Studies show that while food calories “register” in the brain, limiting the amount of food you desire, liquid calories somehow don’t register.
Restaurants that refill your cup every time you empty it might not be offering you such a great deal after all — not when you count the calories that you consume from the beverage bonanza. For instance, each large glass of commercial iced tea contains about 180 calories. One refill brings you to 360 calories — more than six oreo cookies.
It’s easy to ignore the calories in drinks for the simple reason that drinks tend not to fill you up. One reason so many diets fail may be that dieters don’t restrict the liquid calories they consume. Although sugary and alcoholic drinks can make you fat, they don’t necessarily make you feel satiated, so you just keep drinking while eating, taking in almost as many liquid calories as you do calories from food.
In fact, studies show that while food calories “register” in the brain, limiting the amount of food you desire, liquid calories somehow don’t register. As you eat solid food, nerves in the stomach and intestine release regulators that tell the brain you’re full, while hunger hormones (called ghrelin) become suppressed. But liquids move more quickly through the digestive system and fail to trigger the same signals.
“When the number and type of calories are the same, the calories in liquid form won’t suppress ghrelin as effectively as if the same calories were in solid form,” explains Dr. David E. Cummings of the University of Washington.
As I’ve written before, overall caloric consumption has been steadily increasing over the past three decades, with a concomitant increase in obesity rates. By 2003, the average person consumed 523 more calories on a daily basis than the average person consumed in 1970 — and beverages account for about half of those added calories! Consider that drink portion sizes have increased from an average of 13 ounces to 20 ounces. Look at the explosion of high-calorie sweet drinks — especially coffee drinks — the lattes and cappuccinos that so many of us unthinkingly down daily. Consider all the sports drinks and flavored vitamin waters that seem so innocent — but that add plenty of calories and not much else. (The Center for Science in the Public Interest has a current suit filed against Coca Cola for making “unsubstantiated and deceptive” advertising claims that Vitamin Water offers health benefits.) Think about the fact that red wine has become standard daily fare in many households that eschewed wine a few decades ago. It’s not just about soda anymore.
When people drink more, they usually don’t compensate by moderating the amount of food they eat, according to a 2007 study. The study found that when served an 18-ounce drink, subjects drank more than when served 12 ounces — in other words, they drank what was given to them no matter the size and no matter what type of drink it was — and they ate the same amount of food no matter the calorie-count or volume of their beverage. Similarly, the Harvard Nurses’ Study of 50,000 women found that when subjects drank one sugar-sweetened beverage per day, they didn’t regulate their food intake to compensate, but rather, consumed an average of 358 extra calories daily and gained a significant amount of weight.
Here are some calorie facts about popular drinks:
- A bottle of vitamin-water contains 125 calories
- An 8-oz glass of red wine has 170 calories
- A 16-oz café latte has 260 calories
- A 12 oz fruit smoothie has 300 calories
- A Starbucks frappuccino contains 470 calories.
Of course, not all liquid calories are created equal. Some drinks, particularly sodas and sports drinks, add not only calories, but typically also deliver nasty amounts of sugar, sodium, high-fructose corn syrup, artificial colorings and preservatives, pesticides (a 2008 study in the UK found that soft drinks contained 300 times the level of pesticides allowed in tap water), phosphoric acid, chemical additives such as benzene (known to cause leukemia), and caffeine. The cumulative effect of drinking such beverages extends far beyond expanding the waistline — soft drinks expedite the development of diabetes, cancer, osteoporosis, hypertension, kidney disease, and so on.
While diet sodas may look like a better deal with their zero-calorie offerings, the dangerous artificial sweeteners they contain have been linked to a host of malignant conditions including breast cancer, lymphoma, shrunken thymus glands, enlarged liver and kidneys, miscarriages, Parkinson’s, fibromyalgia, lupus, seizures, memory loss, and tremors. They offer you nothing nutritionally, plus, as I’ve written before, they ultimately make you fatter than their sugared counterparts, in spite of the lack of calories.
Fruit and vegetable juices, on the other hand, contain over 100 calories a glass, but if they’re freshly squeezed and organic, they’re a boon to your health, a marvelous way to get nutritious calories. And fruit smoothies, while laden with calories, fill you up because of their thickness, so they don’t necessarily have the same fattening effect as, for instance, a mocha latte or even a glass of lemonade made from concentrate (with a startling 791 calories per 12-oz glass). A smoothie can be a satisfying lunch, but not so much a glass of lemonade.
Ultimately, it’s best not to drink with meals at all since excessive liquids dilute your digestive juices and enzymes. But when drinking between meals for hydration, pure water is best — especially if you’re watching your weight. The point is that it pays to remain aware of what you drink and in what quantity you drink it if you want to remain svelte and healthy. Keep in mind it only takes 12 extra calories a day to add one pound a year — a frightening concept if you’re having a 470-calorie frappucino every day.