Are liquid calories as fattening as food calories?

When it comes to weight gain and loss, calories are calories regardless of whether they come from liquid or solid foods. However, there are some nuances to consider.

Liquid calories affect hunger and satiety differently

Beverages high in sugar and calories like soda, fruit juice, and sweetened coffee drinks are often referred to as “empty calories” because they provide energy but lack nutrients. Liquid calories don’t seem to satisfy hunger as well as calories from solid foods. People tend not to compensate for the extra calories consumed in beverages by eating less food later on. As a result, the total amount of calories consumed in a day increases.

Studies show that sugar-sweetened beverages in particular are linked to weight gain and obesity. Each additional serving per day of soda increases the risk of obesity by 60% in children and 26% in adults. Fruit juices and other sugary drinks have a similar impact.

In one study, subjects were given 450 calories per day from jelly beans or soda versus the same number of calories as solid food. The group that consumed the jelly beans and soda gained more weight after 4 weeks.

Research also shows that liquid foods like soups and stews tend to be more filling than beverages. Pureed foods may fall somewhere in between depending on their thickness and texture.

Liquid calories affect hormones differently

The physical state of food impacts how quickly it passes through the digestive system. Liquids transit through the stomach and intestines faster than solids. This results in different effects on hormone responses.

After eating, the release of hormones like cholecystokinin (CCK), glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1), and peptide YY (PYY) signals satiety to the brain. Eating solid foods leads to greater release of these hormones compared to drinking the same nutrients.

At the same time, the rapid digestion of liquids requires less chewing and results in a lower thermic effect of food (TEF). That means fewer calories burned after drinking versus eating. The faster transit time and blunted TEF may lead to increased hunger and greater calorie intake at subsequent meals.

Liquid calories from whole foods are not as problematic

While isolated sugars in liquid form are linked to weight gain, the same is not necessarily true for liquid calories from whole foods like fruit and dairy products.

Although fruit juice is high in naturally-occurring sugar, it comes with beneficial compounds like antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals. There is little evidence that 100% fruit juice contributes to obesity in the same way as artificially sweetened beverages when consumed in moderation.

Milk and dairy products provide protein and nutrients that may help with appetite regulation. One study found that adolescents gained more weight from drinking soda compared to consuming equivalent calories from milk.

Some research indicates that calcium and protein from dairy foods and beverages may have specific benefits for body weight and fat loss, especially when part of a reduced calorie diet.

Liquid meal replacements support weight loss

Meal replacement shakes and diet shakes make it easier to control calories and macronutrients. When used in place of meals as part of a structured weight loss program, they can be an effective tool for shedding pounds.

One study compared weight loss between two groups. One group followed a diet that cut 500 calories per day while the other replaced one or two meals with a meal replacement shake. After six months, both groups lost similar amounts of weight and body fat.

These findings suggest that fitting in a nutritionally balanced shake can be just as good as eating fewer calories from whole foods. Meal replacements work best when incorporated into a diet and exercise plan with lifestyle modifications.

The bottom line

Liquid calories can lead to weight gain when they add excess calories on top of usual food intake. Sugary beverages and other empty liquid calories have a particularly detrimental effect. However, balanced, nutrient-rich beverages and meal replacements can be useful tools for losing weight.

The key is to be mindful of total calorie intake from liquids as well as foods. Focus on getting nutrition from wholesome sources and limiting added sugars, whether solid or liquid. With the right dietary pattern, both food and beverage calories can be part of a healthy diet and lifestyle.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are liquid calories less filling than solid food calories?

Yes, research shows that liquid calories are less satiating than the same number of calories consumed as solid foods. Beverages don’t suppress hunger and appetite as well as solid foods do. As a result, liquid calories are more likely to add to total calorie intake rather than displace calories from foods.

Do sugary drinks cause more weight gain than other beverages?

Many studies have linked sugar-sweetened beverages specifically to excess calorie intake, weight gain, and obesity. The liquids provide little to no nutritional value beyond empty calories from added sugars. Artificially sweetened beverages like soda, fruit punch, and sweet tea appear to have the most detrimental effects on weight compared to beverages like milk and 100% fruit juices.

Are protein shakes and meal replacements good for weight loss?

Yes, meal replacements like protein shakes and bars can be effective weight loss tools when used to substitute for meals as part of a structured diet plan. They provide convenient portion control for calories, protein, carbs, and other nutrients. When incorporated into a healthy lifestyle with exercise, meal replacements can help manage hunger and promote fat loss.

Are fruit smoothies fattening?

Fruit smoothies can range from healthy to fattening depending on what goes into them. All-fruit smoothies without added sweeteners provide more nutritional value than fruit juice and may still lead to modest weight loss when calories are controlled. However, pre-made bottled smoothies often contain excess calories from fruit juice concentrates and added sugars that can contribute to weight gain.

Should you drink water before meals to lose weight?

Drinking water before meals can temporarily make you feel fuller so you eat less. Studies show that pre-meal water consumption may promote weight loss, especially when combined with a calorie-restricted diet.Aim to drink about 16 oz (500 ml) of water 30 minutes before meals. Just be sure not to drink so much water that you feel too full to eat a healthy meal.

Ways to Reduce Liquid Calorie Intake

Here are some tips to cut back on empty liquid calories and promote healthy beverage habits:

  • Replace sugary drinks like soda, juice, and sports drinks with plain or sparkling water.
  • Flavor water with fruit slices, cucumbers, herbs, and a squeeze of lemon or lime instead of buying flavored drinks.
  • When you do consume juice, stick to small portions of 100% fruit juice with no added sugars.
  • Switch from sweetened coffee and tea to unsweetened varieties.
  • Substitute milk or nut milks for creamers and sweeteners in your hot beverages.
  • Limit alcohol intake which provides empty calories and lowers inhibitions around food.
  • Try diluting fruit juice or coconut water with plain seltzer for a flavorful, low-calorie spritzer.
  • Blend up your own smoothies at home using fruit, yogurt, milk, ice, and limited added sweeteners.
  • Drink a glass of water between alcoholic drinks to slow your pace and cut overall consumption.

Healthy, Low-Calorie Drinks to Promote Weight Loss

Here are some nutritious, low-calorie beverage options to help you lose or maintain your weight:

Beverage Calories per 8 oz
Water 0
Unsweetened tea 0
Black coffee 0
Sparkling water 0
Fat-free milk 90
Unsweetened almond milk 30
Green tea 0
Vegetable juice 50-70
100% fruit juice 110-120
Broth-based soup 60-100

Aim to get most of your hydration from zero-calorie beverages like water, unsweetened tea, and coffee. Limit fruit juice to a 4-6 oz glass per day and try diluting it with seltzer. Include some milk and vegetable juices for nutrients as part of a healthy diet.

Conclusion

Liquid calories can contribute to weight gain when they add excess calories on top of usual food intake, especially from sugar-sweetened beverages. But balanced, nutrient-rich beverages like milk and 100% fruit and vegetable juices have their place in a healthy diet.

Meal replacement shakes and other liquid meal substitutes can also help with weight loss when used to replace meals. The key is being mindful of your total calorie intake from both foods and beverages.

Focus on getting nutrition from wholesome sources and limiting added sugars in your diet, regardless of whether they are solid or liquid. With some basic diet and lifestyle changes, liquid calories can be enjoyed as part of an overall healthy pattern of eating for weight management.

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