I remember when I visited my friend's apartment and saw empty bottles of Diet Coke littered on the floor. It reminded me of my alcoholic aunt's apartment – you couldn't walk a few feet without stepping on things. The only difference was that my friend had soda bottles while my aunt had beer bottles.
My friend was pretty skinny and generally ate healthily. However, she drank Diet Coke like it was water. She'd drink straight from the two-liter soda bottles before capping it and putting it back on the ground. I helped clean her apartment several times and would often pick up about half a dozen empty two-liter bottles from the floor.
She knew that Diet Coke wasn't much better than regular Coke, but still drank it regularly anyway.
"Let me have my vice," she said. "I don't drink alcohol. I don't smoke. Let me have this one thing."
I didn't have a response.
Sadly, she's not the only person I know who has a soda addiction.
I remember going to the movies with one of my best friends and watching him buy an extra-large Coke. He drank so much of it that he had to pee halfway through the film.
During a later conversation, he told me that he often drinks soda after work as a pick-me-up. He said that work is stressful, and that soda helps him feel better.
I have yet another friend who goes to the same board game store as me. I remember seeing him buy two cans of Coca-Cola (78 grams of sugar!) and drinking both of them during our game. When he was finished, he bought even more.
One night, I found him throwing up in the store's parking lot. I asked him if he was okay and he said he was fine. To this day, I don't know what caused him to vomit, but I suspect it might've been his diet.
I'm not telling you these stories to shame or mock anyone. These people are some of my best friends, and I care deeply about their physical health.
My Health Journey
The truth is that I used to be just like them. During my first year in college, my dinner always consisted of a bacon and grilled cheese sandwich and soda. It wasn't until one of my friends, who was an aspiring nutritionist, told me about how bad soda was for your bones and teeth.
It seems so obvious now, but I didn't think of it back then. If my friend never said anything, I would've probably drunk soda for the rest of my college years. My Freshman 15 would've turned into a Freshman 30.
I had friends who were concerned about my diet, as well. I told them that I mostly ate starch like pancakes, sandwiches, and pizza.
Upon hearing this, one of my friends made me a salad and set it on my table. Like an overbearing mother, she told me I had to eat at least half of it before eating anything else.
I stared at the plate in disbelief. Nothing looked appealing to me in the slightest. Even when I tried eating, I had to force everything down.
Maybe my friend sounds a bit ridiculous and forceful, but I can't blame her for wanting to help. My diet was absolute garbage. I was eating what tasted good rather than what would be good for my health in the long run.
I'll be the first to tell you that I don't find most fruits and vegetables good-tasting at all. (Bananas are the one exception.) I've been a picky eater ever since I was a little kid, and not much has changed since I became an adult.
Yet, I've changed my diet. Those changes come mostly from living with parents who eat salad regularly. Almost every night, they make a large bowl of salad and mix lettuce with baby tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, and other things I detest. I usually have to cover it in dressing to make it palatable.
If I'm not eating homemade salad, I'll turn to the store-bought kind. You can get two Caesar salads from Safeway for $4. I actually enjoy these ones because they have chicken and chips that offset the bland romaine lettuce.
Changing Habits Changes Lives
My habits changed with my diet. I started going to the gym during my later years in college. This forced me to eat more protein to help build muscle. I began seeing actual changes in my body when I looked at myself shirtless in the mirror. I still don't have those coveted six-pack abs, but at least my triceps were noticeable now.
Once I graduated and moved back to California, going to the gym wasn't as convenient, but I still tried to go when I could.
Back in college, I was on the track nearly every night. One of my friends even nicknamed me "Flash."
After a few years back in California, I started running again. I didn't have as much time on weekdays, but I started each Saturday and Sunday morning with a half-hour jog to the library and back. Now that I'm in quarantine, I can do it every day.
In The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg talks about how forming keystone habits – positive changes which have a ripple effect on other areas of a person's life.
"When people start habitually exercising, even as infrequently as once a week, they start changing other, unrelated patterns in their lives, often unknowingly,” Duhigg wrote. “Typically people who exercise start eating better and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed."
The point I'm trying to make is this: changing my diet helped change my life, and I want others to experience that change too.
The Difficult Conversation
Doing something as simple as cutting out soda from your diet can significantly impact your overall well-being. Some of these changes include:
You'll gain less weight.
You won't stain or decay your teeth.
You won't weaken your bones.
You'll be at lower risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and dementia.
You won't be addicted and won't need to turn to it when stressed.
You'll save money.
It's tough to have these conversations with my friends. There's almost no way of letting them know your distress without sounding rude, condescending, or overbearing.
I can't think of a single way to nudge my friends in the right direction without sounding like I'm criticizing them for their bad habits. I've tried introducing a few of them to Zevia, but they quickly turned back to regular sugary soda.
Online discussions are even worse, and people are quick to label such behavior as concern trolling or fat-shaming. Don't get me wrong. Concern trolling and fat-shaming are very real things, but shouldn't be mixed up with genuine worry.
Shaming someone because they're fat is counterproductive. A lot of advocates of fat-shaming believe that it will motivate someone to lose weight. However, as James Corden points out, fat-shaming causes fat people to internalize such beliefs and engage in self-destructive behavior such as over-eating.
"Fat shaming is just bullying, and bullying only makes the problem worse," Corden said. "If making fun of fat people made them lose weight, there'd be no fat kids in schools, and I'd have a six-pack by now."
I don't know everyone's story. A lot of weight comes down to genetics and metabolism – factors outside of anyone's control. I've had a fast metabolism and a small appetite for most of my life, which helps counter all the junk food I ate growing up. Others might not be so lucky.
Plus, it's difficult to lose weight. I know several people who exercise and eat healthily but still haven't shed the pounds. It's a process that can take months or even years. Even I'm still struggling to lose a bit of stubborn belly fat.
But I want everyone to have the information they need to improve their lives. That's part of the reason I always write about personal finance and self-improvement. I did many things that helped improve my life, and it's painful to see that others don't take the same steps. I know too many people who don't invest their money or don't exercise. Making these small changes can be hugely beneficial for you down the road.
I'm not claiming that I have some sort of divine knowledge of that I've stumbled onto the arcane secrets of life. I'm always trying to form better habits and make worthwhile changes in my life. I have my vices (video games, mostly) and things I need to either stop or start doing.
But I want to help others in any way I can.