My son is 25 and studying for a PhD. He has at least 13 cavities that all require fillings. Every dentist and dental hygienist has warned him to stop drinking ANY soft and sugary drinks.

But he still drinks a bottle (500 mL) of Coke or Pepsi every day. When we ask him why he still drinks soft drinks, he accepts all the science and advice, but counters that:

  1. he needs something sweet to drink when thirsty. Water and tea aren't.

  2. Coke or Pepsi tastes exceptionally good.

I can't control his apparent addiction to these sugary beverages, which overcome his attempts to care about his teeth. We've tried everything beneath, but nothing has swayed him.

  1. Moderation
  2. Throwing out any such beverage that we see. But then he buys more.
  3. Cold Turkey
  4. Change of Environment
  5. Hacking the habit loop (in soda, people get three things: bubbles, a sweet treat, and caffeine. Finding all three in a beverage other than soda is tricky.)

He doesn't live with me, is financially independent, and not working full-time now.

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    Hey folks, just a reminder: answers belong in the answer box below, not in comments! Thanks! – Joe Nov 8 at 15:02
  • To clarify: does your son want to stop drinking soda and pick something else? I.e., is he cooperating in your attempts to stop? And second, has he tried diet soda instead of regular soda? – Joe Nov 8 at 15:04
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    @Joe He does want to stop, but the soda overcomes his control. Diet soda isn't better than regular soda. – Postmodernism dazes. Nov 8 at 17:34
up vote 4 down vote accepted

I'm going to answer this question from the perspective of your son. I've struggled with soda since high school. I quit for a year only to fall back into it worse than ever during college. I'm still struggling with it out of college.

I definitely drank 1-2 bottles per day (damn those convenient vending machines that took our college meal cards). Being in school made it extremely hard to quit. I was addicted to it enough to where drinking a bottle of soda actually helped me calm down and focus.

Unfortunately, quitting is hard. And honestly, it might not be worth it during this time. Getting a PhD is hard, and this little indulgence is likely helping with stress. But of course we can't forget about the long term problems, so I'd like to focus on ways to control his addiction first, and terminate it later.

One thing I can tell you is that your son has other bad dental habits if he has 13 cavities. Soda is horrible for your teeth, but that's extreme unless he his teeth are naturally prone to problems. He should be able to prevent most cavities without giving up soda, though be aware there's no way to prevent Tooth Enamel Erosion.

I'm not a dentist, but here are ways I've managed my dental health without giving up soda:

  • Drink Water. This is extremely important. Water cleans your mouth throughout the day, from both acids and plaque. A re-usable water bottle is nice to have, but if that's not convenient enough, don't hesitate to buy bottled water if that's what it takes to get him to drink it.
  • Only drink soda during meals. Food will actually help lessen the amount of contact your teeth endure with sugar, and will reduce the amount of sugar that lingers on the teeth.
  • Brush twice a day, no exceptions. Don't brush within 30-60 minutes of drinking pop, though.
  • Try to floss once per day, but don't be sad if it turns out to be once per week (that's more than most people). Buying the single-use floss picks and keeping them in plain sight where I brush my teeth helps me actually do it.
  • Buy expensive toothpaste. No joke. Cheap toothpaste is a privilege option you get when you take decent care of your teeth. I use Sensodyne myself because I know my teeth take punishment.
  • Getting the right amount of calcium can't hurt. I wouldn't jump to drinking a bunch of milk (that's a lot of calories combined with soda). Vitamin D and calcium supplements are an option.
  • Get some decent exercise at least once per week. Dental problems aren't the only thing to be concerned about. I found that exercising helped me feel better and lessened my addiction.
  • Make sure the problem doesn't get worse. Put a hard limit on soda, even if it has to be 2 bottles per day (I know it sounds ridiculous, but I had that rule once).
  • Have him promise that he will take steps to quit once things become less stressful.
  • Make him pay for his own dental procedures

Doing these things will make him feel better about his habit without destroying his health. More importantly, it will make him feel in control.

Once he is ready, he can leverage his feeling of control to overcome the addiction. For me, this occurred after I became comfortable in a steady job after school.

Here are some good ways to help the addiction:

  • Drink lots of water. More than normal. When I'm actually thirsty is when I crave soda the most.
  • Buy smaller serving sizes of soda. Cans are a good option. This makes it easier to limit intake.
  • Find an alternative drink and buy it along with normal soda. I used to limit myself to 1 can of soda and 1 can of diet soda per day. (Diet Dr. Pepper is great if he's a Pepsi freak like me).
  • Gradually try to switch to just the alternative drink.
  • If your son ends up having a roommate or girlfriend, try to find an arrangement where they do the shopping. Once he's switched to solely the alternative drink, have the shopper stop buying regular soda altogether. It's a lot easier to not drink soda if you have to make a special trip for it.
  • Have him tell himself it's fine to order a regular soda when eating out (as long as eating out isn't too common for him).
  • Eventually, try switching to pure water and enduring it for at least 2 weeks. The urge to drink soda lessens severely once you've quit for a few weeks. Some people will say it completely goes away after a month, but don't get your hopes up for that...

I know this wasn't really a "parenting" answer, but I hope it helps you and your son!

