Think Before You Drink:
Those Liquid Calories Add Up
By Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD
If you were to ask people how they could easily cut out some extra calories, they’d probably tell you they’d stop drinking sodas. And that would be a great start. Sodas are loaded with sugar and if someone were to quit a daily soda habit, they could drop about 15 pounds in a year’s time.
But sodas are just part of the problem when it comes to liquid calories. When you add up all our beverages like soft drinks, fruit drinks, sweetened teas, lemonade and coffee drinks—the average person sucks down more than 200 liquid calories every single day.
The tricky thing with most liquids is that they don’t fill us up very much—in fact, they’ve been described as sort of “falling through the cracks” in the stomach. And, we don’t adjust for the extra liquid calories we drink by taking in less food; we just pour the fluids right on top.
Since drinking fluids with meals doesn’t make the meal more satisfying, it’s easy to add a lot of extra calories from clear liquids like sodas, lemonade or sweetened tea. What’s interesting, though, is that when fluids are mixed into a food, the food does become more filling. So downing a lot of liquids before eating – even calorie-free beverages like water – isn’t particularly effective in filling you up. But, eating more watery foods – like fruits and veggies – is a great strategy in controlling food intake. Thick liquids, like milk, soups or protein shakes, behave more like watery foods in keeping us satisfied, since they have other nutrients besides sugar - like protein or fiber – to help fill us up.
There’s a practical issue at work here, too. It’s simply easier to slurp liquid calories, than it is to chew solid foods. If you’ve ever seen people down a can of soda in just a few gulps, that’s more than 10 teaspoons of sugar and 150 calories in seconds flat.
It’s been proposed that we don’t register liquid calories very well because humans evolved on calorie-free beverages. In ancient times, when food was scarce and people had problems getting enough calories, it would have been a big disadvantage to fill up on water, since that would have kept people from eating.
Now, of course, we have the opposite problem – we have plenty of food available, and plenty of liquid calories around, too. And when the weather gets hot and we’re drinking more than usual, it’s not hard to take in 500 calories a day just from fluids.
Try to steer yourself toward healthier, lower calorie choices. Water, mineral water and plain iced tea are great. Sports drinks are much lighter in calories than fruit drinks and sodas, and can be a good choice when it’s hot or when you’re active. Mix just a splash of fruit juice with some sparkling water for a refreshing, lower calorie alternative to soda.
Susan Bowerman is a paid consultant to Herbalife.