"Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?"

— What Steve Jobs said to make Pepsi executive John Sculley defect to Apple, according to legend

This is the true story of my personal triumph over carbonated soft drink addiction. But first, let's get one thing straight. I'm the furthest thing there is from a health and fitness nut, and I unapologetically enjoy consuming a wide variety of junk food and stuff that's bad for you. I really can't stand being subjected to a self-righteous polemic that's dead-set on converting me into a vegetarian, or shrieking about the deadly chemical additives in Twinkies and Velveeta. So if you happen to like soft drinks, that's fine with me. That's your business. My intent here is just to tell my story and say my piece, not to proselytize. Whether these comments may apply to you and your own beverage consumption is entirely for you to decide.

I happen to believe that soft drinks are evil. I want to blow the lid off the secret conspiracy of the Coca-Cola and Pepsi corporations to enslave the human race in a drugged and hyperglycemic stupor, deploying sociological mind-control to maintain and fortify their devious multi-billion-dollar empires.

I don't need soft drinks anymore. I haven't sworn them off completely, and I still enjoy a Cherry Coke or a Dr. Pepper every now and then, when I feel like it. But I have broken the addiction. And I think that's what those megalithic corporate sugar water peddlers are most afraid of.

All my life, I've been a soft drink fanatic. I am Southern, after all, and the South is well established as the top region of the U.S. in cola beverage consumption. In fact, I've heard that my home state of North Carolina is number one in gallons guzzled per capita. We don't call soft drinks "soda" or "pop," we call 'em "Cokes," regardless of what brand they happen to be. Any true Southerner can tell you why we drink so many Cokes down here: because it's so damn hot.

I fondly remember the exact incident of how I fell in love with soft drinks as a child. I went out for a walk with my grandmother when I was about four or five, and she bought me a can of Pepsi. I had never been able to drink an entire container of a soft drink before -- I'd always get full or the carbonation would start burning my throat. But on this hot and sweaty day, I actually finished the whole 12-ounce can all by myself. I felt really proud of myself, and I boasted of my accomplishment to my grandmother, although I recall she wasn't terribly impressed.

Pepsi, The Taste of the Carolinas Ever since that day, I've been a loyal Pepsi partisan. I've always thought it tasted better than Coke, and I was one of the dozen or so people who actually liked New Coke. I also enjoy Dr. Pepper, root beer, ginger ale, Cheerwine, and Sprite, but the only serious contender that could ever rival my love for Pepsi is Cherry Coke. Mmmm... Cherry Coke! Yes, I'm quite familiar with Wild Cherry Pepsi, but I think Cherry Coke tastes a thousand times better, even though I like Pepsi better than Coke. Go figure. I ultimately came to the decision that Cherry Coke is actually superior to Pepsi, although Pepsi remained my sentimental favorite.

Such was the state of my love affair with soft drinks until December 1999, when I was diagnosed with a bleeding stomach ulcer. (No, I'm not saying I got an ulcer from drinking too much Pepsi -- just hang on a minute.) Fortunately, the ulcer cleared up quickly with medication, but in the process of treating me, my doctor discovered that my blood sugar was a little high. I have a family history of diabetes, and I'm overweight, and I was already on medication to control my high blood pressure. My doctor told me that all these factors, combined with an elevated blood sugar level, meant that I was in a pre-diabetic condition. I didn't have diabetes, but if I continued on the same path, it looked almost certain that I would.

I made the decision that I was going to stop that from happening. I began exercising more, and I made some changes in my diet. My doctor told me to cut down my intake of fat and sugar. I enjoy lots and lots of greasy and fatty foods, but I've never been that big on sweets. I thought my sugar consumption was already fairly moderate, with the exception of one category: soft drinks. I figured the vast majority of the sugar in my diet had to come from the Pepsi and other carbonated beverages I was drinking two or three times a day.

So in February 2000, I resolved to see how well I could get along without soft drinks. I have permitted myself to drink one occasionally, about once or twice a month, but otherwise I have been living happily soft-drink-free ever since then.

It was a surprisingly easy habit for me to give up. I thought it would be, because once before I'd done okay by giving up soft drinks for a brief period as a "cola wars" protest in 1995. A lot of people complain of suffering caffeine withdrawal when forced to go without their favorite carbonated beverage, but that's never been a problem for me. I don't drink alcohol either, and I never have (which is a whole 'nother story in itself), so I possess a highly developed degree of self-control when it comes to my choice of beverages -- it's definitely much easier for me to go cold turkey on Cokes than cheeseburgers.

