Diet Cola 3/30/20

History of Richard Bleil

A friend of mine asked what my three favorite drinks are. I listed sparkling cider, grape fruit juice and milk. Knowing that I drink FAR too much diet cola (one brand in particular), she said she was surprised it didn’t top the list. The reality is that I do not like this particular drink, despite the fact that I will often drink a liter of it a day. Or more. Every day. Each and every day.

I thought I might take today’s post to explain this apparent disparity. There are really two aspects of reality that gave rise to this. First, the soft drink industries did it right. I switched over to this diet soft drink about 25 years ago, around 1995 (give or take a few years). Back then, vending machines were available in so many places, and they all had pop. Today, vending machines are much better at offering water, juices, milk, and even iced coffee, but if you take a moment to look at the prices, you’ll realize that soft drinks are still more affordable than most of these alternatives. When you wanted something to drink other than water from the drinking fountain back then, your choice was, well, pop.

I drank a lot of pop back then, and the sweeter ones at that. With high pressure, carbon dioxide can be dissolved in water at higher than usual concentrations giving rise to the novel fizzing that makes soft drinks so popular (or it should be novel were these drinks not so common). This is why the drinks are stored at high pressure, giving rise to the “pshhh” sound of released pressure when they are opened. However, this higher concentration of carbon dioxide causes an increase in carbonic acid, the product of the reaction between carbon dioxide and water. This carbonic acid is bitter tasting (think sparkling water) which pop companies counterbalance through the addition of large amounts of sugar. This is why pops are as sugary as they are.

In this environment, and working in a medical arts college, I had a rather disturbing phone call from my doctor after a routine checkup and blood test. The doctor told me, over the phone, that I have high cholesterol (no surprise), high uric acid (which can give rise to gout), high liver enzymes (suggesting liver damage which he claimed meant I cannot take medication), and high blood sugar.

He told me that I am diabetic (I was not, more further down). He told me that I am diabetic and need to cut out any foods with fat or oils (because of my high cholesterol) and no sugar. “Diabetic” is a frightening word to hear, especially with the known potential complications, and I heard it in a ten minute call with no further follow up. Yes, my doctor was an idiot. Apparently my blood pressure was fine, so salt was okay but there aren’t too many restaurants that offer salt licks on the menu.

I made some assumptions, most of which were bad. Not just bad, but outright dangerous. I stopped eating meats and oils, favoring things like salad without dressing and vegetables without butter which was dangerous because of missing nutrients. I also cut out all sweets and replaced them with fruit. This, too, was also problematic because fruits also contain sugar, only it’s largely fructose rather than sucrose. The sugars still hit the blood stream and have similar consequences despite the “natural” source. Of course, I also cut out regular pop.

This was when I started drinking artificially sweetened soft drinks. I was a little heavy then (about one hundred ninety pounds; not quite two hundred but certainly pushing it) so this was not necessarily a bad thing. What I found was that I hated the chemical flavor of artificial sweeteners. The pop I currently drink far too heavily was the one with two properties; first, it is readily available, and second, it has a strong enough cola flavor that it masks the flavor of the aspartame better than other alternatives. I have gotten used to it so it’s not so bad now, but I still wouldn’t say that I like it, but this soft drink is actually quite addictive, and I am now an addict. If I stop drinking it, I get headaches and have other withdraw symptoms as well. I’ve had periods where I would routinely drink six or more liters a day, and I’ve had times that I successfully cut my intake to about a tenth of this. For a long time I was down to half a liter, but I’m back up to about one liter a day, which is only about a liter too much.

The bad news is that I was successful. I began shaking and feeling weak which I attributed to successfully dropping my blood sugar level which, yes, is true. Unfortunately, these are symptoms of hypoglycemia, meaning my blood sugar was actually dangerously low. I also dropped a lot of weight far too quickly, and had several students ask me out of concern if I was alright. Because it was a medical arts college, they knew that the rate of weight loss was unhealthy, and, yes, believe it or not, there are those students who care about me. One of these students was the daughter of a doctor who more or less specialized in diabetes. Her mother was kind enough to me into her busy schedule and do a follow-up examination, including the proper diabetes blood test. Blood sugar is flaky; it can fluctuate based on things like if you cheated on your fasting, stress, if you’re fighting off an infection or other factors. Blood sugar is a good initial test, but if it comes up high, it should be followed up with a Hemoglobin A1C test which provides a kind of “snapshot” for the past three months. As it turns out, I was pre-diabetic (I’m mildly diabetic today), not fully diabetic. She got me the proper training on a healthy diabetic diet and put me on the path to a healthier lifestyle.

At this time, I did try to return to regular pop, but then, as today, it’s just too thick. I can’t drink regular soft drinks now because frankly, I just don’t enjoy the flavor or consistency. I will say, though, that I’m grateful to those who have cared for me over the years enough to ask and keep me on the relatively straight and more or less narrow. My health has been in steady decline and I do have a terrible medical history that is just getting worse, but I can also tell you that I’m only here today to tell you what bad shape I’m in because of the people who love me enough to be concerned. My gratitude goes out to all of them.

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