The Diet Dilemma: Cut Liquid or Solid Calories

Printed with permission from the Cooper Institute.


Whether you’re looking to drop a few pounds or planning your holiday strategy to beat the bulge, you are probably debating which calories to cut and which can stay.  Americans consumed an average of  21% of their daily calories from beverages in 2002 compared to 8.1% in 19653.  This represents an increase of 75 to 150 liquid calories to our diet each day over the last 30 years5.  Although seemingly insignificant, it represents an addition of 25,000 to 50,000 calories over the year!  Potentially that could amount to a weight gain of 7 to 14 pounds per year.  For most of us, sugar sweetened beverages in the form of sodas, alcohol or coffee drinks are a routine part of our diet.  If you are looking to cut out a few dietary calories, sugar sweetened beverages may be a better option than cutting the same number of sugar calories from your diet as food.

A study2 compared the impact of adding 450 calories/day of simple sugars in the form of solid food vs. beverages on total daily caloric intake.  Subjects participated in two different dietary interventions in random order. They consumed an additional 450 calories of jelly beans every day for four weeks.  They went back to their regular diet for 4 weeks.  Then subjects drank an additional 450 calories of caffeine-free soda each day for four more weeks.  Researchers measured total caloric intake and body weight during both conditions.  When subjects drank the extra calories, they did not adjust their caloric intake throughout the day which increased their intake by 450 calories.   However, when they consumed the extra calories as food (jelly bean) they ate fewer calories throughout the day compensating for the added calories.  During the four weeks that subjects ate jelly beans, body weight did not change significantly but they gained just over a pound during the month they added the liquid calories to their diet.

Another study looked at the same thing but a little bit differently.  Chen and associates1 asked over 800 adults to cut 100 calories per day from their diet as food (replacing high fat foods with fruits and vegetables) or liquids (sugar sweetened beverages , milk, and alcoholic beverages).  Researchers then measured body weight at 6 and 18 months to see which group lost the most weight.  They reported that cutting 100 calories of sugar sweetened beverages per day resulted in the most weight loss – 2/3 of a pound at 6 months and 0.44 pounds at 18 months.  Cutting 100 liquid calories resulted in more weight loss than cutting 100 calories of food from their diet each day.  One interesting finding was that cutting calories through the consumption of other beverages like milk was not associated with weight loss as were cutting sugar sweetened beverages like sodas and sugar sweetened tea and coffee.  This study suggests that sugar sweetened beverages don’t really satisfy hunger and have no affect on caloric intake the rest of the day.  They are just extra calories that don’t satisfy hunger.

Researchers have suggested various mechanisms may contribute to our ability to adjust caloric intake when we eat extra calories as food but not as liquid.  The simple action of chewing our food may satisfy hunger more than swallowing liquids.  In another study4 subjects rated their hunger after eating apple slices vs. eating a puree (similar to applesauce) or drinking apple juice.  They reported lower levels of hunger after eating apples compared to eating apple puree or drinking apple juice.   Besides the fact that subjects had to chew the apples, whole fruit has more fiber and nutrients than a puree or fruit juice.   Compare the fiber content of different forms of apples.

  • 1 whole medium apple with peel — 3.3 grams fiber
  • 1 whole medium apple without peel — 1.7 grams fiber
  • ½ cup applesauce — 1.5 grams fiber
  • ¾ cup apple juice — 0.2 grams fiber

When fiber combines with liquids in the stomach, it increases in size which makes you feel fuller.  Fiber also slows the movement of food through your digestive tract which leaves you feeling full longer.  It can also help lower blood sugar and cholesterol while keeping you regular.  Second, beverages like milk which contain protein and fat in addition to simple sugars would be expected to stay in the stomach longer than a food or a liquid containing only sugar.  The addition of protein and/or a small amount of fat may suppress hunger longer, decreasing calorie intake later in the day.

Cutting sugar sweetened beverages from your diet is a great place to start trimming those extra calories.  They don’t keep you feeling as full as beverages or foods that contain other nutrients like protein, fat, and fiber.  Sugar sweetened beverages are as they say “empty calories” without nutritional value.  What is your favorite healthy snack that fights hunger and keeps you feeling energized throughout the day?  Mine is apples and strawberries; I keep a bag of apples in my desk at work or back pack when I travel.  A bowl of low fat yogurt and strawberries is a great way to start the day.  The fiber keeps those hunger pangs at bay and provides other key nutrients not found in sugar sweetened beverages.  Share your favorite healthy “hunger fighting” snacks with others us.  Check out this one day seminar – Weight Control Strategies for more weight loss tips and tools.

1. Chen, L, Appel, L, Loria, C. et al. (2009). Reduction in consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages is associated with weight loss: the PREMIER trial. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 89:1299-1306.

2.  DiMeglio, D. & Mattes, R. (2000). Liquid versus solid carbohydrate: effects on food intake and body weight. International Journal of Obesity. 24:794-800.

3. Duffey, K.  & Popkin, B. (2007). Shifts in patterns and consumption of beverages between 1965 and 2002. Obesity, 15:2739 –2747.

4. Haber, G., Heaton, K., Murphy, D.  & Burroughs, L. (1977). Depletion and disruption of dietary fiber effects on satiety, plasma-glucose, and serum-insulin.  Lancet. 2:679-682.

5. Tufts Health Letter, July (2009) –

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