Pour Better or Pour Worse: How Beverages Stack Up

By Popkin, Barry M. | Nutrition Action Healthletter, June 2006 | Go to article overview

Pour Better or Pour Worse: How Beverages Stack Up


Popkin, Barry M., Nutrition Action Healthletter


Q: Why did you organize a panel of experts to advise people about what to drink?

A: People don't understand that beverages are less satiating than solid foods. When you consume calories from beverages, you don't compensate by eating less food later on. Liquid calories don't register with our appetite controls.

The second reason was that schools are dropping soft drinks from vending machines and adding sports drinks or juices or sweetened milk drinks instead. But kids may not be gaining anything by those changes. The industry is just playing games. We felt that people needed to know how the whole array of beverages affects health.

Q: Do we get many calories from beverages?

A: Yes. Today the average American gets about 21 percent of his or her calories from beverages. Most age and gender groups are consuming about 150 to 300 more calories than they did 30 years ago, and about half of the increase in caloric intake comes from soft drinks and fruit drinks.

Q: That's a big change?

A: Yes. From the 1970s to the present, per capita intake of soft drinks and fruit drinks went up, the number of times per day that people consumed calorically sweetened beverages went up, the portion size went up, and the percentage of people consuming those beverages went up. So we've had huge changes in the last 25 or 30 years.

Q: Have soft drinks contributed to the obesity epidemic?

A: Soft drinks and fruit drinks are clearly a bigger culprit than any other beverage for 10-to-35-year-olds. But all beverages with calories have contributed. There are groups of adults who have tripled their daily alcohol intake, and others who have started having a smoothie a day.

Q: How do beverages make us gain weight?

A: Studies show that you gain weight if you shift from noncaloric beverages to calorically sweetened ones. We think that's because if you drink a beverage--whether it's a soft drink or juice or beer--you don't compensate by eating less food later.

Q: Does drinking water change your food intake later?

A: No. Since we evolved getting our calories only from food, it makes sense from an evolutionary perspective that drinking water wouldn't limit your food intake. It would be dangerous if people were no longer hungry after drinking water, because they wouldn't consume enough food. We were built to have separate thirst and hunger mechanisms because the body needs both fluids and calories from food. Throughout evolution, fluids had no calories.

Q: Do the calories in soup register?

A: We didn't address soup or meal drinks like Ensure. But soup is different from beverages. As you go from a beverage to a soup to a solid food, you tend to compensate for the calories by eating less later. Nobody quite understands why beverages are remarkably different from foods, even liquid foods such as soup.

Q: Can you get by with just water?

A: Yes, water is all we need if we have a healthy, balanced diet. Paleolithic humans lived on breast milk and water. One to two thousand years ago, we started to consume beer and, much later, other alcoholic beverages. A few hundred years ago, when coffee and tea were introduced, people put a little sugar in them. Those were the major caloric beverages out there, along with some local juices off of trees.

We didn't really get many calories from beverages until the last century, when more sweetened teas and coffees, and then soft drinks, came in after World War II. So we are in a new world when it comes to beverages. We've really shifted over time.

Q: If you don't eat a healthy diet, you might need more than water?

A: Right. In modern society, many age and gender groups need other beverages like milk to supply nutrients they don't get from food. And, thanks in part to marketing, we want other beverages like alcohol, coffee, and soft drinks.

Q: Do we get enough liquids? …

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