Sweet Drinks, Liquid Calories and Weight Loss

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It’s fairly common for people to ask my advice about weight loss, getting in shape, etc.

Want to hear my first piece of advice to those who want to shed some pounds?  Here it is: start by cutting out all liquid calories except for lowfat or skim milk.  Stick with water, coffee (without sugar), sugar-free drinks and milk (lowfat or skim).

The amount of sugar we drink has been one of the most overlooked negative aspects of the American diet.  A can of soda per day, for example, can add 15 lb in a single year.

One problem with sugary drinks is the “sneaky” nature of these calories:  you don’t realize just how many you are consuming, and neither does your body.  “Real” food will cause a hormonal response–hormones like leptin will send signals to your brain, telling you that you are full.  But sugary drinks don’t trigger the body’s natural feedback systems.   The end result is an excess of “empty” calories (“empty,” meaning calories with no nutritional value).

One study found cutting liquid calories to be a more effective strategy than reducing solid calorie intake.

Objective: The objective of this study was to examine how changes in beverage consumption affect weight change among adults.

Design: This was a prospective study of 810 adults participating in the PREMIER trial, an 18-mo randomized, controlled, behavioral intervention trial. Measurements (weight, height, and 24-h dietary recall) were made at baseline, 6 mo, and 18 mo.

Results: Baseline mean intake of liquid calories was 356 kcal/d (19% of total energy intake). After potential confounders and intervention assignment were controlled for, a reduction in liquid calorie intake of 100 kcal/d was associated with a weight loss of 0.25 kg (95% CI: 0.11, 0.39; P < 0.001) at 6 mo and of 0.24 kg (95% CI: 0.06, 0.41; P = 0.008) at 18 mo. A reduction in liquid calorie intake had a stronger effect than did a reduction in solid calorie intake on weight loss. Of the individual beverages, only intake of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) was significantly associated with weight change. A reduction in SSB intake of 1 serving/d was associated with a weight loss of 0.49 kg (95% CI: 0.11, 0.82; P = 0.006) at 6 mo and of 0.65 kg (95% CI: 0.22, 1.09; P = 0.003) at 18 mo.

Conclusions: These data support recommendations to limit liquid calorie intake among adults and to reduce SSB consumption as a means to accomplish weight loss or avoid excess weight gain.1

I’m not saying you can’t have a soft drink ever again–that’s not practical.  But you can look at sweetened drinks the same way you’d look at cake or ice cream: something to occasionally indulge in, but not something to be consumed daily.

Remember:  Diet is going to count for at least 85-90% of your results when it comes to weight loss/fat loss.   Don’t mess up all your hard work in the gym buy drinking a bunch of junk.


1. Am J Clin Nutr May 2009 vol. 89 no. 5 1299-1306 Reduction in consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages is associated with weight loss (emphasis mine).

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