Why Is That Margarita at Lunch Worse Than the Cookie after Dinner?

Your drinks may be linked to your weight gain—even "healthy" drinks

By Roberta H. Anding, MS, Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital

Have you ditched dessert and pasta but still can’t lose weight? Professor Anding explains why our drinks—even “healthy” drinks like fruit juice—might be to blame.

Man holding orange juice at breakfast
Most beverages, including healthy fruit juices, are comprised of simple carbohydrates that the body processes quickly like it would with table sugar. Photo by Syda productions

Soft Drinks and Sugar

Most of us know that we should avoid sugar if we want to lose or maintain weight. We may not realize, though, that most of the sugar we consume is found in our drinks. Thus, before going on a low-carb diet, you may want to start by taking an inventory of the liquids you consume.

Carbs are optimal to our functioning, and for most Americans, carbohydrates should account for about 50 percent of their diet. Of course, this will vary according to individual needs. You want to make sure that these carbohydrates contain whole grains.

Currently, however, whole grains are not the major source of our carbohydrate. Non-diet soft drinks are the biggest source of simple sugars in the American diet. Of the 34, plus or minus, teaspoons of sugar consumed every day by adolescent males, up to 40 percent can come from soft drinks. 

When it comes to consumption of carbohydrates, we’re not getting a balance of complex and simple carbs. We’re getting predominantly simple carbs in the form of table sugar—sucrose—or high-fructose corn syrup. 

Daily consumption of added sugars for adults vary, but most estimates are about 16 percent of total intake. If you look at population-based recommendations, less than 10 percent of total calories should come from sugar.

Other Sources of Sugar

Among low-income preschool children, the consumption of sweet drinks is associated with obesity. Is it the sweet drink itself that’s problematic, though, or the volume of the drink? 

Most scientists say it’s the volume of drink that contributes to weight gain. Keep in mind that these simple sugars can come from a variety of sources—not just sodas, but also fruit punch, lemonade, flavored kombuchas, or any number of drinks which are marketed as “health” drinks.

To make wiser carbohydrate choices, reducing the consumption of all sweet drinks is important. Think about the sugar or flavoring that you put in your coffee. Think about the honey you put in your tea. Honey may be all-natural, but it is still a source of simple sugars. 

Mixers in alcoholic beverages are another source of hidden sugars. As a class assignment, Professor Anding had her Rice University students buy a standard margarita from a variety of bars in the area. The amount of calories in the tequila was about 150, but the average margarita contained 600 calories—all coming from the mixer. 

Is Juice Bad?

There has been a lot of controversy surrounding the sugar content in juice. Juice does indeed contain simple sugars. If you’re making a juice choice, however, it should have 100 percent juice, rather than a fruit punch which contains artificial flavors and added sugars. 

Professor Anding recommends that you drink no more than four to six ounces. You can pour the juice into a measuring cup and then transfer it into the glass that you normally drink juice from. This will give you an idea of exactly how much juice you are drinking.

One hundred percent fruit juice can be a good source of vitamins. As with all things, though, you want to consume it in moderation, especially as added sugars can lead to weight gain and elevated blood sugar levels over time.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily.

Professor Roberta H. Anding is a registered dietitian and Director of Sports Nutrition and a clinical dietitian at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital. She also teaches and lectures in the Baylor College of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics, Section of Adolescent Medicine and Sports Medicine, and in the Department of Kinesiology at Rice University.

About Kate Findley 201 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.