By Monique Richard MS, RDN, LDN
Did you know the biggest calorie buster in your diet is probably what you’re sipping on? By the time you enjoy sipping on your morning’s barista treat, the fountain soda or sweet tea at lunch, and pre-dinner cocktail, 500-700 calories have been added to your caloric intake. For many, that can be a third or even half of the total caloric need for an entire day, all in the form of liquid sugar, caffeine, and artificial flavorings. Let’s take a look at each category of the most beloved liquid calorie behemoths, and hopefully, we can release their hold on your weight and overall health once and for all.
I hate to have to be the one to tell you, but soda, whether diet or regular, has zero nutritional value. None. Zilch. Zip. Nada. Yes, it may have sugar (carbohydrate), which is a form of calories, and technically a macronutrient, but we’re talking nutritive benefits, not just energy, which are what calories provide. That is why they are infamously coined “empty calorie” drinks—calories and not much else. Think about that soda you grab with lunch, is it 12 ounces or 20 ounces? For 12 ounces, you are looking at 150 calories and about 240-300 calories for 20-ounces, not to mention the loads of sugar. A 20-ounce soda can have 68 grams of sugar, or 17 teaspoons full of sugar. Can you imagine sitting down and eating 17 teaspoons of sugar? No one would do that! Yet everyone is doing that who consumes a 20-ounce soda. There are a lot more nutritious options that won’t cause dental caries (cavities), spike your blood sugar, or pollute the environment when disposing of the plastic container.
Okay so you may counter with, “I only drink diet soda.” Most diet drinks are still loaded with artificial sweeteners, preservatives, artificial dyes, or other not so beneficial ingredients. Be sure to read the nutrition facts label and the ingredients; an RDN can help you interpret what you’re looking at.
Instead try to: Grab a piece of fruit, like an orange, apple, or peach to get a natural sugar fix, along with some fiber and important vitamins and minerals. For a bubbly alternative to wet your whistle instead of soda try seltzer water (flavored or plain), add fresh or frozen berries, slice a lemon, lime, orange or watermelon. Place frozen berries and a splash of cranberry juice in seltzer for a refreshing cocktail sans sugar and eat up the fruit for a refreshing treat. More ideas? Use rosemary and lavender, fresh grated ginger, cucumbers or make a Shirley temple spritzer with a touch of cherry juice and seltzer.
Bottom Line: The less soda in your diet, the more room you have for nutrient-dense foods that will support a healthy body and your future health.
Yes, coffee and tea certainly do have health and wellness benefits that should be noted. However, the sugar and added calories from all the fancy coffee bar concoctions can sabotage even the best intentions. The calories and sugar from the flavored syrup, whipped cream, and oversized portions needs to be accounted for when making your usual morning stop. For example, look at these two scary nutrient sucking monsters. A medium frappe at McDonalds has 495 calories and 63 grams (or 1/3 cup) of sugar. That is as much sugar as 5 Krispy Kreme Donuts. A Grande (medium) Peppermint White Chocolate Mocha Frappuccino from Starbucks has 470 calories. For an average person, that is almost a third of the day’s required calories.
Instead try to: Brew your ‘cup of Joe’ at home and add a sugar-free syrup or non-fat flavored coffee creamer to save calories and $$$. Leave off whipped cream and request skim, non-fat milk, or soy milk in the frappe and latte drinks when ordering at campus or coffee shop stops.
Bottom Line: The benefits of coffee and tea are best utilized when they are least processed and do not have the added sugar. Instantly save calories by foregoing the fancy drinks and making a beeline for the simpler version.
Beer and wine do offer heart healthy benefits, polyphenols, and phytochemicals that may be beneficial when consumed in moderation. Again, it is the amount and variety of alcoholic beverages consumed that cause negative and harmful consequences. A 12-ounce serving of beer is 150 calories, but how many cans, bottles, or pitchers are consumed at one sitting? A 5-ounce serving of wine is about 100-150 calories, depending on the variety of red or white; keep in mind that portion control may be difficult to do when wine glasses are so large, and you’re doing the pouring. Cocktails and fancy specialty combinations can put you overboard in both sugar and calories. A 12-ounce margarita can teeter into 500-700 calories. Juices, sugary syrups, plus several types of liquor and alcohol can sabotage your day’s allowances in one fell swoop.
Instead try to: Stick to one or two servings, drinking plenty of water in between. Try making a wine spritzer by adding seltzer water to the wine to make it flavorful and last longer.
Bottom Line: Just say no to fancy restaurant drinks. Keep it simple, and always stay in control.
SPORT AND ENERGY DRINKS
These types of beverages are, as you guessed, loaded with sugar, and the only boost provided is to the companies that profit from making them. A can of Red Bull has 27 grams of sugar (a Krispy Kreme Donut has only 10-12 grams of sugar). Concentrating on a balanced, varied, and healthy diet will keep your waistline whittled, your energy high, and your wallet thicker. The amount of caffeine that energy drinks have can sometimes exceed 505mg of caffeine (brewed coffee has about 80mg). This can cause heart palpitations, jitters, uneasiness, or GI discomfort. Who has time for that?
If you work out for an hour and burn between 350-400 calories and drink a 32-oz Gatorade that has 200 calories, you just added back half of the calories you burned. How is that helpful to your health and goals? If you are an athlete, a sports beverage may be necessary, but typically not until you start pushing past the hour mark of practice and workouts; see an RDN for more on sports nutrition recommendations.
Instead try to: Eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner with some healthy snacks in between, all equally balanced with protein, carbohydrates, and fat. When you need a little more energy, try mixing equal parts orange juice, cranberry juice, and water (total of 8 ounces) for a late morning or early afternoon energy enhancer. Try green or black tea, naturally caffeinated tea without buckets of sugar. After the workout, concentrate on drinking water or a low-calorie, low-sugar sports beverage. A great pre- or post-workout snack would be a slice of whole wheat bread with 2 tbsp. natural peanut butter, topped with a half sliced banana.
Bottom Line: Ignore the claims and tempting “get everything in the world done in the next five hours” lure of energy and sports drinks. Know that when your body is fueled correctly with the right food and beverages, you can accomplish everything you need to and feel great doing it.
Bottom Bottom Line: Food provides so much more than mere calories. It is fuel for all we do and our choices should be rich in vitamins, minerals, and nutrients. It is satisfying to eat, joyful to share food, and enjoyable to feel the benefits of a healthy diet. Liquid calories fall short in every one of these areas. There is a time and place for enjoying a beverage from each category mentioned, or even that coveted smoothie or milkshake. But, the amount and degree is what needs to be monitored. You are ultimately the commander in charge: obliterate and liquefy empty calories in your diet!