Sixteen-year-old Montana Ivory had been an excellent customer for Coke, Mountain Dew and Monster Energy — until he got the message about calories.
“I’d end up drinking a half-liter and not even notice it was gone,” Ivory said. “And I didn’t pay attention that a serving size is 8 ounces, and I would drink four or five times that.”
After Ivory attended a program at the University of Kansas Medical Center, he started reading labels and rejecting sugary drinks. Not easy.
“I was unhappy because I love that stuff,” he said. “But now my potbelly is starting to shrink down.”
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While the multibillion-dollar sugary beverages industry — soft drinks, juices, energy drinks, coffee concoctions — flows happily on, the science is becoming crystal clear: If you want to lose or control weight, drink no calories. Or very few.
It’s the same for old and young. In a new and unusual study of more than 200 overweight or obese 14- to 16-year-olds, researchers delivered bottled water and diet drinks to families, then counseled them to drink the no-calorie beverages rather than their usual sweetened drinks.
After a year, participants who received the water and diet drinks gained an average 4 pounds less than the control group, a significant finding considering it was the only lifestyle change in the study, said Cara Ebbeling of Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School.
Ivory wasn’t in the Boston study, but he did lose 15 pounds, down to about 200, and ultimately wants to weigh closer to 170. He’s also eating better and exercising more. Doable?
“If I stick to the plan,” he said.
The message is out there, the science is in, but many of us are still guzzling the calories. Americans consume 300 calories more a day than they did three decades ago, and a substantial part of that increase comes from beverages.
It’s a hard habit to break.
One problem, Ebbeling said, may be that people aren’t distinguishing between sensations of hunger and thirst. Consciously and correctly responding to those cues is key, she said.
“When you’re thirsty, you need water as opposed to calories,” she said. “Calories are needed when you’re hungry.”
A big issue is ready availability. An important idea in the study, Ebbeling said, was to change the home environment so that sugar-free drinks were available — and to encourage choosing them over sweetened beverages.
The ubiquity of giant drinks was the reason for the recent New York City ban of sweetened beverages larger than 16 ounces. Recent ballot measures in two California cities would have taxed sugary beverages to the tune of $1.44 for a 12-pack, but voters rejected both proposals last week.
Joan O’Keefe, a registered dietitian and Kansas City area nutrition counselor, said some of her toughest weight loss cases are among those who drink a lot of calories.
“It’s huge,” she said, “this infusion of soda pop and things like Gatorade, Powerade, Fruitopia. And coffee drinks with all the syrups in them.”
While the body must deal with all the added calories of sweetened drinks, those beverages don’t send the “full” message to the brain that comes with food, O’Keefe said. The result is way too many calories, day after day.
One way to combat the desire for soda, she said, is with sparkling water.
Besides the sweetness, it’s the feel of carbonation in the mouth that holds much of soda’s appeal, so switching to no-calorie flavored carbonated water — her family likes Lacroix — can help break the soda habit.
Diet drinks? Not a favorite of many nutritionists. They worry about the potential ill effects of some compounds in diet sodas. And there’s concern that artificial sweeteners might actually increase cravings, leading to more eating and added pounds.
But new studies by researchers in Denmark found that diet cola behaved the same as water in terms of appetite and weight gain. Bjorn Richelsen of Aarhus University Hospital said four beverages were analyzed: Coca-Cola, Diet Coke, milk and water.
One hypothesis was that Diet Coke would enhance appetite, but that was not the case, Richelsen said in an email. No difference was found in the calorie intake of study participants in the hours after drinking the diet soda or water. And in a longer-term study, no weight gain was associated with Diet Coke.
More study is needed about the effects of soda drinking in large quantities and over time, nutritionists said.