Good Old Water So what do I drink instead? Some of you out there may be surprised that there exist other beverage options besides soft drinks and beer. First off, there's good old water. People often say they hate drinking water, but I love it. I believe I must drink the eight glasses a day that they say you're supposed to. Lots of areas have nasty-tasting tap water, forcing you to invest in a filtration system or bottled water if you want to drink a lot of H2O, but fortunately we in Durham, North Carolina, are blessed with relatively clean and palatable water straight from the kitchen faucet. I keep a gallon jug chilled in the refrigerator, and that's what I drink most of the time.

Then there's the number one entry on my list of favorite beverages: milk. In recent years I have weaned myself from whole vitamin D milk, to 2 percent "reduced fat," and nowadays to 1 percent low fat. There ain't no way I'll ever switch to skim -- I love that creamy milkfat too much to give it up completely. Another thing I won't give up is sweetened iced tea. I still drink that at restaurants, even though I'm aware it has as much sugar (if not more) than the typical soft drink. But sweet tea is part of my Southern heritage, by God, and you can take my tea away from me when you pry it from my cold dead fingers. I also continue to drink juice, Snapple, and Gatorade occasionally, in moderation. For my general day-to-day beverage needs, water is where it's at.

Just by cutting out soft drinks, making some non-drastic changes in my diet, and doing moderate exercise almost every day, I seem to have turned out the direction of my health. I've lost 30 pounds (and trying to lose some more), and my blood sugar levels are down into the normal range. Hopefully, I'm no longer on the path to diabetes. I believe that giving up soft drinks is a major part of my success.

I'm not saying that cola beverages are responsible for making people diabetic, or that they're deadly dangerous for everybody. Obviously diabetes is more complex than that. But I am going to take the soft drink companies to task for this: they have created an environment in which the daily consumption of large quantities of sugar water is not only acceptable, it's the expected norm. Their business is built upon making consumers forget about the possible health consequences of habitually drinking their products.

Just stop and think about it for a moment. Human beings were not designed to drink fizzy brown sugar water every day, with every meal. Before the last century or so, we never drank anything like that. People mostly drank water, or, when they were available, coffee, tea, milk, beer, wine... beverages with little or no sugar in them. But nowadays, people drink this syrupy-sweet junk all the time, almost exclusively in some cases. Isn't that a really weird situation?

Now, there are lots of other food items we enjoy today that humans never or rarely consumed in the past. But the difference is that I don't eat pizza all the time. I don't eat a Big Mac every day. I don't have ice cream with every meal. Imagine that in our society we just drank water all the time, and we regarded Coca-Cola and Pepsi as special treats that were fun to have every now and then, like a dessert or a way to cool off on a hot day. That's the difference between soft drinks and other junk food. Like the lone salamander that first climbed onto dry land from the primordial muck, soft drinks are the first and only junk food to evolve to the level of acceptance as a routine staple of our everyday diet.

The Pepsi Challenge Through their inescapable marketing juggernauts, Coca-Cola and Pepsi have succeeded at conditioning most of the industrialized world to believe that their products are, by default, the best thing there is to drink -- at least, in those situations where alcoholic beverages are not appropriate. Much has been made of the "cola wars" and the debate over which of the Big Two tastes better or has the most market share. But the secret victory of the cola wars has already been won: the question in the mind of Joe Consumer is now definitely "Do I want a Coke or a Pepsi?" and not "Do I want a soft drink or do I want something else instead?" Alternatives are eliminated. Beverage hegemony is assured. And that's the way the sugar water giants like it.

Some people might ask me, what about diet soft drinks? After all, if I'm principally concerned about the high sugar content of regular soft drinks, I could switch to diet drinks and avoid the health risk. Even my doctor said diet drinks would be okay. But I say that's bullshit.

Don't you see that diet drinks are the industry's first weapon for keeping us in line when we begin to question this stuff they're feeding us? Diet drinks were created when consumers started realizing how unhealthy and fattening all this sugar water gets to be when you drink it all the time. Rather than lose those customers, the industry came up with Diet Rite and Tab, to make sure those dollars kept coming in. Coca-Cola and Pepsi were reluctant to debase their top brand names with inferior-tasting diet versions until the demand for low-calorie drinks became so unexpectedly huge, and the shrewd sugar-panic solution became an industry unto itself.

I refuse to drink diet soft drinks because they taste like shit. I know, I know, "you get used to them," but I'd rather not get used to the taste of shit. I've got a different zero-calorie beverage that I'm much happier with, and it's called water. It's cheaper, it contains fewer synthetic chemicals of dubious wholesomeness, and it's a hell of a lot more honest.

