- #4 are soda/energy/sports drinks
- #6 are alcoholic beverages
- #13 is reduced fat milk
- #22 is fruit drinks
- #23 is whole milk
These drinks should be consumed as occasional treats, but for many people, they are their primary fluid choices. Considering that many of these drinks are nothing more than empty calories with no nutritional value, they pose a significant public health concern. In a year's time, the cost of drinking caloric beverages could really add up. For instance, drinking one 12 ounce can of soda (Coca Cola, Pepsi, or Dr. Pepper) each day for one year adds an additional 51,100 calories to the diet (140 x 365), costs about $274 ($0.75 x 365), and could lead to 14.6 pounds in weight gain (51100/3500). If you're like me and would rather put your money and calories to better use, consider the alternatives.
The Nutrition Source at Harvard School of Public Health actually delineates a healthy drink spectrum that I am quite fond of. Check it out here. It has 6 levels of healthful beverages. All recommendations below are my own and not endorsed by the Harvard School of Public Health.
Level 1: Water
Water is abundant (in the US), refreshing, free, and provides zero calories to the diet. It is by far the healthiest beverage choice available. If you don't enjoy the taste of water, spruce it up by adding a splash of fruit and vegetable juices such as lemons, limes, strawberries, cucumbers, cherries, raspberries, or pomegranates. I really enjoy a sprig of fresh mint in my water. If you desire the carbonation of soft drinks, try a half/half mixture of water and carbonated water.
Level 2: Tea and Coffee
In the US, there's a tea or coffee shop on every other corner in most major cities. They are the second most popular and healthful beverage choices after water (when consumed straight). For hot coffee and tea, sweeten them with a low glycemic sweetener such as agave nectar and opt for a soy or skim milk instead of cream and whole milk to cut down on the calories and fat. For iced/cold tea, try adding fresh citrus, mint, and carbonated water (right before serving to keep it from getting flat) as an alternative to sweeteners.
Level 3: Low-fat and Skim Milk and Soy Beverages
Dairy is an important sources of calcium in the diet and it is better absorbed than many other calcium sources, but it's important to drink low-fat and skim milk to eliminate the high amounts of fat found in dairy. Soy beverages are a good alternative for vegans and those with a lactose intolerance, but always check the food label for sugar and other additives. Skim milk is actually the healthiest choice of all three due to its lack of fat.
Level 4: Noncalorically Sweetened Beverages
Diet sodas are a healthier alternative to the regular beverages, but they are still not a health drink. Artificial sweeteners may confuse the body's natural feedback mechanism that controls satiety (fullness) leading to overeating, the phosphate in colas may have a deleterious affect on the bones, and some artificial sweeteners have been found to stimulate the appetite.
Level 5: Calories Beverages with Some Nutrients
In this category is fruit juice, vegetable juice, whole milk, sports drinks, vitamin-enhanced waters, and alcoholic beverages. I find that people are most confused by this category of drinks. Make sure that any fruit juices you consume are 100% juice to get the most nutritional benefit. However, you CANNOT substitute fruit juice for fruit consumption itself as juice lacks the fiber you get from eating the flesh of the fruit. The USDA recommends one serving (4 ounces) of fruit juice per day.
Fruit smoothies are high is calories and carbohydrates. Drink sparingly.
As with fruit juices, make sure that all vegetable juices you consume are 100% juice and check the sodium content.
Whole milk has all the fat naturally found in dairy, but is loaded with nutrients. Considering there are healthier alternatives that provide the same nutritional benefit such as reduced fat and skim milk, you should limit your consumption of whole milk.
Sports drinks, vitamin-enhanced waters, and alcoholic beverages, for the most part, all have high sugar content and add calories to the diet. These are not healthy drink choices by any means.
Level 6: Calorically Sweetened Beverages
This category includes soft drinks, fruit drinks, lemonade, and other "ades". These drinks are loaded with sugar, calories, artificial ingredients, and other additives. Make these drinks an occasional treat because they have little to no nutritional value and are not recommended for daily consumption.