Those of us who could stand to shed a few pounds naturally gravitate to diet soda, water, or unsweetened tea – beverages with no calories.
It seems like a no brainer. Replace a beverage with calories for one without them and you can easily reduce your daily caloric intake. So, why isn't it working?
Nutritionists will tell you that you should eat a balanced, nutritious diet containing fewer calories than you burn if you want to lose weight. Food loaded with fiber will help because it makes you feel full.
Beverages are an often-overlooked source of calories, so being aware of those calories, and avoiding them by drinking diet beverages, might seem like a smart strategy. And it is, if you can avoid making up for those calories elsewhere.
There's the rub
Ruopeng An, a professor at the University of Illinois, says that tends to happen quite a bit. He reached that conclusion after conducting a major study in which he examined the dietary habits of more than 22,000 people.
He put together a list of 661 items of what he calls “discretionary foods,” things you won't find on any nutritionist's list of recommended foods. We're talking about cookies, ice cream, French fries, and the like.
Not surprisingly An found more than 90% of the people in the study consumed discretionary foods every day, averaging about 482 calories from these products daily.
An's study is a little different from previous dietary research that has focused on between-meal snacking's contribution to weight gain. But An says it's not so important when you eat as what you eat. And here's where the beverage correlation comes in.
An found that people who drink coffee and diet-beverages do, in fact, consume fewer total calories each day than people who drink a lot of alcohol or high-calorie sugary drinks. But they also get a greater percentage of their daily calorie intake from unhealthy discretionary foods.
An believes that suggests people who aren't getting calories from beverages – and are aware of that calorie savings – are more likely to compensate by “treating” themselves to discretionary food with little or no nutritional value but with a lot of empty calories.
"It may be that people who consume diet beverages feel justified in eating more, so they reach for a muffin or a bag of chips," An said. "Or perhaps, in order to feel satisfied, they feel compelled to eat more of these high-calorie foods."
As we reported earlier this year, Stacey Cahn, an associate professor of psychology at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, has also studied why people gain weight and she also leans toward the discretionary food theory, only in her case she narrows it down to processed food.
Cahn says eating processed food makes it much harder to control your food cravings and that it's no accident. She points out food manufacturers have invested billions of dollars in making their products almost impossible to resist. It's just “good business” on their part, she says.
“Research shows that we’re much more likely to overeat processed foods than 'whole foods,'” Cahn said. “Snack foods that have an airy, crispy texture like cheese puffs leave us particularly prone to overeating because of vanishing caloric density. As the snack somewhat dissolves on our tongues, our bodies don’t register those fat calories, so we still feel hungry, and we keep eating.”
Does all this mean you should not be concerned with your beverage choices? Not at all. It's just more important to choose healthy, nutritious food to go with those beverages.