How to Avoid Empty Liquid Calories

Liquid calories can add up quickly. You might know how many calories you eat every day—but how many calories are you drinking?

Liquid calories can add up quickly. You might know how many calories you eat every day—but how many calories are you drinking?

Beverages can pack a surprising number of calories—just ask the client I saw last week. “I don’t get it,” he told me. “I’m watching my calories, I think I get enough exercise, but my weight just won’t budge!” Problem was, he was only watching the calories in the foods he ate—completely ignoring the calories in the beverages he drank during the day. The coffee he consumes all morning long (doused with cream and sugar), the sodas at lunch (free refills!), the (several) vodkas and cranberry juice cocktails that help him unwind at the end of the day… Imagine his surprise when I tallied it all up, and he realized that he was taking in close to 1000 liquid calories a day from beverages alone.

Liquid calories don’t fill you up

One of the reasons that we may ‘forget’ about the calories we drink is that they don’t fill us up very much. Most of the fluids we drink don’t take up that much room in the stomach. It’s almost as if they fall through the cracks. As a result, often we don’t adjust for the extra liquid calories we drink by taking in less food—we just pour the fluids right on top.

Sugary drinks add up fast

Sugary drinks are certainly a big part of the problem. Although my client seemed pretty clueless about his lunchtime soda consumption, when I generally ask my clients how they might cut out some extra calories, many of them usually say they’d simply stop drinking sodas. And that would be a great start. Sodas, of course, are loaded with sugar. If you were to quit a daily soda habit, you could drop about 15 pounds / 7 kilos in a year’s time.

But sodas are just part of the problem when it comes to liquid calories. There are also the fruit drinks, sweetened teas, lemonade and coffee drinks that contribute hundreds of calories to the average person’s daily intake. Since drinking fluids with meals doesn’t make the meal more satisfying, it’s easy to add a lot of extra calories from clear liquids like sodas, lemonade or sweetened tea.  On the other hand, thick liquids like milk, soups or protein shakes do tend to fill us up, because they contain nutrients other than sugar (like protein or fiber) that help to fill us up.

The other issue with liquids is that they go down so easily. It’s simply faster and easier to slurp liquid calories than it is to chew solid foods. If you’ve ever seen people down a can of soda in just a few gulps, just know that’s more than 10 teaspoons of sugar and 150 calories in seconds flat.

Lower calorie alternatives to high calorie beverages

If liquid calories are a problem for you, try to steer yourself toward healthier, lower calorie choices. Water, mineral water and plain iced tea are great. If you can’t handle the taste of plain water, try mixing in just a splash of fruit juice for flavor. Sports drinks are generally much lighter in calories than fruit drinks and sodas, and they might be a good choice when it’s hot or when you’re active.

Finally, adults take note: alcoholic beverages can add up really fast. My client’s vodka and cranberry juice habit added nearly 900 calories to his daily intake. Your best choices are a glass of wine or a bottle of light beer, either of which comes in at about 100 calories. But watch the mixed drinks: a typical margarita can set you back more than be 400 calories—and that’s before you dive into the accompanying basket of chips. Just look at the chart below if you don’t believe me!

Calories in common beverages

BeverageServing SizeCalories*
Water, mineral water, club sodaAny amount0
Black coffeeAny amount0
Tea, plainAny amount0
Tomato juice8 ounces (250 ml)40
Champagne4 ounces (125 ml)80
Red Wine4 ounces (125 ml)100
Cappuccino, low-fat milk8 ounces (250 ml)100+ (varies)
White Wine4 ounces (125 ml)100
Hard liquor – scotch, rum, vodka, gin1 shot (1.5 ounces; 45 ml)100-125
Orange juice8 ounces (250 ml)110
Lemonade8 ounces (250 ml)110
Apple juice8 ounces (250 ml)120
Pineapple juice8 ounces (250 ml)135
Bottled sweetened tea12 ounces (350 ml)140
Cranberry juice8 ounces (250 ml)140
Soda12 ounce can (350 ml)150
Beer12 ounces (350 ml)150
*U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service. 2013. USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 26.

Written by Susan Bowerman, M.S., RD, CSSD, CSOWM, FAND – Senior Director, Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training

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