Low-Calorie Summer Sippers

Let's drink to summer -- the healthy way

Medically Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, RD, LD, MPH on June 17, 2005
7 min read

It's hot, and you're thirsty! But don't just grab the first cool drink that comes along. What you choose to quench your thirst can make or break your weight-loss efforts.

The way I see it, high-calorie beverages are one of the major reasons Americans are overweight. Think about how many people you know who drink several sodas every day. Now let's do the math:

  • A 12-ounce soda (non-diet) contains around 150 calories (the equivalent of 10 teaspoons of sugar).
  • So three sodas a day adds up to around 450 calories (the equivalent of 30 teaspoons of sugar).
  • This means that every week, we would save approximately 3,150 calories (the equivalent of 210 teaspoons of sugar) if we switched from drinking three cans of soda a day to drinking three no-calorie beverages.

It just doesn't make sense to spend your precious calories on sweet drinks that add calories without any nutritional value.

Here are a few beverage facts that may help discourage you from sipping these empty-calorie beverages.

Fact 1: Most people don't drink enough water. So do your body a favor; when you get thirsty, reach for water first.

Fact 2: If you choose a beverage that contains calories, select one that contributes important nutrients as well -- like nonfat or low-fat milk or 100% fruit juice. According to a national survey of food consumption, as people's milk intake went up, so did their intake of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). But they didn't end up consuming more fat or cholesterol.

Fact 3: Liquid calories don't tend to satisfy your hunger as well as calories from solid foods.

  • It stands to reason that if Americans drank less regular soda, the number of overweight and obese people would also decrease. In a recent policy statement, the American Academy of Pediatrics said that overconsumption of soft drinks could lead to overweight or obesity because of the calories it adds to the diet. A recent study on an educational program that encouraged children ages 7-11 to drink less soda found just that: Cutting down on carbonated drinks was linked to a modest decrease in the number of overweight and obese children over a year.
  • The more sweetened beverages kids drink, the less milk they tend to consume. Researchers from Cornell University followed 30 children for two months. They found that the children who drank more than 12 ounces of sweetened drinks or soda per day gained significantly more weight than children who drink less than 6 ounces a day. The children didn't appear to eat any less to compensate for the extra calories they were drinking.
  • African-American teens who drank four or more sodas a day had a 6-point higher systolic blood pressure than white teens who drank the same amount of soda.

In the interest of cutting excess calories, it behooves us all to avoid regular sodas and other sweetened drinks when possible. The best way to do this is to drink no-calorie beverages instead. Some of the more obvious options are flavored mineral waters, seltzer water with a slice of lemon or lime, diet sodas in moderate amounts, and plain tea and coffee.

It gets even better when the beverages contain substances that may help protect your health! Green and black tea contain phytochemicals (flavonols and catechins) thought to have health benefits. Most of the studies suggesting cancer-protective effects have been carried out with green tea, but black tea may also have protective qualities.

Antioxidants make up a third of the weight of dried tea leaves. And one of these antioxidants is EGCG, which was shown to slow the buildup of artery-clogging plaque in mice in a recent study.

Keep in mind that when it comes to the phytochemicals in tea, freshly brewed is best. Apparently, bottled teas have less of these phytochemicals than freshly brewed tea.

Iced tea is a great summer sipper as long as it isn't sweetened. I've found that nicely flavored ice tea doesn't need any sweeteners at all. And any great flavored tea can be turned into iced tea, just by chilling the pitcher in the refrigerator after it is brewed.

One of my favorite iced teas is Paradise brand Tropical Tea (Premium black tea with tropical fruit nectars), available in decaffeinated too.

If you can spare a few calories, create your own iced tea drink by blending your favorite iced tea with 100% fruit juice or nectar. Start by mixing 1/2 cup of ice tea with 1/2 cup of fruit juice or nectar, then taste. Add more of either until you get it just right!

If you are looking for zero-calorie, high-flavor beverages, coffee and tea can fill that bill. They have no calories when you drink them in their "brewed with nothing added" form. Trouble is, we often pump them up with syrups, honey, sugar, whipping cream, etc.

"When we dress up coffee, we can easily go from zero calories...to around
250-500 calories."

