eating healthy food. Due to this, 54 percent of Americans are reportedly eating less healthy.

Graphics by Claire Yang and Emily Xia

Regardless, MVHS Industrial Technology teacher Ted Shinta has been a long-time fan of sodas. In fact, ever since he was a young child, the most rewarding treat Shinta looked forward to was an ice-cold carbonated soda, one that he could savor on a hot summer day.

“From the time I could handle money, I used to hand all my money to get soda,” Shinta said. “I would pick up deposit bottles on the street ... and go to the store and turn them in and get money for the deposit. I would go along the street finding bottles and take it to the store and turn them in to get a soda.”

Since Shinta’s family was based on agriculture and farming, he often helped his father plow the fields or plant the crops under the grueling sun, he would receive a bottle of Coca-Cola as reward. Shinta notes that at the time, Coca-Cola was much more expensive than it is now. It was a rare commodity for his family, which is why Shinta now associated the drink as something that provides joy and relaxation to quench the exhaustion and stress from his daily work. In addition, he believed that coke was a luxury before it became cheaper, so started drinking sodas more.

“I know [soda is] bad for me, and for a while when I wasn't the robotics advisor… I was actually able to stop drinking Coke,” Shinta said. “For a few years, I drank hardly any at all. But then as the demands of work and robotics pushed up a little bit, I fell backwards. I always like it; I always crave it.”

Belshe agrees with Shinta, in that the more stressed she is, the more she will consume soda. However, she elaborates into the idea that addiction to carbonated drink is a continuous routine.

“What tends to happen is I'm stressed, [therefore] I'm sleeping less and I'm tired, so I drink [Coca-Cola] more. That's part of the whole cycle,” Belshe said, “[But when] I get too little sleep, even the caffeine can only do so much.”

People like Shinta and Belshe consume soda to relieve their stress. Yet there are others, such as AP Economics teacher Pete Pelkey, who regard the beverage as a calming agent.

For Pelkey, drinking soda allows him to relax and calm down. As a former paramedic, Pelkey reveals that his work required him to be alert on a 24-hour basis and at times, he would have to participate in emergency medical situations. The emotional impact of his job caused him to turn towards Pepsi to regain serenity and to stay aware .

Pelkey has also worked as a vending machine technician for Pepsi, and he would be assigned to install machines at various sites from Gilroy to Union City. Over time, he was able to climb his way up the ranks, even becoming the manager of his previous boss. However, not long after securing his position, he was falsely accused of stealing Pepsi machine keys, which led to demotions and finally his departure from the company. While his split with Pepsi ended on a sour note, Pelkey still believes his time at the soda company was a great experience and claims that he will always be a loyal Pepsi fan.

Nowadays, Pelkey will switch between coffee and soda throughout the day. He prefers to start off his morning with coffee, then have a cool, fizzy soda in the afternoon or evening.

“Soda's my go-to if I don't have coffee,” Pelkey said. “I like coffee in the morning because it has more caffeine and it gives me a wake up. So does my afternoon-evening drink. If I ever go out to eat, I always get a soda because your other choices are milk or alcohol and those are unacceptable to me.”

Although he understands that drinking multiple cans of soda a day is not healthy, he feels that his addictive relationship with soda is only a minor issue.

“I've [tried] cheaper sodas, I've [tried] other things,” Pelkey said. “I tried to cut caffeine out of my life, and there's just no way. You can't go out to eat without getting water, milk or alcohol… I tried to quit one point in time, and I was like, 'What the hell am I doing?' It's not like it's killing me.”

Similarly, Belshe denies being concerned with her soda intake since she feels “rust-free on the inside.” But she also claims that she cannot go one day without soda. She has a shelf specifically designated for Diet Coke, where she used to store bulk packs of soda that she would buy. She used to hide them from other staff, and even the emergency backpack has a few cans.

“I'm fully aware of how much I'm drinking,” Belshe said. “I just don't care is the difference. I'm always fully aware of how many I'm having.”

Holloway argues otherwise, suggesting those who are addicted to sodas should make an active effort to break free of their addiction. Rather than giving it up entirely in one go, she recommends to take slow steps by replacing soda with drinks like sparkling water, tea, coffee or flavored water.

“If you're in the practice of every day with your lunch or every day with your dinner drinking a soda, then that's really where it adds up and becomes an unhealthy habit,” Holloway said. “I think mentally and physically. I think it's just something that we become very unaware that we're taking an extra 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrate[s], which is equivalent to two or three slices of bread.”

Knowing that regular soda contains a large amount of sugar, an individual may be inclined to drink diet soda as a healthier alternative. However, Holloway emphasizes that although diet soda uses a different type of sugar, which are called artificial sweeteners, the effects of long-term consumption can be just as disastrous as regular soda, if not more.

