What are you drinking? A look at the health benefits and pitfalls of beverages

By Tom Laubscher and Jana Hill

Calories from beverages have doubled since the 1960s due to an increase in consumption of soft drinks, sports drinks and sweetened tea. Do you stop and think before you take a drink? Most Americans choose their beverages based on taste, perhaps the latest trend or an appealing advertisement. Other factors affecting our drink choices include cost, availability or convenience. As obesity rates continue to rise, it is important for individuals striving to be more health conscious to think twice about adding whipped cream to their lattes or super-sizing their soft drinks.

Calcium and Vitamin D
Milk is a key source of Vitamin D, calcium and a good source of protein. After the age of 2, it is best to choose 1 percent or skim milk, due to the low fat content. While all types of cow’s milk contain equal amounts of calcium and Vitamin D, they differ significantly in fat and caloric value. In fact, one cup of whole milk contains 150 calories and eight grams of fat, as much fat as three strips of bacon. Skim (fat-free) milk, on the other hand, is nearly half the caloric value with only 80 calories per cup.

For people who cannot drink milk due to lactose intolerance or milk allergies, the dairy alternative list is growing. Grocery store shelves are now lined with a variety of options including soy milk, almond milk, rice milk and coconut milk. These options each have their own unique taste and are available in light and flavored varieties. While they are fortified with calcium and typically surpass the calcium content of milk, they are lower in protein and vary in fat content.

Fruit Juices
Kids love juice for its sweet taste and colorful appeal. One hundred percent fruit juices are marketed as a healthy, natural source of vitamins and sometimes calcium. Juice has benefits such as Vitamin C, which can enhance iron absorption, but it also can have harmful effects including excess calories and sugars. Whole fruit is preferable to fruit juice because it provides fiber, which aids in digestion and provides a feeling of fullness.

Have you had your eight cups of water today? Author Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “I believe that water is the only drink for a wise man.” The majority of our fluids each day should come from water. Our bodies are made up of approximately 60 percent water, which carries nutrients to our cells, lubricates our joints and flushes toxins out of our organs. Common everyday complaints such as headaches or fatigue may be due to an inadequate intake of water. Water quenches thirst without providing unnecessary calories and may help prevent overeating when consumed with a meal. While water is an essential micronutrient, Vitamin Water is not! This widely marketed product offers no comparison to pure water, as Vitamin Water provides up to 210 calories and 43 grams of carbohydrates per eight ounces and costs at least $1.79 per bottle.

Coffee and Tea
Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system. Undoubtedly caffeine-containing beverages are the morning drink of choice for millions of Americans. If coffee did not contain any caffeine, would it be such a popular beverage? According to a CBS news report, more than 50 percent of Americans drink coffee every day. Coffee has been touted for improving depression, gallstones and even skin cancer. However, the amount of caffeine many Americans consume each day can raise blood pressure. This risk, of course, increases with the size of the cup. The standard eight-ounce cup of coffee has now been replaced with 12- to 24-ounce coffee cups, which often contain much more than brewed coffee. Add creamer, sugar, chocolate syrup and a mound of whipped cream and your naturally calorie- and fat-free beverage may contain as many as 420 calories and 12 grams of fat. This one beverage accounts for about 20 percent of the calorie needs for a moderately active woman.

For those who desire a drink with a caffeine buzz, but don’t crave the coffee taste, black tea is often the choice. Black tea is known to be rich in antioxidants and contains 14 to 61 milligrams of caffeine per eight ounces, while coffee contains 95 to 200 milligrams. Green tea has also grown in popularity and is lower in caffeine than black tea. Green tea is noted for containing antioxidants and phytochemicals. The nutritional value of this naturally fat-free beverage can quickly change when it is sweetened. For example, an eight-ounce can of Arizona Iced Tea with Ginseng and Honey contains 70 calories and 17 grams of sugar.

Sports Beverages
Sports drinks can provide nutrients and replenish electrolytes and carbohydrates lost during heavy physical activity or exposure to high temperatures. There are three major types of sports drinks: isotonic, hypertonic and hypotonic. The isotonic has a similar concentration of sodium and sugar to the body. The hypertonic has a higher concentration, while the hypotonic has a lower concentration. Most sports drinks are moderately isotonic. They can be useful if you are involved in vigorous physical activity for more than one hour. Surprisingly, some studies show that low-fat milk is beneficial in recovering from endurance exercise because it not only has carbohydrates and electrolytes but protein as well. For most people, however, sports drinks are not necessary.

Energy Drinks
Are energy drinks safe? Energy drinks usually contain large amounts of sugar, caffeine, herbal extracts and amino acids. The caffeine content ranges from 50 milligrams, about what you get from a small cup of coffee, to more than 500 milligrams. Energy drinks generate $13 billion in sales, mostly among people 35 and younger. In Europe, Red Bull was banned for awhile, due to health concerns. While limited amounts do not appear risky for most people, Dr. John Higgins, from the University of Texas Medical School, warns that excessive consumption combined with other drinks that have caffeine, or with alcohol, can result in adverse effects or even death.

Over the last 30 years, soda production has increased dramatically. What was once an occasional treat has become a daily staple for many people. The soda industry produces enough products to supply each American with 52 gallons a year. Health experts warn of the possible consequences, most notably obesity. The increased consumption of phosphoric acid and caffeine may promote the loss of calcium in bones, which can lead to osteoporosis. This, along with increased consumption of sugar, can also cause tooth decay. Heavy soda drinkers are more prone to kidney stones and Type II diabetes. Middle-aged, moderate soda drinkers are at risk of metabolic syndrome, which means they have problems with insulin resistance, high blood pressure and obesity. What about diet soda? Studies show that people who drink it do not always eat healthier or lose weight.

Nutritionally sound beverages are water, 100 percent fruit juices and low-fat milk. Cutting out sugary drinks allows you to have more room for fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean protein. For most of us, the best and cheapest way to get hydrated is to simply drink water. If plain water is unappealing, try adding lemons, limes or cucumbers for flavor.

Jana Hill is a clinical dietitian for KidsPeace, where she has worked for the past 16 years. She is a registered, licensed dietitian and a member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Jana has a Bachelor of Science in nutrition from Penn State University and she completed her dietetic internship with Aramark Corporation. Jana also is a certified diabetes educator.

Tom Laubscher is a registered, licensed dietitian who has been at KidsPeace nearly 19 years. He is a member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and a board member of the Lehigh Valley Dietetic Association. Tom graduated from SUNY Plattsburgh with a Bachelor of Science in food and nutrition. He completed a dietetic internship at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. He also has a master’s degree from Central Michigan University in health care administration.