Why bother with ladders and tree-climbing if there are big, juicy apples ripe for the picking directly in front of your eyes? If you're looking for the low-hanging fruit of weight loss, look no further than your liquids.
It may go without saying that if you're concerned about your weight and want to lose some, or at least not gain more, that sugared soda isn't your friend. But what about other liquid calorie sources? Do juice and milk have health benefits that make them worth their calories? And how many calories are in your kick-back weekend coolers?
Before we get to whether juice or milk calories are worth it, let's start with the trouble with liquids. Simply put, our bodies don't register them the same way as solids. Eat 120 extra calories along with your breakfast and you're likely to compensate for those calories by eating a smaller amount of your usual choices. But if those 120 calories come from liquids, studies show your caloric compensation will be minimal at best. For instance, if you drink a glass of milk with each meal, you'll consume virtually the same number of food calories as you would have had you chosen a calorie-free beverage (like water).
You might say, "But I need to drink milk to prevent osteoporosis," or, "But I don't like fruit much so I'd rather drink it to get the vitamins." Let's examine those two statements, starting with milk. Two of the longest-running nutritional epidemiological investigations, the Nurses' Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study, found that individuals who drank one glass or less of milk a week were at no greater risk of breaking their arm or hip than individuals drinking more than two glasses per day, poking holes in what the dairy lobby would have you believe—that milk is an extremely effective osteoporosis vaccine. While calcium is certainly involved in bone strength, many now believe that regular weight-bearing exercise and adequate vitamin D consumption play a larger role in risk reduction, in part by helping to reduce falls.
And milk calories are far from inconsequential. Two glasses of 2 percent milk a day (such as one with a meal and another split between cereal and coffee) contain just 40 fewer calories than a Snickers bar. Switch to skim, and you'll still be drinking two-thirds of a Snickers bar a day. And heaven help you if it's chocolate milk every day, where drop for drop, even fat-reduced chocolate milk often has nearly double the calories of a regular soda and 20 percent more sugar.. Chug a 16-ounce "recovery" container of chocolate milk after a workout, and you might as well be chugging nearly 4 cups of calcium-fortified, hyper-sugared, soda.
And juice? Sure, you get a few vitamins. But oftentimes they're added back in to replace the fruit's original vitamins, which were stripped out during processing—and that goes for the "not from concentrate" juices as well. You'll also be missing out on the vast majority of the actual fruit's fiber and phytonutrients. Ultimately, you should view juice as simply being flat soda with a tiny bit of vitamin C thrown in. If you don't think a glass of soda sprinkled with vitamin C sounds like a healthy beverage, juice is little better.
Lastly there's alcohol. Because it's exempt from carrying a nutrition fact panel, you might be a bit in the dark about its calorie count. Some simple conversions for you: A bottle of wine a week provides roughly 10 theoretical pounds worth of calories a year. Same goes for a bottle of beer a night. Hit the coolers and just like with chocolate milk, you're talking double a sugary soda's punch, with a single cooler packing an average chocolate bar's worth of calories.
So, let's say you drink two glasses of 1 percent milk and a glass of orange juice a day, while also averaging one bottle of wine a week. In a year, those liquid calories would total just under 150,000 or just over 40 theoretical pounds.
The answer to whether or not liquid calories are worth it is entirely up to you. If you're worried about your weight, your goal should be the smallest number of liquid calories you need to enjoy your life as the health benefits intrinsic to liquid calories are minimal to none.
Eat your calories. Don't drink them.
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Yoni Freedhoff, MD, is an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa, where he's the founder and medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute—dedicated to non-surgical weight management since 2004. Dr. Freedhoff sounds off daily on his award-winning blog, Weighty Matters, and is also easily reachable on Twitter. Look for Dr. Freedhoff's book on the fallacies and future of modern-day dieting to be published by Simon & Schuster's Free Press in spring of 2013.