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Drink Pounds Away

Many of us watch what we eat but not what we drink when on a diet. That’s a mistake. The average American drinks one out of five of their daily calories. Choosing the right drinks can tweak your metabolism, curb your appetite, and help cut calories. Which drinks are spoilers and which are helpers on the path to weight loss?

Spoiler: Soda

Every time you chug a bottle of soda, you get hundreds of empty calories. Switching to diet soft drinks is an obvious way to cut calories, but the research is mixed on whether this switch leads to weight loss. Some studies show a short-term benefit. Others find diet soda drinkers gain weight. If you eat or drink more calories than you burn, just switching to diet soda may not do the trick.

Helper: Water

Replacing carbonated soft drinks with water will cut hundreds of calories per day. Drinking two glasses of water before a meal may also help you feel full faster, so you don’t eat as much. And drinking enough water may have a positive effect on your metabolism.

Jury’s Out: Fruit Juice

Juice can have as many calories as soda, but it has more nutrients. This presents a dilemma: You want the vitamins and antioxidants without all the extra sugar. Look for 100% fruit juice. Steer clear of juice drinks that have added sweeteners. Check the nutrition label for the percentage of real juice. You can also slash calories by drinking water with a tiny bit of juice added.

Helper: Vegetable Juice

Vegetable juice is as nutritious as fruit juice, with about half the calories but a lot more sodium. One cup of tomato juice has 41 calories, compared to 122 calories for orange juice. Choosing juice with pulp provides some fiber, too, which may help control hunger.

Jury's Out: Smoothies

Blend a banana, strawberries, and blueberries into a frothy smoothie, and you’ve got a delicious drink. Make your own, so you can control the ingredients: skim milk (or an alternative, like almond milk) and fresh or frozen fruit are all you need. Restaurant smoothies may include ice cream, honey, or other sweeteners that boost the calorie count sky-high.

Jury’s Out: Low-Fat Milk

Eating calcium-rich foods may do a body good, and it may help you lose weight. Some research shows that drinking higher amounts of milk or eating other dairy foods can help with weight loss. For the best all-around benefits, stick to skim or low-fat.

Spoiler: Energy Drinks

Most sports and energy drinks are calorie bombs like soda. They may have more added nutrients, but you can find the same vitamins and minerals in low-calorie foods. When you're working on weight loss, stay hydrated with water rather than sports drinks, unless you need the extra nutrients because you're exercising hard and sweating a lot.

Helper: Black Coffee

When you need a shot of caffeine, coffee is a better choice than soda or energy drinks. Black coffee is calorie-free and rich in antioxidants. Studies have shown that drinking moderate amounts of coffee (about 3 to 4 cups a day) may improve mood and concentration, and may also lower the risk of type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer.

Spoiler: Fancy Coffee

Once you add heavy cream, flavored syrups, or a snowcap of whipped cream, your mug of black coffee is full of fat and sugar. Specialty coffees can have up to 570 calories per cup: possibly more than an entire meal! If you don’t like your coffee black, add a little skim milk and artificial sweetener to keep the calorie count low.

Helper: Green Tea

Green tea is an excellent choice when you’re looking for a little boost. Not only is it calorie-free -- some research suggests green tea extract may stimulate weight loss. It's not clear exactly how that works, but caffeine and micronutrients called catechins may each play a role. The benefit appears to last only a few hours, so it may help to drink green tea at least twice a day.

Spoiler: Coolers

Coolers may sound light and airy, but they are heavy on calories. A 12-ounce cooler containing wine can have 190 calories and 22 grams of carbs. The same size hard lemonade or bottled alcoholic "ice" can have as much as 315 calories. Regular wine is not exactly a diet drink, with 100 calories in a 5-ounce glass. A low-calorie alternative is a wine spritzer: Mix a dash of wine with some sparkling water.

Spoiler: Cocktails

A shot of hard liquor has fewer calories than wine or wine coolers, but once you mix in soda or cream, watch out. An 8-ounce white Russian made with light cream has 715 calories. A less fattening option is to mix rum or vodka with diet soda.

Helper: Light Beer

OK, beer is not really going to help you lose weight. But if you’re out with friends and want to share a pitcher, light beer is the way to go. A 12-ounce serving has about 100 calories, compared to 150 calories for regular beer.

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Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD on April 16, 2014