7 Healthy Alternatives to Soft Drinks To Help You Put Down the Can for Good

Photo: Getty Images/Srdjan Pav
The instant you hear that hissing sound after twisting open a bottle or cracking open a can of soda, you know you're in for a sweet and refreshing treat. But despite the fact that soft drinks like soda taste so good, the sugar, artificial sweeteners, and additives used to make them taste that way can cause short- and long-term health effects.

Cutting down on soft drinks—or replacing them altogether!—is easier said than done. Luckily, if you're trying to break your habit, there are a handful of different options that are much better for your body. Ahead, find seven healthy alternatives to soft drinks worth sipping on, the benefits of ditching soft drinks for good, and tips on how to kick the habit to the curb once and for all.

Healthy alternatives to soft drinks

1. Coffee

Drinking coffee in moderation can be a great healthy alternative to soft drinks—as long as you don't dump in packet upon packet of sugar and loads of creamer, that is. "Drinking coffee is linked to lower rates of certain cancers and a lower risk of depression,” says registered dietitian Torey Armul, MS, RDN, LD, a former spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “It can also protect against oxidative stress and DNA damage. In addition, it can help increase alertness and concentration because it acts as a mild stimulant to the nervous system."

2. Fruit-infused water

One of the easiest ways to DIY your own refreshing beverage is to grab some fruit from your fridge. Plus, it's a great way to make sure you use it all up before it goes bad. "Water is the best way to stay hydrated, but not everyone likes the taste of plain water," says Armul. "You can add flavor with infused fruits like lemons, limes, berries, oranges, kiwi, berries, some cucumber slices, and a sprig of mint or basil."

3. Flavored water

Instead of drinking a soft drink, a healthier option is simply adding a packet or squirt of water flavoring products into your water, says Armul. There's lemonade, raspberry—really, whatever you're into. "Most have very small amounts of artificial sweeteners that are safe, and you’ll reap the benefits of staying hydrated throughout the day," she says.

4. Iced tea

Unsweetened iced tea is a super-refreshing healthy alternative to soft drinks. "Plus, the caffeine content is a natural pick-me-up," Armul says. "Don’t turn your iced tea into sweet tea with tons of added sugar, though. If unsweetened iced tea isn’t sweet enough for you, try a small amount of stevia or another artificial sweetener."

5. Hot tea

Not a fan of iced tea? Go for the hot kind. There are numerous different types to choose from, including green tea, peppermint, chamomile, and chai. "Hot tea has similar health benefits to coffee and can be very calming," Armul says. "It can also support good digestion and a healthy immune system."

6. Kombucha

The fermented tea has long been a fave for health-minded folks because it’s packed with gut-friendly probiotics, and soft-drink fans will love its familiar bubbles. “Kombucha can help keep you regular, improve digestion, and boost your [immune system],” New York City nutritionist Amy Shapiro, RD, previously told Well+Good. Just be sure to read the label to ensure you’re not replacing your sugary soda with a kombucha packed with extra sugar.

7. Carbonated drinks with gut-healthy ingredients

Americans’ love of soft drinks is to secret, and the wellness industry is trying to help us scratch this itch by creating fizzing drinks that contain little added sugar and extra health-boosting ingredients like probiotics and fiber.

The benefits of quitting soft drinks

‘If you drink sodas, eliminating them could very well be the best preventive medicine you could ever find,” says Alejandro Junger, MD, a Los Angeles-based cardiologist, gut health and nutrition expert, and founder and Medical Director of the Clean Program. Why is quitting soft drinks considered preventive medicine? Well, let us count the ways.

For one, all the sugar in soft drinks certainly tastes great. There's no denying that. Unfortunately, it can come at a cost. According to Harvard Medical School, sugary drinks are the biggest source of calories and added sugar in U.S. diets. It makes sense when you think about it this way: Evidently, scooping 7 to 10 teaspoons of sugar (which contains around 4.2 grams of sugar each) into a 12-ounce glass of water is equivalent to a typical can of soda, and all that sugar can do your body harm.

According to Armul, typical soda is high in empty calories and drinking it can lead to weight gain. In addition, a 2010 study from the American Diabetes Association found those who drink at least one to two cans a day have a 26 percent greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes, and an older 24-year-long study of nearly 90,000 women found those who drank more than two sugary beverages a day had a 40 percent increased risk of having a heart attack or dying from heart disease. It can also increase your risk of stroke by 16 percent.

That's not even it. A large study of nearly 38,000 people also found the more sugary beverages people drank, the more they increased their risk of premature death from cardiovascular disease and even cancer. Diet soda isn't a great replacement, either. "The diet drinks have artificial sweeteners in them that actually affect your brain chemistry, that make you hungry, that can slow your metabolism, and that affect your gut microbiome in ways that are not good," Mark Hyman, MD, told the Cleveland Clinic.

And speaking of the gut, Dr. Junger adds that the chemicals inside soft drinks that make it colorful and extend its shelf life aren’t good for your digestive system either. “These chemicals will decimate your intestinal bacteria, damage your intestinal wall leading to leaky gut, and create conditions for cancerous cells to proliferate while weakening your immune system,” he says.

Furthermore, the chemicals in the soft drink plastic or aluminum containers can also be harmful. “BPA and phthalates will leach into the drink as well ending up in your bloodstream, blocking enzymes and confusing your hormonal system as well as lead to cancer,” Dr. Junger says.

Basically, science doesn't lie and it's safe to say drinking soda or soft drinks of any kind on a regular basis isn't the best thing you can do for your health and well-being. Replacing sodas with healthy alternatives to soft drinks can help prevent various health issues in the future.

The best sugar option to choose, according to a dietitian:

How to stop drinking soft drinks for good

When you're ready to officially stop drinking soft drinks, Armul suggests first cutting back considerably if not completely. "Replace a couple sodas every day with an alternative beverage. Do you like zero-calorie sports drinks or iced teas? Can you try infusing water or a water-flavoring product? To begin, you’ll need to find a beverage that you enjoy that can start to replace sodas," she says.

Aside from finding healthy alternatives to soft drinks, really think about why you're drinking it in the first place. Knowing the reason behind your love of daily sodas can be key in helping you drop the unhealthy habit. "Is it an afternoon pick-me-up? A moment for you to relax away from work?" she says. "Once you observe why you’re reaching for the soda, you can make smart substitutions."

After working on changing your habits, your new afternoon pick-me-up can be brewing yourself some coffee or tea, or making yourself a sugar-free lemonade. Also, think about all the other things you can do to boost your mood aside from making yourself a healthy beverage. "If the soda serves as something nice for yourself, consider other forms of self-care like going for a walk, playing music, lighting a candle," Armul says. Before you know it, your desire to drink soft drinks will be a thing of the past.

Originally published May 14, 2020. Updated with additional writing and reporting by Jessica Estrada.

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