Avoid Weight Gain: Watch What You Drink

Here's how to keep from drowning in liquid calories.

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

For anyone trying to watch his or her weight, the term "liquid calories" can be downright frightening. And well it should. After all, the calories we drink go quickly down the hatch, no chewing required.

Don't get me wrong; I enjoy the occasional Starbucks Caffe Mocha as much as the next gal. It's just that the calories we drink on a day-to-day basis count in a big way -- especially as we get older.

Case in point: that Caffe Mocha I was just talking about? On a daily basis, it would add 300 calories (that's with whole milk and no whipped cream) or 400 calories (with whipped cream) per 16-ounce beverage. Adding the word "white" adds even more calories. A White Chocolate Mocha totals 410 calories (whole milk, no whip) or 510 calories (with whip). In my world, 510 calories is an entire meal!

Of course, you can order the mocha with nonfat milk or soymilk and bring it down to 220 calories (nonfat milk, no whip) or 260 calories (soy milk, no whip). But even then, if you do this every day, you'll tally up 1,540 calories a week (with nonfat milk) -- and 6,160 calories per month. And that doesn't even include any drinks you might have during the rest of the day. If you have a mocha in the morning, a couple of sodas or sweetened bottled teas in the afternoon, then a glass of wine in the evening -- well, let's do the math:

Drink Calories
Caffe mocha, 16 oz., (nonfat milk, no whip) 220
12-ounce soda 140
12-ounce sweetened bottled tea about 116
8 ounces white wine or 12 ounces of beer about 150
Total: 626 calories

Then consider that 626 liquid calories per day = 4,382 liquid calories per week = 17,528 liquid calories per month!

That's a truckload of calories -- definitely bad news. But the good news is that if you substituted no-calorie beverages for all those drinks, it would mean a truckload of calories saved. And calories saved translate into potential pounds lost -- approximately 5 pounds per month, if you use the 17,528-calories-per month calculation above. Now do I have your attention?

I'm certainly not the only one concerned about the issue of liquid calories. A national Beverage Guidance Panel made up of six leading nutrition experts came together recently to decide on beverage guidelines for the U.S.

The panel made a list of recommendations, but the item that impressed me most was their ranking of beverages to fulfill our daily liquid needs. Water was ranked as the preferred beverage (big surprise); followed by tea and coffee; and low-fat (1% or 1.5%) and skim milk and soy beverages. Ranked after that were artificially sweetened beverages, then fruit juices and alcoholic beverages (which have calories but some nutritional benefits), then whole milk, and then sugar-sweetened drinks.

5 Points About Liquid Calories

Here are five points to consider about liquid calories:

1. Liquid calories may not be a wise investment of your calories.

Liquid calories don't seem to register in the stomach like food calories do, so they don't satisfy hunger as well. The next time you drink a high-calorie beverage, check in with your stomach an hour later. How do you feel? Are you still satisfied?

A group of researchers from Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill explain in a recent journal article that fructose (the chief component in high-fructose corn syrup) is different from glucose in that it does NOT stimulate insulin secretion or enhance leptin production. And higher levels of insulin and leptin in the blood stream help regulate body weight by serving as signals that food has been eaten.

2. Watch the high-fructose corn syrup.

Some experts say that part of the rise in obesity in the United States is due to our rising consumption of high-fructose corn syrup, which is used in many soft drinks, fruit juices, and sports drinks.

One study found that rats fed a high-fructose diet were more likely to develop features of metabolic syndrome, says researcher Richard J. Johnson, MD, of the University of Florida College of Medicine. Metabolic syndrome is a group of symptoms linked to a high risk of diabetes and heart disease.

3. Soda consumption may contribute to obesity.

Excess calories contribute to obesity, of course, and full-calorie soda is no doubt adding excess calories to many of our diets. In fact, a recent study followed that followed 2,300 young girls for 10 years showed that soda consumption predicted the greatest increase in the girls' body mass index (BMI). Several other studies have shown that as intake of sweetened soda went up, so did the effect on weight gain.