Are You Drinking Too Many Calories? The Worst Beverages for Your Weight

Avoid drinking calories, new beverage guidelines stress.

Why beverage guidelines? Americans consume far too many calories. And at least a fifth of these calories come from things we drink. The worst offenders: sugar-sweetened soft drinks, sports drinks, fruit drinks, and sugary tea and coffee drinks.

Now a blue-ribbon panel of six leading U.S. nutrition experts has come up with guidelines for healthy drinking. The panel's chairman is Barry M. Popkin, PhD, professor of nutrition, head of nutrition epidemiology, and director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Obesity at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"Everybody -- parents, adults, and teenagers -- has to realize what they drink is adding to their weight," Popkin tells WebMD. "We want people to think about their entire portfolio of beverages and change that to make for a much healthier America."

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Complex Guidelines

The new guidelines are complicated. Too complicated, says Madelyn Fernstrom, PhD, CNS, founder and director of the weight management center at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Her formula is much simpler indeed.

"When it comes to calories, think before you drink anything," Fernstrom tells WebMD. She was not a member of the beverage guideline panel.

Popkin agrees the new guidelines are complex. But he argues that they're no more complex than the choices that confront us.

"We are being faced with a billion beverages," he says. "Every year, the food industry adds 1,000 new beverage choices."

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Water, Water Everywhere

The panel notes that there's no need to get nutrition from beverages if we eat a balanced diet. That means all we really need to drink is water, Popkin and Fernstrom say.

Few of us, however, would be happy with water as our only beverage. Moreover, moderate amounts of other beverages -- tea and alcoholic drinks, for example -- appear to have health benefits.

But there's a problem. When we eat too many calories, we feel stuffed and sated. When we drink too many calories, Popkin says, we don't feel as satisfied. If our bellies won't tell us when to stop, we have to use our brains.

That's where the guidelines come in. They offer recommendations for how to use every conceivable kind of beverage in a healthy way. These guidelines are for adults and adolescents. Young children, obviously, should not drink some of these beverages -- and need a lot more milk.

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Healthy Beverage Options

So what should we drink?

--Water. It quenches thirst and still has zero calories. Even with water, however, too much is -- well, too much. "Drinking for thirst is sufficient," Fernstrom says.

--Unsweetened tea and coffee. These beverages contain caffeine. A little caffeine is good for you, Popkin says. But don't consume more than 400 milligrams per day (8 ounces of brewed coffee has 132 milligrams of caffeine; 8 ounces of tea has about 40 milligrams).

--Skim or low-fat milk or soy beverages, up to 16 ounces a day.

--Artificially sweetened beverages, up to 32 ounces a day.

If you choose coffee, tea or soda, watch the caffeine. Popkin says there's no proof that artificial sweeteners are bad for you -- but because the data are slim, the panel was "uneasy" about recommending them.

What drinks can we enjoy in strict moderation?

--Alcoholic beverages (adults only). Moderation is the key word here. The guidelines advise no more than one drink per day for women, two for men. A drink is one 12-ounce beer, one 5-ounce glass of wine, or one 1.5-ounce drink of distilled spirits.

And remember, alcoholic drinks are high-calorie drinks.

--Fruit juice. Fruit juice has nothing in it you can't get from whole fruit -- and it has a lot more calories. But if you aren't getting enough whole fruit in your diet, one 4-ounce glass of juice per day is OK.

What drinks should we avoid?

The guidelines say we should cut back on these things by at least 75 percent:

--Whole milk. It's a huge source of saturated fat -- and who needs that?

--Sweetened soft drinks, sweetened sports drinks, and fruit drinks. If you have to have one, limit yourself to an 8-ounce glass.

--Sugar-sweetened tea and coffee drinks.

Fernstrom worries that the guidelines will confuse consumers. She says it may be better simply to stress the fact that many beverages contain calories.

"If you are trying to lose weight, you must be mindful of all the calories you consume, particularly those in beverages -- they all count," she says. "The positive message from the guidelines is you don't have to limit your noncalorie liquids to water. Tea, diet beverages, noncalorie sports drinks, flavored waters -- all are equivalent. That is the way to save calories. There are a lot of options."

Popkin and colleagues were funded by Unilever, which makes Lipton Teas. Popkin says the company had no input on the guidelines and saw them only in their final form. Lipton is using the guidelines to promote its products, but Lipton says this choice was made by the company and not by the panel.

The guidelines appear in the March 1 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

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SOURCES: Popkin, B.M. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, March 1, 2006; vol 83: pp 529-542. Barry M. Popkin, PhD, professor of nutrition; head, division of nutrition epidemiology, School of Public Health; director, Interdisciplinary Center for Obesity, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Madelyn Fernstrom, PhD, CNS, founder and director, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Weight Management Center; associate director, UPMC Nutrition Center, Pittsburgh.