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The Worst Time to Have a Sugary Drink

You already know sugary beverages like sodas, sports drinks, and sweetened iced teas fall firmly into the “drink rarely” category, but it turns out it’s especially important to skip them when you’re eating a meal like a burger, a chicken Caesar wrap, or bean-packed chili. New research in the journal BMC Nutrition found that drinking a sweet beverage while eating a high-protein meal impacts how well your body burns fat afterward.

The study had 27 adults—both male and female and all a healthy weight—eat the same foods, but gave some of them a meal that had 15 percent protein content (formulated based on the U.S. Dietary Guidelines), while the other group had a diet higher in protein content (30%). Both meals contained the same number of calories. All the participants were given a cherry-flavored drink with their meal, but some got one sweetened with sugar, while the others got one sweetened with sucralose, a sugar substitute. (The researchers chose sugar-sweetened beverages because they’re the largest source of added sugars for most Americans.) The researchers found that the combination of a sweetened drink with a high-protein meal reduces how much fat the body burns for energy.

On top of that, the sugar-sweetened drinks increased the total calories participants took in without making them feel more satisfied afterward. In other words, they consumed more but didn’t feel like they had. And when paired with the high-protein meal, the sugary drinks made participants crave more salty and savory foods afterward. The researchers concluded that their study added to the evidence that drinking sugar-sweetened beverages can increase your susceptibility to weight and fat gain, particularly when paired with a lot of protein. Of course, this was one small study, but since sugar-sweetened drinks like sodas don’t provide much in the way of nutrition to begin with, consider this another reason to skip them next time you chow down.

Not sure how much protein is in your meal? For reference, a large single cheeseburger has about 31 grams of protein, a grilled chicken sandwich has nearly 40 grams, and that cup of beans in your chili has about 17 grams. That doesn’t mean you should eliminate protein-rich foods; it means you shouldn’t have a sugary drink like a lemonade or soda with them.

What’s a thirsty diner to do? Instead of ordering that sweet tea with your cheeseburger, opt for a sugar-free beverage like ice water or seltzer. You can squeeze in a wedge of lemon or lime to perk it up. Need more flavor than that? Try infused waters (put berries, citrus fruit, and herbs in a pitcher of water in your refrigerator) or an unsweetened iced tea.  

Find other great health and wellness stories at EatingWell.com/Strive.