Trying to Lose Weight? Watch What You Drink

Liquid Calories Add Up Quickly

Medically Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, RD, LD, MPH on June 06, 2005
5 min read

You're trying to lose a few pounds, so you're watching what you put on your plate. But are you watching what's in that mug, or glass, or can? If not, you just might be sabotaging your weight-loss efforts.

"Beverages are probably the biggest hidden source of empty calories in our diets," says Mark Izzo, PhD, director of science and technology at Orafti Active Food Ingredients. "Even those that are positioned as super-healthy, like grapefruit juice and orange juice, can pack 100 calories in 8 ounces."

"What's worse," says Izzo, "is that nobody drinks only 8 ounces. A typical serving is usually 16 ounces. That's 200 calories for one drink!"

And then there's soda, which contributes few useful nutrients but plenty of calories in the form of sweeteners. A 20-ounce soda, for example, has the equivalent of 18 teaspoons of sugar.

Soda is unquestionably among the many sources of excess calories contributing to the obesity epidemic in this country, says David L. Katz, MD, associate clinical professor of public health and medicine at Yale University School of Medicine and author of The Way to Eat.

"A standard 12-ounce (non-diet) soda has roughly 150 calories," says Katz. Drink two or three of those a day and that's enough calories to gain a pound a week! And just think what a supersized (44-ounce) drink can do -- just one a day can lead to an extra pound per week.

"Some of the calories consumed in soda may be taken out of the diet elsewhere," says Katz, but he doesn't think that's necessarily a good thing. "Sodas provide no nutrient value, while the foods eliminated may. Further, the calories we drink are likely to be added to, rather than replaced by the calories we eat."

A study published in the International Journal of Obesity in 2000 bears this out. Fifteen healthy men and women consumed an extra 450 calories, in the form of either jellybeans or soda, every day for four weeks. After four weeks, the soda drinkers switched to jelly beans and vice versa.

When eating the jellybeans, all 15 people in the study reduced the number of calories they took in from other sources to compensate; at the end of the study, they had gained only a small amount of weight. Those drinking the soda, however, made no such changes in the calories they consumed. No surprise here: The soda drinkers gained a lot of weight!

The take-away message? Liquid calories don't tend to fill you up and satisfy your hunger as well as those from solid foods. Soft drinks quench your thirst -- and add calories -- but do little to fill your belly.

This holds true for children as well as adults.

In a study published in the June issue of The Journal of Pediatrics, Cornell University researchers followed 30 children over two months. According to David Levitsky, professor of nutritional sciences and psychology at Cornell, children who drank more than 12 ounces of sweetened drinks (soda, fruit punch, bottled tea, or drinks made from fruit-flavored powders) per day gained significantly more weight than youngsters who drank less than 6 ounces a day. The reason? They didn't reduce the amount of food they ate to make up for the extra calories in the drinks.

The researchers also found that the more sweetened beverages the youngsters consumed, the less milk they drank. So not only were they taking in more calories, they were getting less calcium and zinc than is recommended.

Soda isn't the only beverage to beware. Tea and coffee by themselves have no calories (though the effects of caffeine are a concern for some), but the add-ons can turn your cup of Joe into a real calorie-fest. For example, a large Starbucks Mocha Coconut Frappuccino with whipped cream adds a whopping 710 calories and 26 grams of fat. Even a tablespoon or two of cream in your morning coffee, along with a packet of sugar, adds up.

And what about alcoholic drinks? It's best to proceed with caution. The average calorie count of a glass of wine or bottle of beer is 100-150 calories, and how often do we stop at one? Even worse, alcoholic beverages can lower your inhibitions and make you more likely to overeat -- especially those salty snacks that are often served with drinks.

Diet sodas are virtually calorie free, yet they contain a list of non-nutritious ingredients including artificial sweeteners. Artificial sweeteners are approved by the FDA, but moderation is the best approach. It's best to limit your intake of diet sodas to a few servings a day.

Skim and low-fat milk and no-sugar-added juices certainly have their place in a healthy diet. These beverages contain a wealth of nutrients needed for health and should be incorporated into your eating plan. But if you're trying to lose weight, don't fall into the trap of sipping them throughout the day. To quench your thirst, stick to water (perhaps dressed up with a bit of juice or citrus) and other no-calorie or very low-calorie beverages, experts say.

"Simple is best," says Susan Ayersman, CCN, a nutritionist with the Arizona-based Kronos Optimal Health Co. Water is Ayersman's drink of choice.

"Most people don't drink enough water," she explains, yet we need water to keep our tissues hydrated and help keep our energy up.

If plain water doesn't do it for you, add slices of lemon, lime, or orange for flavor without calories. Or try a sprig of mint for a refreshing change of pace, says Ayersman.

Here are a few other suggestions:

  • Green tea (which also contains potentially cancer-preventing phytonutrients).
  • Seltzer water with just a splash of juice. Orange, grapefruit, cranberry are good choices, but mango, guava, and other tropical juices all add color and just enough sweetness to keep you from reaching for a can of soda.
  • Herbal teas.
  • Flavored (lemon, grapefruit, raspberry, mandarin orange, etc.) seltzers and soda waters.
  • Homemade lemonade -- try lemon, water, and a few drops of stevia, a natural artificial sweetener.

An occasional cappucino, latte, or coffee is fine if you need that Starbucks fix, Ayersman says. But ask for skim milk, and wave bye-bye to the blended coffee drinks, especially the ones with whipped cream toppings.