The Hidden Danger of Calories in Drinks

Remember the quaint “family-size” bottle of Coca-Cola?


What would you like to drink with that?” asks the server. Think twice before you answer.

Your body may not register the calories in drinks as well as it does the calories in food. So when you down sweetened iced tea or a soda before or with a meal, your body may not compensate for those sugar calories by eating or drinking less of something else that day.

Making matters worse: serving sizes for beverages are ballooning…as are Americans.

Beverages are major contributors to obesity that often get overlooked. What’s really changed in our diets over the last few decades is that we’re drinking a lot more calories than we ever did before.

Family-size Coke?

Are you old enough to remember the “family-size” bottle of Coca-Cola? The advertisements in the 1950s would show a family of four sitting down at the dinner table and sharing a bottle of Coke.

Remember how big the bottle was? Only 26 ounces! Barely more than a serving for one person these days, not a whole family.  No wonder we’re a bigger country.

The stealthy calories in drinks

In one study, people were asked to consume 450 calories’ worth of jelly beans every day for four weeks and 450 calories’ worth of soda every day for another four weeks.

On days they ate the jelly beans, the participants compensated by eating roughly 450 fewer calories of other foods. So they consumed no more calories than usual.

Not so on the days they drank soda. The participants didn’t compensate and ended up eating roughly 450 more calories than usual.

The lesson

The calories in drinks don’t trip our satiety mechanisms. They just don’t register.

Here’s more evidence that liquid calories go unnoticed: One-day studies show that if you drink a calorie-containing beverage like sweetened iced tea or a soda with a meal, you’ll wind up consuming more calories at that meal than if you drink a calorie- free beverage.

And if people do that every day?

Researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia gave 20 men and women about 40 ounces a day of either regular or diet cola. After three weeks, the women who drank the regular cola gained an average of two pounds; the men’s weight didn’t change. On the diet soda, the men lost one pound and the women’s weight didn’t change.

It doesn’t matter if you drink them before a meal or during a meal, the calories in drinks add on to—rather than replace—the calories you consume during the day.

Server, I’ll have unsweetened iced tea, please!


Sources: Internat. J. Obesity 24: 794, 2000. Physiol. Behav. 48: 19, 1990. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 51: 963, 1990.


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