Sunday,April 1,2001


Britney Spears bursts on the screen, looking so hot you could almost drink her up. She's half-naked, of course, wearing sexy, butt-bearing jeans, a shrunken half shirt that grips her breasts and a Pepsi belly ring.

Her TV spots during last week's Oscar telecast made you want to guzzle a soda or, even better, a diet soda. Just for the taste of it.

But Spears' commercial is nothing unusual. No product is more glamorized than soda, going back to the days of Tab, when a svelte Lauren Hutton dove into a pool, holding a can of the stuff.

Alluring marketing like that works astonishingly well. Hundreds of New Yorkers are hooked on carbonated drinks - both the regular and sugar-free versions - gulping down bottle after bottle of a beverage that can be bad for your health when consumed in large quantities.

Experts warn that overdoing it on sodas can eat away at your tooth enamel, irritate your stomach, cause joint pain and headaches and even induce dizziness and fatigue.

Dr. Paul Inselman, an expert from the Enzyme Replacement Nutrition Center in Long Island, says diet sodas, though they have no sugar, are worse than regular sodas because they contain aspartame, an artificial sweetener.

"The Department of Health and Human Services documented that overdoing diet soda - due to its aspartame content - leads to muscle spasms, rashes, depression, migraines and more," says Inselman.

"Aspartame is considered chemical poison. It's not a good food, if you can even call it food."

Joy Bauer, a New York nutritionist, says that diet sodas have a particular appeal among many women, who see it as an acceptable indulgence.

"Women tend to use it as crutch when they're not eating," she says.

Bauer said that too much soda also can lead to acne because heavier drinkers tend to avoid regular water, which is essentially to healthy skin. It also upsets your tummy, she says.

"It kills your stomach," she says. "It makes people incredibly gassy and feel as if they have irritable bowels when consumed in large doses."

And yet scores of woman can't get enough of it.

Dina Wise, a publicist at Harrison & Shriftman, says she drinks six 20-oz bottles of Diet Coke during the day and a 2-liter bottle at night.

"When I don't meet my quota, I get terrible headaches," says Wise. "I don't drink coffee. This is my one vice. And when I think about it, it's not such a bad vice to have."

Wise says that she's heard the health warnings and doesn't care.

"I once quit for three months because everyone was telling me how bad it was for me," she says. "But I saw no change in myself. And nothing fulfilled me the way Diet Coke does."

This reporter has had a similar experience. I have been struggling with my habit since I was 13. Like alcoholism, the disease may be hereditary. My mother, too, is an addict. She downs at least one six pack of Diet Coke a day.

"I don't feel badly about my habit," she says, "It's just the way I am."

I've always reached for Diet Cokes - when thirsty after a hard workout or working or watching TV. I used to drink as many as five 20-ounce bottles a day.

Sometimes I would get headaches or feel queasy, but the soda was always a safe treat.

But I know I should give it up, especially after hearing dire warnings like the one delivered by my dentist. He said that the phosphoric acid in soda will destroy my pearly whites.

"It eats away at the gums, particularly if you have advanced gum disease," he says.

Still, as any addict knows, quitting ain't easy.

"I'm elated every morning when I get my hands on my first bottle," says Carrie Anderson, an events producer who is trying to reduce her intake of soda.

"I try to quit or even drink water to counteract effects of soda. But it only lasts a day. I feel guilty because I know my habit is not healthy and people say it causes cancer in rats, but I need my Diet Coke."

In my case, two friends actually organized an intervention, telling me that I was killing myself with soda.

"We can't watch you continue to hurt yourself," they said. "You're out of control."

I left town for a few weeks to detox. I went through serious withdrawal - shakes, headaches, mood swings. I stayed with a friend in Los Angeles who was my soda Nazi. She refused to let me have a drop.

I have now been off the sauce for three months. My water intake is excellent now. My skin is smoother. My stomach is more flat. I even went down a size in clothing. I feel healthier, over all.

But I miss it terribly. Too bad they don't make a patch.