Add the word "mocha," or "caramel" to coffee, or the word "chai" or "tazo" to tea and it's a whole different ball game. When we dress up coffee, we can easily go from zero calories and zero grams of fat to around 250-500 calories and around 4-18 grams of fat.

To survive the coffeehouse without breaking your calorie bank account, follow these three general rules:

1. Skip the whipped cream. Say "yes" to "whip," and you've just bought yourself 130 calories and 12 grams of fat (8 grams of saturated fat and 50 mg cholesterol). I love whipping cream just as much as the next girl, so when I feel like adding it to my drink, I ask for "light whip" (I've found that a little goes a long way). But most of the time I just skip it, because what I am most looking forward to is the coffee flavor of the drink.

2. Nonfat milk is the milk of choice. Asking for nonfat milk in your coffee drinks helps bring down the calories and fat while boosting the protein and calcium. Example: A "tall" Iced Caffe Mocha from Starbucks with nonfat milk has 130 calories and 1.5 grams of fat. The same drink made with whole milk has 170 calories and 6 grams fat.

3. When choosing a coffee with calories, order the smallest size available. Example: A "tall" Starbucks Caramel Frappuccino (no whip and with nonfat milk) has 210 calories and 2.5 grams of fat. A "Venti" size of the same drink totals 390 calories and 4.5 grams of fat.

If a no-calorie beverage just won't do, 100% fruit juice is a good choice because it contains some nutrients, such as vitamin C, phytochemicals, fiber, and folic acid. But the calories can still add up if you have a tall glass of juice.

Cut the calories in your fruit juice in half by blending it with some zero-calorie seltzer water, club soda, or mineral water. One of my favorite juice spritzers is 1/2 cup of mango or passion fruit juice/nectar blended with 1/2 cup of seltzer water.

Warning: Make sure when you are buying flavored mineral waters and seltzers that they have zero calories. Some of the brands are sweetened as well as flavored.

Here are some recipes for more cool and low-cal summer beverages.

Journal as: No need to journal because it contributes 0 calories.

8 cups seltzer water (or substitute club soda or mineral water)
24 slices cucumber, with or without peel (about 1/2 of a large cucumber)
16 slices lemon (about two lemons)

  • Pour 8 cups seltzer water into a clear pitcher. Add the cucumber and lemon slices and two trays of ice cubes. Stirring occasionally, let the ingredients chill together for about 10 minutes before serving.
  • When you pour into glasses, make sure each serving gets some ice cubes, several slices of cucumber, and a couple of slices of lemon.

Yield: 1 pitcher (about 8 servings)

Per serving: 0 calories, 0 g protein, 0 g carbohydrate, 0 g fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 g fiber, 40 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 0%.

Journal as: 1 serving of skim milk + 2 teaspoons cocoa mix sweetened or 2 teaspoons sugar (for the chocolate syrup).

1 1/2 cups cold decaf coffee (on the strong side)
1/3 cup fat-free half-and-half
1/3 cup low-fat milk
2 tablespoons chocolate syrup
2 tablespoons Splenda

  • Pour coffee into an ice cube tray. Freeze until solid (at least two hours).
  • Put the coffee ice cubes, fat-free half-and-half, low-fat milk, chocolate syrup, and Splenda in a blender. Blend until smooth. Pour into two glasses.

Yield: 2 servings

Per glass: 90 calories, 5 g protein, 18 g carbohydrate, 0.7 g fat (0.4 g saturated fat, 0.2 g monounsaturated fat, 0 g polyunsaturated fat), 3 mg cholesterol, 0.3 g fiber, 90 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 6%.

Journal as: 3/4 cup 100% fruit juice.

1 1/2 cups orange juice (calcium-fortified, if available)
2 1/4 cups light cranberry juice cocktail (or light cran-raspberry juice cocktail)

  • Pour the orange juice into an ice cube tray and freeze until solid (at least two hours). Meanwhile, chill cranberry juice cocktail in the refrigerator.
  • Pour about 3/4 cup of the cranberry juice cocktail into a clear glass, then add about five ice cubes. Repeat with remaining cranberry juice and ice cubes.

Yield: 3 servings

Per glass: 85 calories, 1 g protein. 19.5 g carbohydrate, 0 g fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0.3 g fiber, 63 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 0%.