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Surprising High-Calorie Drinks and Healthy Alternatives

By Kelly O'Connell, Registered Dietitian

You've been working hard at making healthy changes to your diet and exercising regularly to lose weight. But there's more to weight loss than watching what you eat; the beverages you drink can also affect your progress. Are you sabotaging your diet by drinking unhealthful things?

A recent study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition compared beverage intake and weight changes in more than 800 men and women ages 25 to 79. The research found that when subjects cut 100 calories of liquids from their diets, they lost more weight than when they had cut 100 calories in the form of food. That said, do you know how many calories you're drinking?

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Below are some "danger" drinks, along with healthier alternatives that will help you get your beverage fix for fewer calories (and better nutrition).

Danger Drink #1: Soda
Sometimes our bodies crave sugar, and all too often, we answer the call by guzzling soda instead of choosing a healthier alternative. Sugar is one of the main reasons soda is unhealthy (and caloric), especially when you are trying to lose weight. It's filled with empty calories. On average, a 12-ounce serving contains more than 110 calories and 8-10 teaspoons of sugar! Another problem is caffeine, which acts as a diuretic, serving to dehydrate the body. Even diet sodas can adversely affect weight loss; the artificial sweeteners can leave you craving more sweets, which may sabotage your efforts to eat healthier.

Rescue Drink: Seltzer or carbonated water
Instead of soda, try something that still has the refreshing carbonation you love but no added sweeteners. Swap out soda for seltzer water or flavored carbonated water and a slice of lemon or lime. This drink will help rehydrate you and not leave your taste buds asking for more sugar.

Danger Drink #2: Fancy coffees
Believe it or not, your cup of Joe does offer some health benefits. When adults consume coffee in moderation--and don't load it with sugar and cream--they can help decrease their risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, and more. On the flip side, when your coffee of choice is a caramel cappuccino, more than just a few calories sneak into your daily calorie allowance. Even a seemingly innocent blended iced coffee can have almost 200 calories--and that's one of the lower-calorie coffee drinks. Fancy coffee drinks are a prime example of how liquid calories can stack up.

If you start your day with a regular cup of Joe, be careful about how you dress it up. Sugar and creamers are not calorie free, so use as little as possible. If you take your coffee with three sugars and two creamers, you're adding about 100 calories and 3.5 grams of fat.

Rescue Drink: Plain coffee
Enjoying coffee in moderation (no more than two cups a day) can be part of a healthy diet. Try a low fat or fat-free creamer to add a satisfying creaminess to your morning java. Slowly taper your use of sugar and cream and go for flavored coffee beans to add taste without calories. Adjusting your taste buds might take some time, but it's worth it.

Danger Drink #3: Alcohol
Your social life shouldn't run dry when you are trying to lose weight and get healthy. You can even go out to happy hour with friends if you're smart about your choices. A good rule is to avoid frozen drinks like margaritas, daiquiris and pina coladas. These drinks have enough calories to count as a meal, and they're rarely made with any real fruit; they usually contain corn syrup and artificial flavors. A 10-ounce pina colada has close to 550 calories--without cherries, pineapple or other garnishes. And the worst part is that it's hard to stop at just one! When drinking alcohol, your willpower often slips, making it all that much harder to resist unhealthy foods.

Rescue Drink: "Mocktails" or light cocktails
When choosing what to drink while mingling, choose a light beer, dry wine or liquor mixed with soda water instead of sugar-loaded beverages. Even better, choose soda water with a splash of juice for a fizzy, festive and low-calorie drink. You'll save money and calories, and you won't have to worry about not being able to drive. Always drink a cup of water in between alcoholic beverages, and when you're hosting a party or get-together, offer low-calorie beverages for your guests. To see a few of SparkPeople's diet-friendly alcohol suggestions, click here.

Danger Drink #4: Milkshakes
Milkshakes are marketed as drinks, but those fast-food restaurants and ice cream parlors aren't fooling anyone. They're drinkable desserts, not healthy beverages. Sure, they contain calcium because of all that milk, but they also have plenty of fat and sugar. But don't be fooled by milkshakes made with seemingly healthy ingredients like yogurt. They're still milkshakes. A large milkshake from a fast-food restaurant can contain more than 700 calories. If you want to treat yourself, get the smallest size and skip extras like sprinkles and whipped cream.

