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Beverages Boost Calorie Intake, But Many View Fluids As Calorie-free!

Beverages - and not just alcohol - are a significant if little recognized source of calories in North American diets. Yet many people seem to believe that if a calorie is ingested in fluid form, it's a freebie.

"They just don't put it in the same category - they're not eating, they're quenching a thirst," says Richard Mattes, a nutrition professor at Purdue University in Indiana who has done extensive research on beverage consumption.

Sure, most people know a thick milk shake, a sugary cola or a pint of beer isn't the best choice for someone on a diet. But how bad could iced tea be? And a bottle of juice is good for you, right? A refreshing Frappuccino? Heck, that's basically a coffee slush, isn't it?

Not exactly.

Between the ingredients and the sizes in which they are sold, many drinks contain a surprising number of calories, enough to derail any weight loss or maintenance regime.

"I really believe that beverage consumption is contributing to the weight issue in a very substantive way," says Mattes, who notes there's been a huge jump in sales in virtually all beverages - with the exception of milk - in recent years.

Perhaps nowhere is the issue of calories in drinks more evident than in the offerings available at the ubiquitous premium coffee shops.

Last summer the staff of The Tufts University Health and Nutrition Letter did some research on the calorie and fat counts of popular summer drinks. The newsletter, from the esteemed Friedman School of Nutrition, Science and Policy at Boston-based Tufts, goes out to about 150,000 people a month.

The findings were eye-popping.

A Starbucks Venti (large) caramel macchiato with whole milk contains 310 calories and 12 grams of fat.

A large Tazoberry and Cream contains 560 calories and 15 grams of fat, nine grams of which are saturated fat (the kind we're supposed to avoid).

A large Strawberry Fruit Coolatta at Dunkin' Donuts had no fat, but 540 calories. Their large Vanilla Bean Coolatta contained 880 calories and 34 grams of fat - most of which were saturated fat.

"For a moderate-sized, not particularly active woman, that's half their (required) caloric intake for the day," Mattes says of the Coolatta.

Larry Lindner, executive editor of the Tufts newsletter, says most people don't realize these drinks are sending their calorie intake soaring.

"And I have a feeling if people knew just how many calories were in these things, if they familiarized themselves with the numbers, these things would be easier to forego on a regular basis," Lindner says.

Diana Steele, a dietitian in private practice in Vancouver, says she often sees teenage girls who skip lunch because they're trying to lose weight, then order coffee or chocolate drinks mounded with whip cream and laced with syrups in coffee shops.

"Suddenly they're consuming 600 calories in an after-school beverage. And they have no idea that the calories in that drink are so high - because it's not food," Steele says.

That's the thing. It is food. But the head doesn't recognize it as such. Neither does the stomach. That's because liquids don't satiate people the same way solids do.

"They don't make people feel full and as a consequence they add them to their diet rather than substituting for other caloric sources. So total caloric intake is going up," Mattes explains.

He has the evidence to prove it. A few years ago, Mattes did a study in which a group of students were given a 450-calorie soft drink every day for a month. After a month off, the students were given 450 calories worth of jelly beans daily for a month. The students logged their daily food intake and weight throughout the study.

When the students were getting the jelly beans, they instinctively cut back on other calories. They made no adjustment when they were getting the sugary drink and their weights went up, he says.

Another problem might be slotted under the heading "but it's good for me." That problem is juice.

Juice in and of itself is fine and is a healthy part of a balanced diet. But people rarely drink juice in the portions the experts recommend (Canada's food guide suggests a serving of juice is half a cup). Therein lies the difficulty.

"Juice is a healthful food. But 16 ounces," - that's two cups -"at one sitting is not. That's what it comes down to," Lindner says.

Steele urges her clients to get the benefits of juice by eating the whole fruits. Eating two oranges instead of drinking their juice is more filling and provides more fiber, which is something most Canadian diets lack, she explains.

Other popular beverages like non-diet soft drinks and power drinks are full of calories - calories someone may not need, Steele adds.

"I think that it's OK to have calories from a couple of glasses of milk in a day or a glass of pure fruit juice but when it comes to something like a SoBe beverage where you're getting 350 calories in a bottle and it's pure sugar with some flavoring, there's no nutritive value. That's like eating a bag of candy."

The same applies to alcohol. Steele calculated that a single drink a night for 10 months would lead to a six pound weight gain, if the drinker didn't cut back on other calories.

It's not all bad news, however. While beverages can be a diet problem, they can also be an easy diet solution.

Many people find it easier to drop a few pounds by altering the types of beverages they drink than by cutting back on foods, both Lindner and Steele say.

"So I think just a little education could help people either stay away from these things or really use them as an occasional treat."

The idea isn't to cut fluid intake, but to switch to low- or no-calorie beverages, Mattes says.

"The message should not be don't drink. Hydration is important. You either have to switch to lower calorie beverages or you have to consciously control it."

Author: Susan Rutter -- Publisher, Nutritionist, and Instructor who assists patients and the public make healthy choices and changes in their lives. Web Site: Healthy YOUbbies. http://www.geocities.com/healthyoubbies/

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