Your diet sucks. No, not the odd cheese-curls-for-dinner days. We mean the average 400 calories a day you suck down through a straw. A recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that around 37 percent of our total daily liquid calories come from sugar-sweetened drinks. And here's the really crazy part: Guzzling those beverages has a bigger impact on our waistlines than anything else we eat.
"People don't reduce food intake when they drink their calories from soda and other beverages," says Barry Popkin, Ph.D., a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina. The silver lining is that cutting back on those oversweetened fluids can be an easy way to kick-start weight loss. Where to begin? This guide is a good place.
Drink These Freely
We may live in the land of the Big Gulp, but for the rest of the world, tea is the most popular beverage after water. And for good reason: Hot or cold, it's calorie-free, and studies have found that compounds in green tea known as catechins rev your metabolism for up to 24 hours--meaning it actually helps you burn more calories.
But when you load this naturally good beverage with sugar, you detract from those health benefits. So order unsweetened when you can, and check labels: Every four grams of sugar is the same as one cube or packetful. If you're up for brewing your own, try this recipe for iced cucumber green tea, from Maggie Moon, M.S., R.D., of the U.S. Tea Council. Boil a quart of cold water, then let it cool for 10 minutes before adding eight to 10 green-tea bags. This will extract the flavor and antioxidants without scorching the tea, which can make it bitter. Steep for one minute, then remove the bags. Peel and dice a cucumber, reserving eight to 10 slices for garnish. Peel and grate one tablespoon of fresh ginger. Distribute cucumber and ginger evenly among four glasses with ice. Top each with eight ounces of tea and garnish with cucumber slices.
Like tea, unsweetened coffee is filled with healthy compounds and almost no calories. But if you're a fan of sugary coffee concoctions, you down 206 more calories a day on average than people who sip straight joe. Not ready to break up with your barista? Try an Americano (espresso plus water) or a café au lait with skim milk. If you can't skip cream and sugar, be stingy with them or use low-cal or fat-free versions.
Avoid these worst drinks in the supermarket.
Go Easier On These
Researchers at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville found that having three servings of low-fat dairy per day can lead to weight loss of 10 percent or more. Dairy contains calcium and the amino acid leucine, which together promote fat burning, says Michael Zemel, Ph.D., director of the university's Nutrition Institute. And a study of overweight women at Northern Illinois University found that soy milk was just as effective as nonfat cow's milk in helping them shed pounds. But stick to skim or low-fat moo juice and light soy milk; otherwise, the calories add up quickly.
Happy hour is good for plenty of things, but weight loss isn't one of them. Savoring a drink every now and then does have perks, including reducing your risk of heart disease, but alcohol packs a lot of calories into a small glass, and it may even stimulate your appetite. And unlike the calories in fat, carbohydrates, and protein, those in alcohol can't be stored in your body, so they have to be used immediately. As a result, your body stops burning fat until the alcohol is processed--that's roughly an hour for every drink. Most wines ring in between 100 and 120 calories a glass, but you can stretch it out by adding club soda and ice to make a spritzer. If you can't stomach that, have a Bloody Mary--a six-ounce glass delivers around 76 calories. That's reasonable.
If it comes from fruit, it must be healthy, right? Not so much. Many juices have added sugars. And in terms of health benefits, you're always better off eating whole fruit instead. A medium orange has a mere 59 calories, and its 12 grams of sugar come with three grams of belly-filling fiber. A typical eight-ounce glass of OJ has 110 calories, twice as much sugar as the fruit, and no fiber. For a healthier juice fix, try watering it down, says Lisa Jones, R.D., adjunct professor of nutrition at La Salle University in Philadelphia. Mix four ounces of your favorite kind with 32 ounces of water. You'll get the flavor with fewer calories.
No-cal pop may not pile on the pounds directly, but new research from Purdue University suggests that drinking these artificially sweetened beverages can screw with the brain's ability to measure caloric intake. Drink them often enough and you may actually start to crave sweets more. Plus, if you swig diet drinks all day, you're taking in fewer healthy liquids, such as tea. Get your carbonation fix with zero-calorie seltzer instead, or make your own with a home soda maker that carbonates your drink of choice.