How to Watch for Calories in a Glass

by Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN on September 26, 2011 · 0 comments

At most restaurants, drink refills are free. You’ll quickly get more soda and coffee without even asking. You get more, so you drink more. You’re thinking, It’s free, why shouldn’t I drink it? One reason: Liquid calories may be making you fat. They may be making the entire country fat.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently found that half of Americans drink sweetened drinks regularly, with teens drinking the most.

Researchers have looked the impact of liquid calories, and concluded that we don’t process calories from drinks the same way we process calories from food.

Over the last few decades milk consumption has decreased and soda consumption has increased. Result: we are taking in fewer important nutrients, like calcium, and getting more of our daily calories from sugar.

Barbara Rolls, Ph.D., a noted researcher, found that at lunch as the size of your beverage serving increased, so did your calorie intake. You don’t eat less, but you did drink more, increasing your overall calorie intake. Obviously, drinks count!

It has also been shown that drinking clear beverages – soda, iced tea, energy drinks — disrupt energy balance by causing us to take in more calories and leaving us feeling less satisfied. Coupling these drinks with a meal may actually make us eat more.

Liquid calories can be classified into 4 groups based on their effect on our feeling of satisfaction and on the total amount of calories we eat.

Liquids like soup have a high satisfaction value. We eat less food if we start a meal with soup. Soup has actually been suggested as a weight loss intervention

Liquid meals are the second group. They may be used to help someone gain or lose weight. Their satisfaction value is less than that of solid food—a person may still be hungry and eat food after drinking the liquid meal. This is good if you want someone to gain weight, like a person recovering from an illness. But, it isn’t the best choice if you are hoping for weight loss by drinking a meal in a can.

The next 2 groups are the real trouble makers – alcoholic drinks and clear liquids. Alcoholic drinks can be very calorie dense. In addition, drinking alcohol  before a meal increases hunger. Add a glass of wine before dinner and you’ll enjoy your meal more but you’ll also eat more food. Some studies have shown that when alcoholic drinks are added to a meal the calorie intake can go up by as much as 40%.

Calorie-containing clear drinks – soda, fruit drinks, energy drinks, sports drinks, coffee and tea – all have a very low satisfaction value. And the more you are offered, the more you drink. Up to 20% of our daily calories come from these drinks, with soda being the single largest source of calories in the U.S., contributing close to 300 calories daily. Those 300 extra calories each day are exactly what other researchers are pointing to as the cause of the obesity epidemic.

At the same time the portion size of beverages has increased. We went from an 8-ounce bottle of Coke to unlimited soda refills served in a quart-sized glass. A small coffee now averages 10 ounces. Add cream and sugar and your small coffee equals 100 calories. Multiply that by 3 or 4 per day and you start to see why it’s hard to lose weight. And few of us ever order “small.”

Researchers agree that calories from drinks are poorly regulated and easily cause us to take in extra calories. Why this happens is an unanswered question in nutrition research. But you don’t need to wait for an answer. Choose low or no calorie drinks. Dilute fruit drinks with mineral water. Skip the whipped toppings and other add-ons when ordering coffee.  Drink water, its thirst quenching and calorie free.

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