Drink your calories

It’s not surprising that “Don’t drink your calories!” has become a familiar refrain. Soda (both regular and diet), juice, sugar- and cream- laden coffee, bottled teas, and other pre-packaged beverages have all been blamed, in part, for weight gain, and even the obesity epidemic A trial of sugar-free or sugar-sweetened beverages and body weight in children. de Ruyter JC, Olthof MR, Seidell JC, et al. New England Journal of Medicine, 2012 Oct 11;367(15):1397-406 Sugar-sweetened beverages and genetic risk of obesity. Qi Q, Chu AY, Kang JH, Jensen MK, et al. New England Journal of Medicine, 2012 Oct 11;367(15):1387-96. Besides, why guzzle empty calories when water is refreshing, good for you, and — for most people in the U.S. — abundantly available?

It turns out there are plenty of circumstances when it’s preferable to sip on a healthy concoction full of hydrating nutrients, electrolytes, and deliciousness (and calories). We’ve made a list of some of the situations in which it makes sense to drink your calories and some great options for doing so.

Vegetable juice

Fruit and Vegetable Juice
Vegetable Juice (canned): 46 calories, 8g sugar, 653mg sodium (per 8oz)
Fruit Juice (Orange Juice): 112 calories, 21g sugar, 2g sodium (per 8oz)

Fruits and vegetables are kind of magical: Not only are they tasty and versatile, but diets high in both can reduce risk of death and play a role in weight management. Depending on your caloric needs, the USDA recommends three to six servings of fruits and vegetables per day. Though we should aim to get the majority of these servings from whole fruits and vegetables — which are more nutritious thanks to their fiber content and antioxidant density — juicing fruits and vegetables can be both a delicious and healthy addition to most diets Deconstructing a fruit serving: comparing the antioxidant density of select whole fruit and 100% fruit juices. Crowe KM, Murray E. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2013 Oct;113(10):1354-8.. Plus, it allows you to get a blend of polyphenols (which are linked to disease prevention) without having to chow down several servings of assorted fruits and vegetables Bioavailability of multiple components following acute ingestion of a polyphenol-rich juice drink. Borges G, Mullen W, Mullan A, et al. Molecular Nutrition & Food Research, 2010 Jul;54 Suppl 2:S268-77.

Smart juicing relies on this one key fact: Drinking fruit and eating it are nutritionally quite different. Juicing means skipping out on the fiber, which results in getting all of the fruit or veggie’s sugar without any of fiber’s awesome benefits, including its ability to slow the rate at which the fruit’s sugar is absorbed into the bloodstream. Because increased blood sugar is associated with heart disease, obesity, and diabetes, it’s generally advisable to avoid foods that cause blood sugar to spike Dietary glycemic index and glycemic load, carbohydrate and fiber intake, and measures of insulin sensitivity, secretion, and adiposity in the Insulin Resistance Atherosclerosis Study. Liese AD, Schulz M, et al. Diabetes Care. 2005 Dec;28(12):2832-8. Deconstructing a Fruit Serving: Comparing the Antioxidant Density of Select Whole Fruit and 100% Fruit Juices. Crowe, K.M. & Murray, E. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2013 Jun 26. pii: S2212-2672(13)00514-5.. When drinking juice, just remember that one piece of fruit or one cup of raw leafy vegetables is equivalent to just six ounces of juice. For the sake of comparison, 6 oz. is just half of a tall drink from Starbucks (or ¾ of a cup).

When to Drink Veggie Juice:
If it’s going to be tough to eat the recommended three to six servings worth of vegetables daily, drinking vegetable juice is a fine way to get the servings you need. Bonus: Vegetable juice has been shown to lower blood pressure The use of a commercial vegetable juice as a practical means to increase vegetable intake: a randomized controlled trial. Shenoy SF, Kazaks AG, Holt RR, Nutrition Journal, 2010 Sep 17;9:38! Just keep in mind that pre-packaged vegetable juice can have loads of added sodium. When in doubt, fresh pressed is always best!

When to Drink Fruit Juice:
Fruit juice is a great go-to if your blood sugar is low. Thanks to the absence of fiber, the sugars are absorbed quickly, which makes for a quick pick-me-up. Pro tip: Drinking tart cherry juice for a week before a strenuous exercise has been shown to minimize post-workout muscle pain, and it can also improve recovery when it’s consumed right after a workout Efficacy of tart cherry juice in reducing muscle pain during running: a randomized controlled trial. Kuehl KS, Perrier ET, Elliot DL, et al. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition,2010 may 7;7:17. Montmorency cherry juice reduces muscle damage caused by intensive strength exercise. Bowtell JL, Sumners DP, Dyer A, et al. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 2011 Aug;43(8):1544-51..

Sports drink

Sports Drinks and Electrolyte-Enhanced Water
8-80 calories, 1-21g carbs, 0-21g sugar, 160-360mg sodium (per 12oz)

Most of the time, water is enough to keep us hydrated. But when exercising longer or harder than usual (or in the heat), we tend to sweat more. In these situations, it’s important to rehydrate and replenish electrolytes lost through sweating. Electrolytes help our bodies regulate temperature, ensuring that we can keep working out while also protecting against dehydration and heat stroke Fluids and hydration in prolonged endurance performance. Von Duvillard, S.P., Braun, W.A., Markofski, M., et al. Human Performance Laboratory, Department of Health, Kinesiology and Sports Studies, Texas A and M University--Commerce, Commerce, Texas. Nutrition, 2004 Jul-Aug;20(7-8):651-6. Fluid and electrolyte needs for preparation and recovery from training and competition. Shirreffs, S.M., Armstrong, L.E., Cheuvront, S.N. School of Sport and Exercise Sciences, Loughborough University, Loughborough, UK. Journal of Sports Science, 2004 Jan;22(1):57-63. Keep yourself moving and working out like a boss with beverages that contain carbohydrates and salts like Gatorade or Nuun-enhanced water Fluid and electrolyte balance in ultra-endurance sport. Rehrer, N.J.  School of Physical Education and Department of Human Nutrition, Otago University, Dunedin, New Zealand. Sports Medicine, 2001;31(10):701-15. Dehydration and rehydration in competitive sport. Maughan RJ, Shirreffs SM. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 2010 Oct;20 Suppl 3:40-7..

When to Drink Sports Drinks:
There’s nothing like crushing a killer tabata workout or hitting the road for a long run, but these intense or prolonged workouts deplete electrolytes Fluid and electrolyte balance in ultra-endurance sport. Rehrer, N.J.  School of Physical Education and Department of Human Nutrition, Otago University, Dunedin, New Zealand. Sports Medicine, 2001;31(10):701-15..

If you’re working out for longer than hour or find yourself exercising hard over a period of days, drinks treated with electrolytes and carbohydrates can help keep you fueled and balanced Fluid and electrolyte needs for preparation and recovery from training and competition. Shirreffs SM, Armstrong LE, Cheuvront SN. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, 2004 Jan;22(1):57-63.. If you’re training for a marathon or other endurance event, sip a sports drink to stay fueled before and during training, and to aid post-exercise recovery Fluid and electrolyte needs for preparation and recovery from training and competition. Shirreffs SM, Armstrong LE, Cheuvront SN. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, 2004 Jan;22(1):57-63..

Knowing sweat rate is the key to smart hydration, especially during intense exercise in the heat: “Once an athlete's sweat rate is known they can begin to practice replacing these fluid losses in training and be optimally prepared for the competition/match/game,” says CamelBak Hydration Adviser Doug Casa, PhD.

In order to choose drinks that keep you fueled without the extra sugar and calories, a good rule of thumb is to go for sports drinks that are four to nine percent carbohydrates per eight ounces, and 120 to 170 mg sodium. If you’re going to be working out in the heat consistently or are training for an endurance event, determining your sweat rate will help you figure out how to rehydrate properly.

Chocolate milk

Low-Fat Chocolate Milk
202 calories, 23g sugar, 122mg sodium, 9g protein (per 8oz)

Chocolate you can drink: What’s not to like? The good news is that not only is it downright delicious, chocolate milk actually contains carbohydrates, protein, minimal sugar, and a bit of sodium, making it so much more than a dessert-lover’s favorite beverage (but a work out-lover’s, too!).

When to Drink Low-Fat Chocolate Milk:
Chocolate milk has been shown to be as effective at promoting recovery after exercise as traditional sports drinks The effects of low fat chocolate milk on postexercise recovery in collegiate athletes. Spaccarotella KJ, Andzel WD. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 2011 Dec;25(12):3456-60.. The milk provides high quality protein, and, when combined with chocolate, the concoction has a four-to-one ratio of carbs to protein, which is ideal for post-exercise recovery Chocolate milk: a post-exercise recovery beverage for endurance sports. Pritchett K, Pritchett R. Department of Nutrition Exercise and Health Sciences, Central Washington University, Ellensburg, WA, USA. Medicine and Sport Science, 2012;59:127-34. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: nutrient timing. Kerksick C, Harvey T, Stout J, et al. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 2008 Oct 3;5:17.


Nutritional information varies

Nutritious, flavorful, quick to prepare, and easy to take on the go, smoothies might be the most convenient way to drink a meal (or snack).

When to Drink Smoothies:
How can a concoction of fruit, greens, nut butters, and (maybe) milk not be crazy tasty? Plus, making smoothies at home means you control what healthy, awesome stuff you throw in the blender. This is especially important given that researchers have found that smoothies can boost the amount fruit (and therefore sugar and calories) we’re eating in a day without necessarily filling us up or replacing a meal, so the calories from the smoothie might just end up piled on top of what we’re already consuming Calorie-sweetened beverages and fructose: what have we learned 10 years later. G. A. Bray, B. M. Popkin. Pediatric Obesity, 2013 Aug;8(4):242-8. So, skip the store-bought smoothies and blend your own refreshing snack or great breakfast. If you’re going to be drinking a smoothie as a meal, be sure to make it as filling and nutritious as possible.

Protein shakes

Protein shakes
130 calories, 2g sugar, 210mg sodium, 20g protein (per scoop)

Protein helps build and repair tissue (including muscles), it’s filling, and it’s found in meat, eggs, nuts, tofu, beans, and seeds. But it’s also available in powder form, which makes for power-packed snacks (or meals) that are convenient and easy to throw together. Protein in powder form is also digested and absorbed more quickly than whole food sources of protein Effect of intake of different dietary protein sources on plasma amino acid profiles at rest and after exercise. Burke LM, Winter JA, Cameron-Smith D, et al, International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 2012 Dec;22(6):452-62. Ingestion of a protein hydrolysate is accompanied by an accelerated in vivo digestion and absorption rate when compared with its intact protein, Koopman R, Crombach N, Gijsen AP, et al. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2009 Jul;90(1):106-15..

When to Drink Protein Shakes:
When consumed after workouts, protein helps the recovery process by facilitating muscle repair Nutritional strategies to promote postexercise recovery. Beelen M, Burke LM, Gibala MJ, et al. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 2005 Apr;288(4):E761-7 Whey protein isolate attenuates strength decline after eccentrically-induced muscle damage in healthy individuals. Cooke MB, Rybalka E, Stathis CG, et al. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 2010 Sep 22;7:30.. But it’s not always convenient to whip up and carry around that tofu scramble after you hit the gym, and it’s not always easy to put away a full meal after a hard workout. Enter protein powder: Shake the protein powder of your choice with water or milk in a blender bottle, and you’ve got yourself a giant cup of recovery fuel. Just make sure you’re choosing the protein powder that best suits your needs.

Coconut water

Coconut water
70 calories, 13g sugar, 85mg sodium (per 11.2 oz)

An all-natural option to keep you hydrated, coconut water has fewer calories than sports drinks, some of the electrolytes, and none of the added flavors or dyes.

When to Drink Coconut Water:
Need another option for a post-workout recovery beverage? One study found that coconut water effectively rehydrates after workouts and causes less nausea and fullness than sports drinks and even plain water Rehydration after exercise with fresh young coconut water, carbohydrate-electrolyte beverage and plain water. Saat M, Singh R, Sirisinghe RG, et al. Journal of Physiological Anthropology and Applied Human Science, 2002 Mar;21(2):93-104. Rehydration with sodium-enriched coconut water after exercise-induced dehydration. Ismail I, Singh R, Sirisinghe RG. The Southeast Asian Journal of Tropical Medicine and Public Health. 2007 Jul;38(4):769-85.. Though it contains useful minerals like potassium and magnesium and helps with hydration, keep in mind that coconut water, like juices and smoothies, is likely to add calories without filling you up. As CamelBak hydration advisor and nutritionist Kate Geagan, RD, points out, with less sugar, sodium, and calories than soda and most juice, coconut water makes a great cocktail mixer, too. Just one caveat to all this: “Remember, even though it’s called “water,” it has 60-70 calories in 12 oz. Those calories can add up quickly if you’re chugging it all [day or night],” says Geagan.

Note: All nutrition information was pulled from popular brands or the SELF Nutrition Data database.

Thanks to CamelBak's hydration advisors, Doug Casa, PhD and Kate Geagan, RD, for their help with this article.

What’s your favorite way to drink your calories? Let us know in the comments below or get in touch with us on Twitter.