Bottled Water Poor old H2O certainly has suffered as one of the biggest casualties of the cola wars. Largely as a result of the soft drink industry, our society has built up a whole lot of antipathy towards water as a beverage. Water is viewed as boring and bland, and even beyond the issue of how it tastes, there is a powerful economic component involved that cuts against water both ways. Since water is generally free at restaurants, you may be frowned upon as a cheapskate if you order it instead of paying for a "real" beverage; and at the same time, you may be regarded as a pretentious dupe if you choose to buy bottled water, because we all believe water should be free!

Remember the "Bubble Boy" episode of Seinfeld? Jerry and Elaine had to make an unscheduled stop at a diner, and Jerry ordered a cup of coffee, while Elaine asked for just a glass of water. This infuriated Jerry. He told her you can't go into a diner and order just water -- it's a place of business, not a public rest area. But Elaine protested that a glass of water was all she wanted. This situation is terribly wrong. You should always have the option to get water if you wanted in, and not be made to feel bad if it's free. As a variation on this, I've been in restaurants and ordered a special or a combo that includes a beverage. When I ask for water, the waitress says, "You know, you can get a soda or tea with that, same price." I know she's just trying to be helpful, but if I order water it's because that's what I want -- not because I'm out to save a dime or two.

The other attitude that needs to change is the prejudice against bottled water. While I was growing up I always thought buying water in a bottle was stupid. I'm sure I never conceded to pay for a bottled water until I was in college. It's hard to overcome the stigma that bottled water is for yuppies and hippies, and people are always going to joke that the bottlers laughing their ass off back at the factory, filling their inventory from a regular old faucet around back instead of a cool mountain stream like it shows on the label. Like they say, "Evian" is "naive" spelled backwards, haw haw haw. But if it's reasonably pure and it tastes good, who cares where it comes from? I have gradually come to accept that it's fine to buy bottled water, if you're in a situation where good drinkable tap water isn't readily available. It's no sillier than paying for a jug of sugar water, anyway.

This is my case against Coca-Cola, Pepsi and the rest of the soft drink industry. They are guilty of deliberately ingraining their products so deeply into our culture that we consume them at an outrageously enormous rate without stopping to consider why, or what alternatives we might have. The psychological cycle they've trapped us in can be incredibly hard to break, but if a one-time Pepsiholic like me can do it, anybody can. If enough people were to follow in my footsteps, the cola empires would crumble... or at least, they'd have to settle for making millions in revenue instead of billions. Yes, I'm their worst nightmare.

As I said in the beginning, I'm not out to convince anyone to swear off their favorite carbonated poison. Drink as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law. But I would like to open people's eyes to the choice they've been unconsciously making. The most powerful weapon I can use is words. The phrase "sugar water" cuts right to the truth -- it deconstructs and obliterates the meticulously fabricated glamor of the soft drink experience, and reminds you of what this stuff really is. It's just sugar water. Coca-Cola and Pepsi want desperately for you to forget that and pay no attention to the high fructose corn syrup behind the curtain. That's why I take every opportunity to use the phrase "evil sugar water" whenever the topic of beverages arises in conversation. The soda-pop emperor has no clothes. And quite frankly, he's got a big old gut and a flabby bare ass, and the sight kinda makes me sick.

I do indeed still enjoy soft drinks from time to time, most often Cherry Coke. That's because I really like the taste of Cherry Coke a whole lot, and I really savor it when I have it -- it's not just something to drink, not just some liquid substance to wash down my nachos. But I still avoid actual Coca-Cola and Pepsi like the plague, because they're the two Great Satans, and I feel the need to symbolically boycott them. I finally had a Pepsi in February 2001, after going a full year without it. It was a special occasion, the UNC-Duke basketball game, and I decided it would be okay. Only half-jokingly, I worried about "falling off the wagon" and getting hooked on Pepsi again. But you know what? After abstaining from this treasured beverage for the span of one year, it didn't taste that great. Remember, now, I drank about a gallon of Pepsi a week about every week for well over a quarter of a century, but now the taste is no big thrill to me. Did I ever really truly love Pepsi, or did I just believe I did?

Make the real choice of a new generation. Drink what you want, because you want it, and don't let a gigantic corporate conspiracy make you think you want it. Next time you're thirsty, open up a cool, refreshing bottle of freedom of thought. It's the real real thing.

To put it another way: do you want to drink sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?

UPDATE: "Just Say No to H2O"
Coca-Cola and The Olive Garden join forces for a "successful campaign against water."

Good Cholesterol