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Do Sugary Drinks Cause Weight Gain?

The media always loves to sensationalize, well, everything. Sugary drinks have been demonized for causing weight gain (and sugar-free alternatives have been demonized too). But do sugary drinks really cause weight gain?  I was asked this question recently and I figured it might be a topic others would like to hear about, so I decided to share the question, and my answer, here with all of you! Enjoy J

The Question

“Recently, I’ve been talking to a family friend who is unhappy about gaining weight after leaving a physically demanding job, and I suggested cutting back on sugary drinks. He really likes those sweet beverages though- juices, sodas, milkshakes, adding sugar to tea and even using those sweet flavoring packets for water bottles.

I guess my question is: How bad are sweetened drinks? Are they as bad as I think they are, or am I just trying to push my own preference on my friend? Do they still provide enough hydration on a hot day, or is the sweetener counterproductive? Are there compromises I should be pushing him to consider, or any tips to help cut down on sugar intake from beverages that I might not be aware of?”

There are some great questions in there! And it’s readily apparently how much she cares for her friend and wants the best for him. She’s concerned not just about the calories, but about his hydration and the safety of artificially sweetened beverages. I could actually write three separate posts about each of these pieces of her question! (And I probably will eventually.) For today though, let’s focus on the biggest one – are the sugary drinks contributing to weight gain?

Are sugary or sweet drinks causing weight gain? It's not usually one thing that makes or breaks an overall eating plan, but there are ways to manage sweet stuff so it doesn't cause weight gain!

Is sugar bad?

No, sugar isn’t evil or bad. In and of itself, it doesn’t cause weight gain unless a person’s total calories are too high. When you’re eating or drinking a lot of sugar, it can be easy to push your overall calorie total too high, since sugar gives a lot of calories without adding any nutrients. It can also displace other, more nutritious, options if a person is filling up on sugary things. Ultimately, her friend is finding that his sugar intake is pushing his overall calories too high, and he’s gaining weight as a result.

If he’d previously been quite active, but is no longer doing his active job, he’s also burning a lot less energy than he used to. While he may have been active enough before to allow a certain amount of sugary drinks in his diet without gaining weight, his decrease in activity may be what tipped the scales towards weight gain, even if his sugary drink intake didn’t increase.

If someone has a high intake of sugary foods or drinks, it can be a worthwhile idea to decrease them a bit in order to reduce calories. That doesn’t make sugar “bad,” it’s just one of many ways to tweak a person’s eating habits.

We all have a “thing”

It sounds like sugary drinks are his “thing.” We all have a “thing” or two, don’t we? Most of us frequently eat or drink something that we know might not be the healthiest choice, but that we love so much we’re unwilling to part with it. It’s absolutely okay to have a “thing” or two! For many people, it’s their morning latte – sugary, warm, delicious caffeination. For others, it’s an evening snack to unwind after a long day. It doesn’t matter what your special “thing” is. There is no food or drink that needs to be completely eliminated in order to see success! (Thank goodness, right?)

[bctt tweet=”The trick is to figure how much of that thing can be in your diet while still seeing progress.” username=”raisingnutritn”]

Whether your "diet downfall" is sugary drinks, pastries, or french fries, you do not ever need to eliminate the foods you love to lose weight. Find out how we manage these treats so they can still be enjoyed while working to eat healthier!

How do we do that? I’ll share with you one of the strategies we use with our clients, which many have found to be really helpful:

We tackle size or frequency

It’s important to note that we don’t try to tackle both at the same time, at least not at first. Baby steps. To be successful, we need to make the change a small one that is actually realistic, manageable, and something we’re confident we can do! This strategy works best for things that are fairly frequent in our diet. It would be more difficult to apply this with something you only eat sporadically. That said, let’s explore these two options in more depth.

  1. Decreasing Size: She didn’t say how big her friend’s drinks tend to be. I’m going to hazard a guess that he’s not choosing the smallest serving size of these drinks though. If that’s the case, then switching from a size Large to a size Medium might be a change he’d be willing to try. Even if he still drinks the same number of drinks per day, he’ll end up decreasing his calories. It sounds like he has a variety of drinks he enjoys. I’ll pick the common latte as an example to use here though, since it’s something that many people enjoy, and usually do so daily. If a person is currently ordering a Venti (large) vanilla latte at Starbucks each day, going to a Grande (medium) saves 80 calories, 3g of fat, and 9g of sugar. If that’s something you’re drinking daily, those savings really add up over time!
  2. Decreasing Frequency: Again, I’m not sure how many he’s currently drinking, but let’s throw out a ballpark number and say he’s having 3 sugary drinks per day. Might he be willing to try going to 2 per day? Even if the size of his drinks stays the same, by having fewer of them, he’ll obviously save some calories.

Pick a strategy, try it, then reevaluate

If he’s up for it, have him try one of the above suggestions. After a few weeks, he can evaluate his progress and decide if he wants to continue to decrease things. He may find that the change he made is already enough to allow him to decrease his weight a bit. If so, great! He can stay at that level of intake until he stops seeing progress.

If he wants to continue decreasing, he has a few options. He could continue to decrease whichever one he previously chose (so go from a Medium to a Small or go from 2/day to 1/day), or he can try decreasing the other one (go from 3 Medium drinks to 2, or from 2 Larges to 2 Mediums).

Bonus strategy!

Depending on the drinks he’s choosing, there are also options for swaps, modifications, and tweaks that can save calories. In the latte example above, choosing to get a latte with 2% milk instead of the default whole milk saves an additional 40 calories. Choosing skim milk saves 90 calories! Choosing sugar-free syrup is another option that would save a lot of calories. The sugar versus calorie-free-sweetener debate is a topic for another post though.

Find your “Happy Medium”

Eventually, using the above strategies will help my friend’s friend (or anyone else) to find a point where he’s happy with the progress he’s made as well as the amount of his sugary drinks still in his diet. He can stop there. No need to keep decreasing and decreasing until he gets to zero. Getting to zero isn’t the point! The point is to find that “happy medium” place. Strive to find a balance somewhere between the two extremes of severe restriction and severe excess. It’s cliché, but really, “everything in moderation” is a great mantra. It’s that “moderation” part where we can make small tweaks and changes to see the progress we’re after while still enjoying some of the less healthy things we really love.

What’s something in your diet that you can’t imagine giving up even if it’s not deemed “healthy?” Do you think trying to decrease it a little bit by one of the methods above might help you find where that “happy medium” place is for you?

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