Rescue Drink: Smoothies
Smoothies are a healthy and tasty alternative to milkshakes--as long as you know what's going in to your smoothie. If you are blending a smoothie at home, mix together low-fat yogurt with ice, skim milk or soymilk, and whatever fruit you like. If you are at an ice cream parlor or restaurant, don't hesitate to ask what is in a smoothie and modify as needed. Smoothie joints tend to add high-calorie protein powders and unnecessary ingredients that pile on extra calories. A second option is to choose freshly squeezed vegetable or fruit juice, which is often sold alongside smoothies.

Danger Drink #5: Whole milk
Milk is a nutrient-rich beverage, but the full-fat versions are high in calories and fat. Whole milk, which is often labeled "Vitamin A & D milk," measures in at 147 calories per cup compared with 91 calories for skim milk. While whole milk is creamy and delicious, you can get the same health benefits with far fewer calories. Before you down your three cups a day, consider lighter versions.

Rescue Drink: Skim milk or low-fat milk
Skim and low-fat milks are lower in calories than whole milk and still offer the same amounts of essential vitamins and minerals. If you don't like the taste of cow's milk (or can't tolerate it), choose low-calorie chocolate milk or a calcium-fortified non-dairy milk, such as soy, rice or almond milk.

Danger Drink #6: Sweet tea
Until recently, you couldn't find sweet tea above the Mason-Dixon Line. Now this sweet Southern drink is ubiquitous--even national fast-food restaurants offer it. While it might be tasty, all that sugar cancels out the antioxidant properties of tea. A bottle or cup of sweet tea can contain up to four tablespoons of sugar! To save your teeth and to watch your weight, be sure to swap the sugar-loaded options for something far less sugary.

Rescue Drink: Unsweetened or lightly sweetened tea
All that sugar in sweet tea can spike your blood sugar and make you feel drained. If you are accustomed to sweet tea, slowly reduce the amount of sugar you're using. Your taste buds will adapt. Instead of plain black tea, try flavored or green teas. Mango-ginger green tea, mint tea, or chai tea are all tasty options that require little to no sweeteners. We often rely on sugar for flavor, but in its absence, you'll be able to taste the subtleties in your drinks.

Danger Drink #7: "Juice" drinks
You've given up soda and switched to healthier drinks. When you stop at a convenience store or fill up your cup at a soda fountain, you feel proud of yourself for choosing juice--after all, it's made from fruit and must be healthy. Nope. Most juices contain little more than artificial flavorings, corn syrup and water (aka empty calories). All those health benefits touted on the fancy label? They come from added ingredients and added vitamins, not from healthy fruit or the juice cocktail itself.

Rescue Drink: 100% fruit juice
When you reach for juice, make sure it is 100% real juice. Vegetable juice is your best bet, as it is packed with vitamins and minerals and contains far less sugar and fewer calories than fruit juice. As far as fruit juices go, 100% pomegranate juice and blueberry juice are both good choices for a healthy dose of antioxidants. Try diluting these juices with sparkling water to cut calories and sugar. With fizz and sweetness, they're like healthy sodas! For a vitamin C punch to ward off pesky colds, try grapefruit juice, which is one of the lowest-calorie juices per ounce you will find, or cranberry juice (just make sure it's not a juice "cocktail"). Whenever you can, choose whole fruit over juice to get fiber and satiety.

AND THE WINNER EVERY TIME: Water!
This is the drink of healthy eaters. It helps our bodies survive by controlling body temperature and flushing out toxins. The more hydrated your body is, the more effectively your metabolism will be able to function. If you're looking to lose weight and get into shape, fill up your glass with some good old H20. Filling up with water before a meal may also help you lose weight. In a study published in 2008 in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, researchers found that people who drank water before meals ate an average of 75 fewer calories at that meal! Hunger can be mistaken for thirst and the best resolution is water.

About the Author: As a registered dietitian with type 1 diabetes, Kelly O'Connell has a passion to share her knowledge on health and disease prevention. Kelly enjoys yoga, training for races and hosting healthy dinner parties for friends.

This article has been reviewed and approved by Tanya Jolliffe, a SparkPeople healthy eating expert.


Getting healthy doesn't have to be time-consuming or expensive. With a little planning and a few meal ideas, you can easily find the time to make nutritious, home-cooked meals that you and your family will love. SparkPeople.com is the largest and most active diet and fitness website in America. SparkPeople provides all the tools, resources, and support you need to reach your weight loss and healthy living goals—all for FREE! Through a partnership, SparkPeople is sharing some of their most popular articles with Everwell.com.

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