“Artificial sweeteners dull our perception of what sweetness is,” Holloway said. “When we eat a natural sugar, like a piece of fruit, our bodies are going to be much less satisfied with natural sugar because we're exposing ourselves to these artificial sweeteners. Artificial sweeteners have somewhere from five to 20 times the sweetness of table sugar, so they can really dull our perception of natural sweetness.”

While Holloway advocates for less dependence on sodas for caffeine, she understands that many soda drinkers may not be able to completely give up soda, so she offers different alternatives to drinking diet soda.

“If you're going to and you wanted to enjoy some type of soda, I would always encourage someone to have a smaller amount of real soda, if you were going to have it, as opposed to having something like a diet soda,” Holloway said. “Diet sodas are not a healthier alternative.”

Although Holloway expresses concern with those who are dangerously addicted to caffeine in sodas, she hopes to do whatever possible to assist those who want to break away from the unhealthy habit. However, Belshe prefers to ignore any concerned people, whether it’s family or students. In fact, Belshe’s family demonstrate support for her consumption of Diet Coke, treating the drink as Belshe’s main source of caffeine provider.

“First thing [my family] does when we're on vacation, [we’d] do the grocery shopping and automatically on the list used to be Coke Zero, now it's Diet Coke,” Belshe said. “It's just like they get coffee, they always make sure that the first thing when we're on vacation, let's go buy some coffee beans, they also know to go and buy some Diet Coke.”

On the other hand, American academic Marion Nestle, who is the author of Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning) and an NYU professor, discusses the dangers of being addicted to sodas. Nestle explains her reason to believe that any sort of sodas involving artificial sweeteners are unhealthy.

“The sugars are rapidly absorbed, [which] raise blood sugar levels and stimulate insulin secretion,” Nestle said. “Metabolism does not handle a large influx of sugars very well.”

Nestle believes that soda is so addictive due to the acidity and flavors of the soda, which are able to effectively mask the high amounts of sugar present in the drink. These flavors prompt soda drinkers to continue sipping throughout the day.

In terms of her classroom conditions, Belshe reveals that her act of drinking Diet Coke has already morphed into a tradition. At the beginning of the school year, Belshe ensures that every student in her class understands that drinking soda is her main caffeine intake and she would prefer to block out those who are studying physiology.

“In Physiology, part of it is the dangers of caffeine and diet soda,” Belshe said. “And I just tell [the students who are taking Physiology that] I don't want to hear it, I'm fine.”

Contrary to Belshe, Shinta, who used to be a constant soda drinker, reveals that he attempts to replace soda with other types of drinks that Holloway suggested. For instance, Shinta tries to reduce his daily intake of sweetened sodas by drinking sparkling water or iced tea instead. Shinta’s goal is to develop the habit of replacing soda with other beverages that are unsweetened but still flavorful.

However, Shinta developed an addiction to Coca-Cola despite being well aware of the detrimental effects of an addiction in relatives who smoke and drink. Furthermore, type 2 diabetes is also an ever-present disease in his family, which Shinta knows he is at a higher risk of developing because of his soda addiction.

“I've been conscious of this since an early age to be cautious of addictive behaviors but by the time I really became cognizant that I had already developed a habit of drinking Coca-Cola,” Shinta said. “It's not like the worst thing. It's not like rationalizing, but it's better to drink Coca-Cola than to gamble or to smoke a cigarette or alcohol.”

Similarly, Pelkey knows that soda is very addictive and is aware of the nutrition value, but he agrees with Shinta that there are worse addictions. Pelkey argues that his health is not greatly impacted by the amount of soda he drinks but is more affected by his work environment.

“I drink diet soda, so I only have one calorie,” Pelkey said. “There's a sodium problem with that, there's a little caffeine problem. But it's not a big caffeine [problem]. It's not what everybody [says] that aspartame is going to give you cancer. No, if I get cancer I'm going to get cancer for ten thousand other reasons.”

Belshe shares a similar opinion and enjoys using jokes to shed a humorous light on her perspective.

“I won't have over four [Diet Cokes] in a day, and even that's a lot,” Belshe said. “I usually drink three. I know I should work to get it down to two, but eh. I'd like to say I'm well shellacked from all the preservatives, I'm well-preserved.”

Holloway works with clients who have addiction issues similar to Shinta, Belshe and Pelkey, and through her experiences, she thinks that the current generation’s soda-drinking habits are improving. She has hope that future generations will prioritize their health and spread more awareness about soda and other sugary beverages.

“I think there's more awareness on soda nowadays, so I wouldn't say that a lot of people I work with normally drink soda,” Holloway said. “But I definitely see in teenagers and even young adults, college-aged kids, that it's very easy to default to drinking a glass of soda. Hopefully, there's more awareness though. I think nowadays, more people do understand that it's not something that's promoting your health.”

Photo credits: Om Khandekar


Created with images by Pablo Merchán Montes - "coke."

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