And hey, if he can't quit, don't be too upset. He's an adult and smart enough to know the consequences of continuous soda drinking, including dental health, general health, and financial costs of bad health. If he ends up accepting that tradeoff, that's his decision. Just try to be happy he isn't smoking or doing hard drugs (hopefully).

Since your son is an adult, your ability to control him is pretty limited.

It sounds like he knows it is an issue but is making the choice to ignore the advice of his dentists (has he really gone to multiple dentists all of whom have told him to stop drinking pop?).

If you can't dissuade him from drinking soda maybe you can find out if there are anythings he can do to minimize the effects of the drink? If he's not going to stop surely the dentist can recommenced something (brushing his teeth, rinsing his mouth after drinking it, adding more milk/calcium into his diet, more regular dental cleanings).

Ultimately it's his decision and the only thing you really can do is work to accept it.

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    I think that P(tells you to stop drinking pop)|is_dentist is very close to 1, so that doesn't surprise me at all. I've never seen a dentist that didn't think pop was bad for your teeth (as, well, it is). Good advice on the alternatives! – Joe Nov 8 at 16:42
  • @Joe - For those of us who only understand languages in existence for, oh, 50 years or more, can you please explain what "I think that P(tells you to stop drinking pop)|is_dentist is very close to 1" means? Thanks. – anongoodnurse Nov 8 at 20:27
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    @anongoodnurse That's statistical terminology - Probability of someone telling you to stop drinking pop, given they are a dentist, is close to 100%. :) – Joe Nov 8 at 21:29
  • @Joe - Ah! Thank you. :) – anongoodnurse Nov 9 at 1:16
  • @anongoodnurse That particular language has been around for a good 250 years I think. Though math itself is of course much older but the dialects change a huge amount.:) Thomas Bayes is the 1800's and conditional probability is what he's famous for. – DRF Nov 9 at 7:08

As the person above said your son is and adult so it really is up to him as an adult to make his own choices, and he clearly does not seem to want to do so. There is a very obvious addiction he has to drinking soft drinks and the only one that really can do something about it at his age is himself.

Has it always been an issue when he was growing up ???

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    OP indicated in comments that the son does want to stop, but doesn't seem to have the tools to do so. That seems like something a parent can help with, no? – Joe Nov 8 at 18:50

The first concern I'd have here is that the addiction is less to the sugar but to the caffeine (or to both). Caffeine dependency can lead to addiction-like symptoms, more so than sugar (long-term not short-term), and for many stopping drinking sodas is quite hard for that reason (aside from the sugar addiction). That's typically the challenge for me (someone who drinks quite a lot of soda at times); removing the caffeine first may make the second step simpler. (See this article for an explanation of why 'addictive' is technically wrong here, but also for a good explanation of how the dependency cycle works.) Either way, whether it's sugar or caffeine, the issue is in stopping the dependency cycle: he feels like he needs to have it to counter a negative feeling, or to enhance a positive feeling, so he has more.

Approaching this as a parenting question, I think the best solution is to enable him to find the solution in whichever way he wants to. If he doesn't want to, then there's not much you can do; but when he wants to, ask him what you can do to help. The key here is to avoid nagging, and to avoid it being a negative interaction where his first thought of "mom and dad" is "they're going to bug me about soda".

Instead, let him guide you to what kind of help you can offer. If he wants to get advice for different ways to quit, research those and share them with him (or research alongside him, particularly if you're good at researching things, so he can learn from you). If he has an idea and just needs help implementing it, do that. If he needs someone to be accountable to, be that person.

I do recommend accountability specifically, as that's a proven effective way to do things like dieting and quitting addictions. Freakonomics had a good explanation of the science in a podcast episode a few years ago, and lots of other sites have information on it as well if you search. Accountability basically refers to the idea of having either money or just social pressure based on your own reporting - for example, "Mom, I'll give you a quarter every time I drink a soda." Something that's enough to feel it but not enough to be a big deal - just a little pinprick every time he does the thing he doesn't want do (drink a soda).

I'd also recommend continuing to try and find alternatives that hit the same buttons. For me, diet soda at least helped; while you're right that it's not better in terms of the acidity, at least it doesn't have sugar in it, which helps a bit, and can perhaps be a single step. Another thing that helps me is flavored seltzers (i.e. La Croix, Perrier, etc.); those are unsweetened, and do not have the phosphoric acid that's so problematic on teeth. Their flavors, though, trick the mouth into thinking they're sweet, which works well for me - so long as I don't have anything else sweet with them.

  • "...the addiction is less to the sugar but to the caffeine". I think this is a broad leap to make. Carbonation + sweet + thirst quenching + stimulant = Coke/Pepsi. Coffee = caffeine, and would satisfy that craving (maybe a few cups would be needed depending on brew), so would easily substitute. But it doesn't sub for Coke/Pepsi at all. Addiction is complicated, and so is food science. Otherwise, a good answer. – anongoodnurse Nov 8 at 20:33
  • @anongoodnurse I'm not saying it's definitely the case, I said it's a concern that it might be the case (and thus something to think about). People often don't realize why they're craving what they're craving - and as you say it's pretty complicated. :) – Joe Nov 8 at 21:28

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