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Opinion - Kicking my Coke habit

A loyal 'candy water' drinker tries to halt The Pause That Refreshes

If you hold a Coke bottle to your ear, it sounds like the ocean. Well, like the ocean would sound if a tanker of Pop Rocks just sank offshore.

I find that Coca-Cola's sounds enhance the flavor. A freshly opened plastic bottle or aluminum can makes a sharp hiss as the carbonation escapes, like a whisper of anticipation. The sensation of tasting a Coke comes in stages. During the initial gulp, the little bubbles leave a fizzy coating on the inside of the mouth, paving the way for the caramel flavor to follow. The syrupy aftertaste lingers as that bubbly, caffeinated feeling rises in the chest and readies me to face the day.

Most days I could use a Coke, and it has to be an actual Coke. Not a Pepsi or an RC, not a Diet Coke or Coke Zero, not a Coke with vanilla or lime. I want the real Real Thing. A good Coke is irresistible, but after a lifetime of drinking it, I'm trying my utmost to resist.

As a native Atlantan, I grew up in Coke City U.S.A., so drinking Coke was like having brand loyalty in a company town. We'd never call any soft drink "soda" or "pop." I started drinking Cokes when I was 3 or 4 years old, guzzling down those little green bottles on hot summer days — or, this being Atlanta, hot spring and hot autumn days, too.

My fondness for Coke grew when I was a teenage movie buff. The balancing flavors of salty popcorn and cola sweetness provided an essential part of the movie-going ritual. Later, rum and Cokes provided a gateway to alcoholic mixed drinks that were, you know, actually good. (It took me a while to learn that the secret to rum and Cokes was that they ruin good rum and good Coke.)

My parents believed that too much Coke, like any sugary treat, could cause cavities. Only in my adulthood did soft drink consumption become a health issue bête noire, largely due to concerns over high-fructose corn syrup, which replaced sugar in the Coke formulation in 1980. More recently, the pressure from friends, family, and the mass media against my drink of choice have become hard to ignore. Factoids bubble up and stick in my consciousness like "Drinking one soda a day can double the risk for Type 2 diabetes." I don't think there's anything morally wrong with Coke, but I've found it a hard habit to quit. At what point does a daily treat become an addiction?

Working from home makes it easier to wrest control from Coke, but it's all but impossible when I'm in an office setting. The Coke-craving sneaks up on me at a desk after lunch, and I'll swig a delicious 12-ounce can from the vending machine with no guilt. Then I'll almost immediately want another one, even though two cans leave me twitchy and irritable. After much trial and error, I concluded that a 16.9-ounce plastic bottle holds the right amount to tide me over, with minimal side effects.

I finally took quitting seriously when my friend Ryan gave it up. Ryan would be known as a "Coke Guy," since that's his beverage of choice, even in situations when others are having alcohol. (The same party might also have a Beer Guy, a Wine Guy, and a Furtive Syringe Guy.) Ryan always claimed immunity from sleep-disruptions, even when he drinks a couple of Cokes at night.

So when Ryan revealed his plans to quit, it seemed shockingly out of character, as if he'd announced that he was converting to Scientology. He made up his mind after hearing about a study on NPR about populations and soft drinks, which revealed, "For every additional 150 calories of sugar (the amount in a 12-ounce can of soda) available per person per day, the prevalence of diabetes in the population rose 1 percent." Now Ryan typically only has Coke when he goes out to lunch. He says he's lost nine pounds.

For me, thinking of Coke as "candy water" made me more averse to it. Having 16.9 ounces of Coke a day seems less alarming than having 16.9 ounces of liquid candy. Even though I see the appeal of colas formulated with real sugar, such as Cokes bottled in Mexico and the undeniably delectable Jones Pure Cane Cola, I'm not convinced that they're any better for me.

I made a quest to find a healthy (or less unhealthy) substitute. Juices or punches had cloying flavor and no fizz. Flavored soda waters were refreshing but left me wanting. My default beverage is half-decaf iced tea, despite its lack of body and tendencies as a diuretic. There's nothing like taking frequent trips to the men's room and still feeling sort of dehydrated.

So since late March I've had one or two Cokes a week, and thus have had considerably less sugar in my system than usual. My weight might have redistributed a bit, but I honestly don't feel noticeably better or worse. In general, my system doesn't feel quite as syruped, for lack of a better word, and I like being able to show Coke that it's not the boss of me.

I'm not planning to quit it altogether. Instead of a daily necessity, however, I now think of it as the beverage equivalent of birthday cake. It's great to enjoy birthday cake at parties at home or the office, but kind of sad to be eating a slice at the desk alone while on deadline.

Just don't ask me to quit my morning coffee.

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