Ask an Expert: How many calories should I drink each day?

Q: “How many of my daily calories should come from beverages? I realize that the calories in my daily lattes and occasional sodas, sports drinks and beers add up, but are there any actual guidelines on what, and how much, we’re supposed to drink every day?”

Answer provided by Terese Scollard, MBA, RD, LD, regional clinical nutrition manager for Providence Nutrition Services:

You raise an excellent question. In a society where we face liquid temptation all day long – from morning coffee, tea and juice choices, to afternoon sodas and energy drinks, to evening dinner drinks and adult beverages – that’s a problem. Merchants make a lot of money on beverages, so they focus their advertising on selling us high volumes – and we’re buying it. The number of high-calorie drinks we consume, as well as the size of those drinks, is rising steadily. Yet studies show that most of us do not reduce the amount of calories that we get from food to compensate for this increase in liquid calories. As a result, our waistlines are expanding as rapidly as the beverage aisles in the grocery store.

Today, beverages account for 21 percent of the calories that the average American consumes in a day. That’s too much. But to answer your question, what is the right amount?

A panel of experts offers some guidelines

In 2006, a panel of leading U.S. nutrition experts proposed a new set of guidelines for healthy drinking. Their Beverage Guidance System is based on extensive reviews of the medical literature on beverages and health.

According to the Beverage Guidance Panel, a healthy diet relies on food, not fluids, to provide calories and nutrition. (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2006; 83: 529–42).)

Our daily fluid needs – about 72 ounces (9 cups) for women and 100 ounces (12.5 cups) for men – can be met almost entirely with water. (We need about 91 to 125 ounces of total fluids per day, but fruits, vegetables and other foods with some water content fill about 20 percent of those needs.) However, understanding human preferences for variety, and acknowledging that some beverages do provide nutrients, the panel’s recommendations accommodate a variety of beverages.

In general, the panel recommends drinking mainly zero-calorie beverages; drinks that do have calories should provide no more than 10 percent of your total daily calories. For example, a person following a 2,000-calorie diet should try to make sure that only 200 of those calories come from beverages; the rest should come from food.

When you do drink beverages that provide calories, the guidelines recommend choosing drinks that have some nutritional value, and thinking in serving sizes of one cup. (One cup is 8 ounces; a 64-ounce Double Big Gulp packs in eight 1-cup servings and 800 calories.) And don’t forget to factor those calories into your total daily calorie balance.

What to drink? Watch your levels.

The Beverage Guidance System divides beverage choices into six levels, from the most preferred – those that should be consumed most frequently (1), to the least preferred – those that should be consumed only sparingly (6). Here is a summary of those guidelines:

Level

Beverages

Servings/day
(1 cup/8 oz.)

Comments

1

Water

Women: 4+
Men: 6+

Water is the only beverage the body really needs. Increasing your water intake reduces your intake of high-calorie beverages.

2

Coffee and tea, unsweetened

Tea: 0–8
Coffee: 0–4

Unsweetened coffee and tea offer some health benefits without calories, but consuming more than 400-500 mg of caffeine can impair performance and mood.

3

Milk (0–1.5% fat) and fortified soy beverages

0–2

Because they provide calcium and vitamin D, low-fat milk and fortified soy milk can be a valuable part of a balanced diet. (2 % and whole milk are fine for children 2 and under).

4

Calorie-free (artificially sweetened) sodas and drinks

0–4

Since they have no calories, diet sodas are a better choice than drinks sweetened with sugar, high-fructose corn syrup or sucrose. However, their sweetness can create a desire for other sweets, so water, tea and coffee are still better choices. As with coffee and tea, caffeine content should be limited.

5

High-calorie drinks with some nutrients (100% fruit or vegetable juice, whole milk, sports drinks, alcohol)

0–1

  • Whole fruits and vegetables are preferred over juices because they provide fiber and a feeling of fullness.
  • Whole milk is high in saturated fat and is not recommended for anyone over age 2. Stick with skim or 1% milk.
  • Sports drinks are beneficial only to marathoners and other endurance athletes.
  • Alcoholic beverages offer some health benefits but should be limited to 0-1 drink per day for women and 0-2 drinks per day for men (one drink = 12 oz. of beer, 5 oz. of wine, or 1.5 oz. of distilled spirits).

6

High-calorie drinks with no nutrients (carbonated soft drinks)

0 if trying to lose weight; otherwise, 0–1

Sodas and other calorically sweetened drinks provide empty calories that contribute to obesity and type 2 diabetes; these should be limited to no more than one 8-oz. serving per day.

(Source: www.BeverageGuidancePanel.org )

Click the level numbers above for more details.

Within these guidelines, there’s plenty of flexibility to choose the beverages that appeal most to you, but your total beverage calories should provide no more than 10 percent of your total daily calories from all sources.

Prioritize what you pour.

A look at the number of calories in the types of drinks that you mentioned enjoying shows how quickly you could exceed the daily recommended amount:

  • Starbucks Caffè Latte, 12-oz. (tall) – 120 calories
  • Coke or 7-Up, 20-oz. – 250 calories
  • Gatorade, 20-oz. – 130 calories
  • Beer, 12-oz. – 160 calories

(Beverage calorie counts are listed in The Nutrition Action Healthletter, which reported on the Beverage Guidance Panel’s recommendations in June 2006. Download a PDF.)

Downing just one of each of these drinks, in the standard marketed serving sizes, delivers 660 calories, or one-third of the calories that the average person needs in a day. If, in addition, you put milk on your cereal (50 calories in 4 oz. of 1%), have a glass of orange juice in the morning (110 calories in 8 oz.), and decide to go for a second soda or beer, you could easily consume half of the total calories you need in a day – before you’ve had a single bite of food. Ouch. If you’re trying to stick to a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet, that’s going to leave you pretty hungry.

A better plan, as the guidelines recommend, would be to get most of your calories and nutrition from food, and to choose mainly beverages that are calorie-free. You can eliminate a lot of unwanted calories by drinking smaller, one-cup servings, rather than the gigantic servings that merchants push, and by choosing lower-calorie versions of the calorie-rich drinks that you like. For example:

  • Switching from regular to diet Coke or 7-Up saves 250 calories, cutting your original 660-calorie beverage total to 410.
  • Switching from a tall latte to an 8-oz. coffee with 1 creamer and 1 sugar packet (30 calories) saves 90 calories, lowering your total to 320 beverage calories.
  • Reducing that Gatorade to 8 ounces saves 80 calories, dropping you to a total of 240.
  • Switching from regular to light beer saves 50 calories, bringing you to an acceptable total of 190 calories from all of your day’s beverages.

Of course, you could find that light beer tastes terrible. If that’s the case, you might prefer to skip the sports drink instead, or to have a regular beer every other day instead of daily. The guidelines are there to help you prioritize according to your preferences. When you see the pounds start to melt away, you’ll be glad you did.

Cheers to that – and to your health.

October 2007