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Watch Out for Liquid Calories
Written by June 19, 2008

Rachel Huber, MPH, RD

Associate Director of Education
The Cooper Institute

empty calorie
sweetened beverages
Watch Out for Liquid Calories

“I don’t know why I am gaining weight.  I haven’t changed what I eat” is something we hear a lot. And in fact, a person may NOT have changed what they are eating. But what about what they are drinking?

New research from the University of North Carolina shows that in 2002, American got 222 more calories from beverages than in 1965. Over the same period, calories from all other foods actually decreased slightly. So the nearly 200 calorie increase in total daily calories observed between 1965 and 2002 can be attributed mostly to the increase in beverage calorie intake. Not surprisingly, the researchers showed that the proportion of total daily calories from beverages increased from only 12% 1965 to 21% in 2002. And, almost one-third of Americans in 2002 were “drinking” 25% or more of their daily calorie intake. That’s nearly double the rate measured in 1965.

This dramatic increase in total calories from beverages is startling.  Especially in a land with an overweight and obesity epidemic. But what is really alarming is where those extra calories came from. Sweetened beverages* (regular soda, fruit drinks, sweetened tea and coffee, and other sweetened beverages) increased by 153 calories. These beverages are not good sources of nutrients, i.e., they're “empty calories.” Beverages containing nutrients (100% fruit juice, milk) only increased by 45 calories. 

So how did we find ourselves in this predicament? Sweetened beverages are:

  • cheap. All it takes is water, sugar or some other sweetener such as high fructose corn syrup, flavoring and coloring agents. The marketing, packaging, and shipping of these products cost more than what’s in the bottle. 
  • everywhere. From middle school vending machines to gas stations. 
  • sneaky. There is evidence that suggests that the body’s appetite regulating system doesn’t recognize calories consumed from beverages the same as from solid foods. So drinking a 150-calorie soda is not going to satisfy you the same as eating a 150-calorie granola bar.

Clearly, beverages – calorically sweetened beverages in particular – are a part of our diet that we can easily adjust. How? Stay tuned for the next blog entry. In the meantime, add your ideas for cutting beverage calories in the comments section below.

* Sweetened beverages are those in which sweeteners that have calories (sugar, corn syrup, honey, etc.) are used.  In contrast, noncalorically-sweetened beverages (e.g.,diet soda) use artificial sweeteners that add very few if any calories.

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