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Liquid Calories Count, Even If They Don’t Register

Liquid CaloriesWhen researchers go looking for trends that might explain the nation’s obesity epidemic, most agree on at least one thing: Americans have a drinking problem.

It’s not only alcohol.  It’s everything—sodas, sport drinks, specialty coffees and teas, fruit beverages of every kind.  Except for milk, Americans’ per capita consumption of virtually all beverages has steadily increased over the last couple decades … right along with our average weight. 

Does that mean all the extra guzzling is to blame?  Nutritional researchers think it’s definitely part of the problem, for several well-documented reasons.


To begin with, in spite of advertising promises of “satisfying refreshment,” the science shows that when we drink our calories, we actually don’t feel satisfied, literally.  With the notable exception of milk, fluid intake typically isn’t sufficient to trigger production of the hormones that alert the brain that the stomach has been fed.  That’s the sensation doctors call “satiety;” most people call it “being full,” and recognize it as the cue to stop eating. 

This is particularly so if you’re slowly sipping, but research shows that it holds true even if you slam a tall, cold one, and in Southwest Florida, who hasn’t done that?  But that sudden temporary bloat you’ll feel is no substitute for satiety.

Now consider that point together with another key part of the problem:  portion sizes for food servings are ballooning out of control, and drinks are the worst of it. 

Pick any given bottled beverage, one of those fancy coffees or teas, a fruit drink, soda or sport cooler.  Then check the nutritional label, first for calories and then for number of servings.  Most contain two or more servings, but how many of us are really sharing that Snapple with a buddy? 

And dietary research at Penn State showed that even among consumers who did check nutritional labels for calories, they just didn’t take the extra step and multiply for the extra servings, to get an accurate total calorie count.

Fountain drinks are even more troublesome than bottled beverages.  Ounce for ounce, those big fountain drinks are a better deal, so we’re buying more and drinking more!  A 32 ounce, convenience-store fountain beverage costs, on average, about 69 cents.  It sounds like a real deal, but keep in mind that a typical adult should consume from 2,000 to 2,500 calories a day.  If you put regular sweetened soda in that vat, you’ll add about 300 calories to your daily intake, get no nutritional benefit whatsoever, and not even alleviate your hunger!  That’s no bargain, no matter how big the gulp of liquid calories.

Maybe you’re one of those sippers or gulpers who’ve made the switch to a “healthier” fruit drink or sport beverage.  Don’t assume you’re coming out much ahead of those who are sucking up the soda pop.  A lot of commercially produced fruit juice drinks don't actually contain much juice.  They're mostly high fructose corn syrup, water and fruit flavorings.  The nutrients, if any, have usually been added after the fact to make the product more appealing to those consumers who do investigate the nutritional data. 

Take Hi-C, that perennial kid favorite.  It’s “fortified” with extra vitamin C, but it contains only 10 percent fruit juice, a fact that is emblazoned proudly across the label.  Sunny Delight would have us believe that "citrus beverage" is a healthy drink choice, and it’s heavily marketed as a smart alternative to soda.  Don’t believe the hype.  Sunny D is mainly corn sweeteners, water and fruit flavorings, and it’s a poor source of nutrients relative to caloric content.

Researchers also find that when we drink our calories, as opposed to consuming them in food, we just fail to recognize that we’re taking in calories at all!  When we load on extra calories by having a treat or eating too much at a meal, most of us will compensate by cutting back on something else, so as to try to consume roughly the same amount of calories overall. 

Not so with drinks.  Study after study shows that it’s as if people think liquid calories don’t count if they come in a fluid form.  People often sip drinks all throughout the day, but seldom displace any food intake to allow for it.  The 300 calories in that large cola just get added on to the bottom line.  The same goes for alcohol.  People tend not to think about the calories in alcoholic beverages, and after the first couple drinks, they tend not to care about them, either.

The good news is that as unwanted liquid calories go, it’s pretty easy to shave beverage calories back off the bottom line.  While dieters often have trouble reducing their food calories, research shows that cutting back on drink calories is, well, a lot easier to swallow. 


Quick liquid calorie cutbacks:

Simply switch to low- and non-caloric beverages like diet soda, regular coffee and tea, or good old water.  It may take you a few drinks to adjust to your new flavor choice, but it’ll be a lot easier than adjusting to a new, bigger pant size.








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