The Big Beverage Comparison – What Are You Really Drinking?

Colleen A. Thompson, MS, RD

Did you know that today’s teens are getting over 10 percent of their daily calories from soda and other sweetened beverages? The soft drink industry is a huge one, spending billions of advertising dollars to get you to choose their product.

Common Misconceptions
About Beverages

Regardless of the flavor or the manufacturer of the product, most soft drinks are nutritionally about the same. They provide lots of calories in the form of added sugar but few other nutrients. Some sodas, especially cola beverages, also contain caffeine, an addictive stimulant that you don’t need.Finally, many soft drinks (including diet soft drinks) contain quite a bit of the mineral phosphorus. Excess amounts of the form of phosphorus found in colas and root beer may cause your body to lose calcium.

It is pretty common to see both adults and teens walking around with a bottle of some sweetened beverage or a large cup of some type of coffee drink. We are getting lots of calories from these choices. It’s a good idea to know exactly what you are drinking and consider other choices.

If you are going to drink sodas, you should know that most 12-ounce cans (except diet soft drinks) have about 150 calories or so, all from added sugar. There may be caffeine in them too. Read the label. From a nutrition standpoint, all sodas really have to offer are calories!

Water is the best thirst quencher. It hydrates your body quickly. Bottled, spring, or right from the tap, it’s great stuff. No real nutrients here, but no calories, or added sugar, or caffeine either!

Sports drinks
Sports drinks, such as Gatorade, can be a little better than sodas. They usually have some added sodium and potassium to replenish those minerals lost during exercise. Still, all of the calories come from added sugar. If you’re not working out and not sweating a lot, you do just as well with water. In addition, some of the newer so-called sports drinks may have caffeine added to them. Calorie content for 16 ounces is about 113.

For the same amount of calories as sodas, you could have 100 percent fruit juice and get some vitamins in your diet. These drinks usually have vitamin C, and now some juices have added calcium. Be sure to look for “100% juice” on the label. Terms, such as “fruit drink” “ades” and “cocktails,” generally imply added sugar and not all fruit juice! Calorie content for a 16 ounce bottle of juice is about 204.

Again, for similar calorie content as sodas, you can choose a glass of low-fat milk. You will also get calcium, vitamin D, and a great source of protein. That’s what we call “nutrient dense” – lots of nutrition in a small amount of calories, just 190 for 16 ounces, which is really two servings!

Iced-coffee smoothie drinks
Made with whole milk, depending on how you order it, an iced-coffee smoothie can have 230 calories (a 16-ounce drink made with fat-free milk and sugar) to 410 calories (a 16-ounce drink made with cream and sugar). Check out the nutrition information in the restaurant first. You may be surprised to find you are drinking enough calories to count as a whole meal!

Fruit smoothies
Made with fruit, sugar, and ice, if made with real fruit (ask if you’re not sure), these drinks are a refreshing way to punch up your fruit intake. But for those of you watching your calories, know that these can have plenty, especially if sugar is added. Calories can be upwards of 280 or more, depending on how much sugar is added.

What if you are an athlete? Shouldn’t you be drinking sports drinks?

Water is the best source of fluids for most athletes. It is readily absorbed and quickly replaces any lost fluids. For athletes exercising continuously for more than 60 minutes, a fluid with some extra nutrients may be a good idea. As you exercise, you lose water through your sweat. You also lose some minerals known as electrolytes. These minerals are important for fluid balance. They include sodium, potassium, and chloride. Athletes exercising more than 60 minutes or in extreme heat may need to replace fluid losses as well as electrolyte losses.

Diluted fruit juices, fruit drinks, and sports drinks can effectively replace lost fluids, including the electrolytes and provide necessary energy to working muscles. Sports drinks usually have added potassium and sodium, the two common electrolytes lost in sweat. So, if you’re working hard and are really sweating, sports drinks may be a good idea. Full-strength juices should be avoided during exercise because they may cause cramping or nausea.

Sports drinks do have quite a few calories because of their relatively high sugar content. For recreational exercisers and those exercising less than one hour, the additional calories may not be necessary. Water is a better and more refreshing choice.

Naturally, the decision on what you drink to quench your thirst is up to you! However, that decision should be based on the facts and personal preference. Ask yourself what you are looking for when you get ready to choose a beverage.

• Need to quench your thirst? Choose water or other zero calorie beverages.
• Replenishing during a long sweaty workout? Choose a sports drink.
• Looking for a pick-me up? Have your coffee or caffeinated drink, but be sure you know how much caffeine you are getting.
• No time to eat a meal? Choose milk or a smoothie to get some quick nutrition and needed calories.

This article is excerpted in part from chapters in the book “Fueling the Teen Machine,” (2nd edition) by Ellen Shanley and Colleen Thompson.

Colleen A. Thompson, MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian and certified educator who works and teaches at the University of Connecticut in the Department of Allied Health Sciences. She also directs a fitness and wellness center for faculty and staff at UCONN. She is currently President of the Connecticut Dietetic Association and the busy and happy mom of three active teenage boys.

The articles written by guest contributors are the sole responsibility of the individual writers in terms of factual accuracy and opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher of this blog.

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