Tag Archives: autonomy

The Curious Case of a Girl and Her Coke – A Lesson in Problem Solving

case of coke

No, I’m not talking about cocaine, although that would make for a very interesting story indeed. Drug use is out of my scope of practice. But Coca-Cola is what I’m referencing today, and I have a story to tell that might help you with your fitness progress too.

One of my clients has spent the last two years intermittently trying to stop drinking Coke. She loves the stuff. But she had a vague idea that it was probably time to make a change. After all, everyone says drinking pop is bad. And diet pop? Well, that has practically become the new meth in the eyes of popular media.

A little soda is no big deal to me – enjoy the treats that you like. But this habit had turned into a 32 ounce soda 3 times per day. Ouch. 

Her well-meaning friends offered oodles of suggestions and advice. WARNING: I call soda “pop”. I’m in the Midwest, it’s our thing.

“Pop is terrible for you. Isn’t pop, like, the new cigarettes?”
“You should drink more water”.
“You should drink seltzer water instead.”
“You shouldn’t keep it in the house.”

These statements came out of a loving place, but a funny thing happens when someone tells you that you should do something. I call it “shoulding” on people. Huh huh huh.


When we hear from people that we should do something, we often subconsciously dig in our heels. After all, nobody else completely gets us. Think of the bad boy in high school who a girl wants to date. Her parents forbid him from seeing him. And she runs right into his arms.

In my friend’s case, she ran right back into the arms of her beloved Coke, after trying each helpful suggestion for a brief period of time.

She DID want to make a change: but she knew that going cold turkey would never work, so she inched her way down to a smaller amount each day. That’s really great progress in my eyes.

Still, when this lovely young woman began working with me, I had a hunch that the 24 ounces of Coke she drank each day was going to give her some issues with meeting her nutritional goals. But instead of telling her not to drink it, I went a different route: I said nothing. I only asked her what she could do to squeeze in more protein and still stay in her calorie range.

The first few weeks were tough. My client began to realize that her large consumption of the delicious, bubbly drink was making it nearly impossible to support her fat loss goal. But some kind of fire was burning inside of her, and she tried cutting back instead of eliminating it entirely. She lost a little fat, and that stoked those fires even more.

She started sharing her own observations:

I had the worst craving for Coke when I was really, really hungry. But I had some seltzer water, and it passed.

I realized that my 2nd coke of the day is going to make it really tough to hit my daily calories.

Maybe I’ll get an 8 ounce can and think of that as a treat instead of a daily part of my life.

And then today I received this email: 

Random musings: I drank SO much water and I didn’t even die. So there’s that. Towards the end of the night I realized I had hit my protein goals and still had the calories for a Coke.  Since I wasn’t hungry, I thought,”okay, I’ll have one.”  I only drank 1/2.  It hit the spot and I didn’t feel the need to drink the rest.  I feel so good about that. There are a lot of moving parts to overall health/wellness/fitness.  I’m feeling good about this.  I feel like it’s changing everything — the way I cook, the way I think about food, even pop.

She’s already come a long way in her ability to understand her own body, her challenges, and her priorities. She’s becoming a student of her own health. And that will take her far.

This isn’t surprising if you take into consideration something called “self determination theory”.  It’s a framework that suggests that people have innate needs that motivate them to change and grow 1

According to this theory, people need 3 things in order to change and grow:

1. Competence – gaining skills necessary to grow. These come with time and practice.

2. Connections – people need to feel a sense of belonging to other people – to feel supported and understood.

3. Autonomy – we need to feel in control of our goals and behaviors.

Extrinsic motivators, like a reward for completing a task, can be motivating too. But for the long haul, finding that motivation inside of us is priceless. It requires continued “feeding” to work, but healthy environments that allow these things to continue to flourish make a positive impact on continued personal growth.

My client had support. She gained skills. And ultimately, she came up with her own solutions. And because they’re her own, I’ll let you in on a secret: she’s going to be 100% more likely to stick with them. Because they take into consideration that last piece of the puzzle: autonomy. Her choices grew from her own wisdom, experience, and choice.

So let me ask you: are you making a choice because someone said you should? Or because you feel like you should? The “shoulds” seem to rarely be the things we actually want. So what do you want – really want?

Give yourself some props for being intelligent. Dig in there a little bit and find the thing that you really want to change for yourself and you’ll be able to come up with some spectacular solutions.



  1. Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum.