Avoid Weight Gain: Watch What You Drink

Here's how to keep from drowning in liquid calories.

6 min read

For anyone trying to watch his or her weight, the term "liquid calories" can be downright frightening. And well it should. After all, the calories we drink go quickly down the hatch, no chewing required.

Don't get me wrong; I enjoy the occasional Starbucks Caffe Mocha as much as the next gal. It's just that the calories we drink on a day-to-day basis count in a big way -- especially as we get older.

Case in point: that Caffe Mocha I was just talking about? On a daily basis, it would add 300 calories (that's with whole milk and no whipped cream) or 400 calories (with whipped cream) per 16-ounce beverage. Adding the word "white" adds even more calories. A White Chocolate Mocha totals 410 calories (whole milk, no whip) or 510 calories (with whip). In my world, 510 calories is an entire meal!

Of course, you can order the mocha with nonfat milk or soymilk and bring it down to 220 calories (nonfat milk, no whip) or 260 calories (soy milk, no whip). But even then, if you do this every day, you'll tally up 1,540 calories a week (with nonfat milk) -- and 6,160 calories per month. And that doesn't even include any drinks you might have during the rest of the day. If you have a mocha in the morning, a couple of sodas or sweetened bottled teas in the afternoon, then a glass of wine in the evening -- well, let's do the math:

Caffe mocha, 16 oz., (nonfat milk, no whip)220
12-ounce soda140
12-ounce sweetened bottled teaabout 116
8 ounces white wine or 12 ounces of beerabout 150
Total:626 calories

Then consider that 626 liquid calories per day = 4,382 liquid calories per week = 17,528 liquid calories per month!

That's a truckload of calories -- definitely bad news. But the good news is that if you substituted no-calorie beverages for all those drinks, it would mean a truckload of calories saved. And calories saved translate into potential pounds lost -- approximately 5 pounds per month, if you use the 17,528-calories-per month calculation above. Now do I have your attention?

I'm certainly not the only one concerned about the issue of liquid calories. A national Beverage Guidance Panel made up of six leading nutrition experts came together recently to decide on beverage guidelines for the U.S.

The panel made a list of recommendations, but the item that impressed me most was their ranking of beverages to fulfill our daily liquid needs. Water was ranked as the preferred beverage (big surprise); followed by tea and coffee; and low-fat (1% or 1.5%) and skim milk and soy beverages. Ranked after that were artificially sweetened beverages, then fruit juices and alcoholic beverages (which have calories but some nutritional benefits), then whole milk, and then sugar-sweetened drinks.

Here are five points to consider about liquid calories:

1. Liquid calories may not be a wise investment of your calories.

Liquid calories don't seem to register in the stomach like food calories do, so they don't satisfy hunger as well. The next time you drink a high-calorie beverage, check in with your stomach an hour later. How do you feel? Are you still satisfied?

A group of researchers from Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill explain in a recent journal article that fructose (the chief component in high-fructose corn syrup) is different from glucose in that it does NOT stimulate insulin secretion or enhance leptin production. And higher levels of insulin and leptin in the blood stream help regulate body weight by serving as signals that food has been eaten.

2. Watch the high-fructose corn syrup.

Some experts say that part of the rise in obesity in the United States is due to our rising consumption of high-fructose corn syrup, which is used in many soft drinks, fruit juices, and sports drinks.

One study found that rats fed a high-fructose diet were more likely to develop features of metabolic syndrome, says researcher Richard J. Johnson, MD, of the University of Florida College of Medicine. Metabolic syndrome is a group of symptoms linked to a high risk of diabetes and heart disease.

3. Soda consumption may contribute to obesity.

Excess calories contribute to obesity, of course, and full-calorie soda is no doubt adding excess calories to many of our diets. In fact, a recent study followed that followed 2,300 young girls for 10 years showed that soda consumption predicted the greatest increase in the girls' body mass index (BMI). Several other studies have shown that as intake of sweetened soda went up, so did the effect on weight gain.

4. It is better to eat your carbohydrates than to drink them.

A Purdue University study showed that significant weight gain may occur when we consume carbohydrates as liquids rather than as solid food. In the study, 15 men and women consumed extra carbs each day for four weeks, either as a liquid (soda) or a solid (jelly beans). The rest of the day's intake was up to them. While the study participants didn't decrease their total calorie intake to compensate for the added soda calories, they did compensate naturally for the additional calories eaten as jellybeans.

5. The bottom line to alternative sweeteners.

In discussing the latest research on alternative sweeteners, the April 2006 issue of the Environmental Nutrition newsletter concluded that "one diet drink a day or NutraSweet in your morning coffee is not anything to worry about. But if you regularly consume much more than that or eat several low-calorie foods sweetened with aspartame, Environmental Nutrition suggests consider switching to products that use a less controversial sweetener like sucralose (Splenda) or a sucralose blend."

Cutting back on sweetened drinks really doesn't have to be a big sacrifice. Very-low calorie beverages can be refreshing and delicious. Try these recipes and you'll see what I mean.

50/50 Fizzy Water
Journal as: No need to journal due to the low number of calories

Remember those 50/50 bars with orange sherbet on the outside and vanilla ice cream on the inside? That vintage ice cream bar is the essence of this low-calorie drink.

3/4 cup seltzer water, club soda, or fizzy mineral water
1/4 cup orange juice (as fresh as possible)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Add water, orange juice, and vanilla extract to a large glass and stir. Add ice cubes as desired.

Yield: 1 serving

Nutrition Information: 28 calories, .4 g protein, 6.5 g carbohydrate, 0 g fat, 0 mg cholesterol, .1 g fiber, 1 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 0%.

Lemon Ginger Iced Green Tea
Journal as: No need to journal; it's a no-calorie beverage

2 cups water
1 cup Splenda low-calorie sweetener
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 1/2 teaspoons grated lemon peel
6 green tea bags
4 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

  • Add water, Splenda, ground ginger, and lemon peel to medium saucepan and bring to boil over medium heat. Reduce heat to where it sustains a gentle boil and cook for about 7-8 minutes. Remove from heat and add the green tea bags. Steep this tea mixture for 10 minutes, stirring or dunking the bags often.
  • Remove tea bags and stir lemon juice into the tea liquid. Cover and refrigerator for up to 1 to 2 weeks.
  • To make a cup of iced tea, pour 1/4 cup of the concentrated tea mixture into a tall glass and stir in 3/4 cup of sparkling or seltzer water or club soda. Add ice cubes and enjoy!

Yield: 1 1/3 cups of syrup (or at least 5 glasses of iced tea)

Nutrition Information: 2 calories, 0 g protein, .7 g carbohydrate, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, .1 g fiber, 0 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 0%

Recipe provided by Elaine Magee; © 2006 Elaine Magee