Liquid Calories: Healthy Lifestyle Nemesis

One thing I commonly hear and read about from people who are struggling to lose weight is that “I’m not losing weight fast enough.” There can be many reasons for this (women tend to lose weight with more difficulty), but the most likely culprit for those who aren’t on a formal weight loss program, or adhering to plant-based lifestyle, is liquid calories. In fact, liquid calories are one of the leading causes of the obesity epidemic in the Western World over the past 40 years.

Around 5-6 years ago, I lost around 25-30 pounds, mostly by limiting the liquids in my diet to water and doing lots of biking and walking. Several years previous to this period, I had stopped drinking soda entirely, after several bouts with kidney stones. I had been a daily drinker of sodas and juices for all of my adult life. The kidney stone episode was the first significant health problem in my adult years, so I examined my lifestyle and found that I was frequently dehydrated because I drinking so much soda and juices. Giving up soda and juices seemed imperative if I were to live a healthy lifestyle. Giving up soda and juice was harder than when I stopped eating meat twenty years earlier.

I also was never a big fan of drinking water, but I had read that the tap water in Kansas City was among the best in the U.S. I started drinking tap water regularly, although on my own terms, which meant lots of ice cubes included in my drinks. I got myself some water bottles so I could have fresh water with me whenever I was out and about. This lifestyle change, combined with the exercise, led to a nice weight loss which stuck around for a year or so.

But this lifestyle wasn’t doing anything about calorie consumption, even though I was eating an ovo-lacto vegetarian diet. My veg diet was an old-fashioned high calorie vegetarian diet that really wasn’t plant-based. So when my exercise routines started lapsing, I shot up to my average adult set weight.

I also got more sloppy about my liquid calorie intake. Was still drinking alcohol and my imbibing of high calorie craft beers increased during this period. I also started drinking more flavored almond milk and other juices. Around 2-3 years ago, I started drinking lots of Gatorade. Around two years ago, I decided that was bad for me, so switched to lemonade. Lots of lemonade.

In August of 2016, my weight started going higher, partly because I became very inactive due to heel pain in both feet (probably caused by my weight). That turned into six months of inactivity. A year ago (January 2017), my weight was at its highest level in my adult life. My doctor expressed concern, putting me on new medication and asking me to “lose 17 kgs.” She recommended that I exercise even with my pain, suggesting I get inserts. I told her about my diet and she said “why don’t you just cut out the lemonade and start drinking bottled water?”

It was very clear to me that significant changes were in order, so I switched to a water and coffee diet and started walking more. By the time I started the University of Kansas Weight Management program in June 2017, I had lost 14 pounds, mostly due to eliminating those liquid calories.

Eliminating your consumption of liquid calories is critical if you are trying to lose weight. This step can also provide more significant weight loss results, combined with food calorie reduction and exercise. You cannot aggressively lose weight, keep it off, and be healthy if you have a carefree attitude about liquid calories. This doesn’t mean that you’ll never enjoy beverages with calories again, but during the weight loss stage, you have to be consistent. On many structured programs, you will be drinking shakes, which are a structured way to get your calories while providing you tasty beverages at the same time. In the program I’m in, I can incorporate fruits and veggies into my shakes. One bonus is that these shakes can also address your cravings for sweets.

What About Alcohol?

Alcohol can be one of the chief sources of liquid calories, of you consume alcohol daily or often. While moderate consumption of alcohol is possible with a plant-based healthy lifestyle, it’s critical to eliminate, or cut back, alcohol consumption during a weight loss program. During Phase I of my program (the University of Kansas / HMR program), you are supposed to avoid any alcohol consumption. This can be a challenge for people who imbibe during social occasions, but if you are being strict about other food and drink, it’s worth giving up until you meet your goals.

Avoiding alcohol was not a problem for me during Phase I, because I had stopped drinking over three years ago, partly because of calorie concerns. Drinking alcohol is a sure fire way to sabotage any weight loss plan. You may think that you “will only have just one drink,” but then that first beer leads to that second beer. One 20oz craft beer is around 200 calories, which is a bit less than half of the calories you’d consume for a meal on a weight loss diet. Alcohol doesn’t fill you up, so you’ve traded away calories that you could have devoted to foods that kept you feeling satiated for liquid calories. Even a glass a wine can turn into a “few more small pours.” Better to just quit alcohol during the weight loss phase to make it easier to accomplish your goals.

There has been some popular thinking lately, based on some research, that moderate alcohol consumption enables a healthy lifestyle. This is the beer / glass of wine a day approach. While research results do support this amount, more recent studies suggest total abstinence should be the goal, as even moderate drinking leads to negative health impacts.

Do I need to drink 8 glasses of water a day?

The short answer is no. But you should be getting that amount per day from various liquids (water, coffee, tea) and from food sources (especially fruit). The KU program recommends 8 glasses a day, which I ignored given my understanding of the research, but they recommend increasing your daily water consumption for some critical health and dieting reasons.

First of all, most people eating a typical American (Western) diet do not get enough liquids every day. People are often dehydrated. This leads to serious health problems just from the dehydration. Upping your daily consumption of water addresses these health concerns.

Drinking water regularly also make you feel more full, which when combined with a whole foods, plant based diet, will lead to easier weight loss and healthy maintenance. If you are hydrated with low calorie / zero calorie liquids, you feel full when you are eating and it lessens your craving for sugary liquids and snacks. Your body will often mistake thirst for being hungry, which leads to between meals snacking.

Increasing your water consumption is also part of developing new habits, which reinforce a WFPB lifestyle. Your goal is an unconscious healthy lifestyle, which is more sustainable than being in diet mode, where you are always worrying about staying on plan.

Drink more water! But don’t beat yourself up if you don’t drink eight glasses.