For some people, just the smell of freshly-brewing coffee acts as alarm clock, but I begin to stir at the sound of the click-hiss of a can of Diet Coke opening. Cool and sharp, it awakens me with its flavor and fizz, perking up my morning with its effervescence. I guzzle it, savoring the muted tang of artificial sweeteners, relishing the spiky carbonation still popping in my belly. Then I sit back, feeling almost instantly full. This is why Diet Coke belongs on breakfast menus and should be enjoyed without shame or commentary from anyone else.
Growing up with health-conscious parents (“Orange juice is orange death,” my father said, warning us away from the sugar), in a house whose fridge boasted the dual emblems of ‘80s nutrition, skim milk and margarine, diet soda was a rare treat. But we lived in a city and I navigated an urban landscape to get to middle school. While the cool kids snuck into the then-shiny and brand new Starbucks, I crossed the street to the dingy mini-mart, first picking up a single can of Diet Dr. Pepper on occasional mornings (my gateway drug, sweeter and milder), then a daily Diet Coke, until finally I simply went in for a 12-pack, keeping the carton in my locker for easy access.
It was the ‘90s, and school vending machines still sold Cheetos and soda outside the gym and the cafeteria offered pan pizza and French fries to anyone afraid of the turkey tetrazzini. The war on childhood obesity hadn’t yet begun to weaponize, so while I don’t remember anyone else indulging in a breakfast soda, nobody was aghast at my pre-teen habit. It did, however, draw some funny looks—then, now, and every time.
On planes, in 8 a.m. work meetings, or at a diner, I eased my way into tough mornings with a can in hand, enduring impressively judgmental glances from people gripping a coffee cup as if their heart would stop beating were they to let go. But coffee, somehow, held the reputation of acceptable calorie-free caffeine source, while Diet Coke drew scorn. Even when the alternative was free motel sludge, salvaged only with endless sugar packets and dubious milk, my breakfast Diet Coke took the heat. It was infantile, unhealthful, and perhaps even uncouth. Derision abounded, from the college cafeteria where the soda streamed from fountain machines in oversized paper cups to my food writer co-workers, who somehow were willing to compromise their coffee standards to instant versions if things got desperate. But God forbid I enjoy my morning Diet Coke.
And so I tried to quit. Sometimes for a year at a time, I’d ignore the gleaming cans and the cascading bubbles at the soda fountain. For the most part, good coffee and some sparkling water would get me through the day. In my head, I replayed the warnings of friends about how it would cause cancer, and I resisted the urge to open a can just to hear the carbonation rush out.
While I came about my habit on my own, soda for breakfast has a history much older than me. Generations of Southerners have grown up knowing the fizzy secret to jump-starting the day didn’t come from a coffeepot. A 2002 New York Times story attributed Coke’s popularity in the morning to the rural nature of the South, noting that farmers could grab a bottle quickly on the way into the field. But by then, the Coca-Cola company had already taken the early-hours promotion of its signature product into its own hands; in 1988, it launched a “Coke in the Morning” campaign. By 2007, NPD Research Group showed that 15.1 percent of consumers eating breakfast outside the home drank soda with their meal—almost double when the campaign began (and 1.7 percent of breakfasts, total). The same year, an ad for Diet Coke depicted the can wearing a coffee sleeve, with the caption “Good Morning.”
I’m hardly the only one for whom this ad depicted daily routine: more than one-third of the morning soda drinkers identified drank diet. Alex Trebek, host of Jeopardy!, admitted on The Howard Stern Show to eating a Milky Way and drinking a Diet Coke for breakfast, while former Presidential George Pataki called his breakfast Diet Coke a “guilty pleasure.” On the culinary side, esteemed food writer and Serious Eats founder Ed Levine prefaced admitting to Diet Coke as part of his breakfast with “What I’m about to tell you may be horrifying.” Even I, for many years, trained myself to think of my daily breakfast soda as gasp-inducing and shameful.
But two years ago, pregnant and exhausted as I worked a full-time job and built a freelance career on the side, I hit a wall with coffee. The caffeine in my morning cup—my doctor-recommended limit for the day—would keep me awake only until about 1 p.m. Perhaps somewhere in this world, a person exists who can stop at half a cup and drink the rest later, but I am not she. I needed a morning drink with less caffeine, so I could have another in the afternoon, maybe a third, even. I needed a drink whose brisk freshness worked in tandem with the stimulant to wake me up. And like that, I was back in the cool, aluminum grasp of Diet Coke, this time with pride: I was doing it for the health of my baby.
Naomi Tomky is a Seattle-based writer who wants to make sure the world knows that Diet Coke and Coca Light are not the same thing.