Beat Winter Weight Gain

By Rachel Johnson, Ph.D, M.P.H., R.D., December 2006

Eat, drink and be merry—just be mindful of those drinks!

’Tis the season of eggnog and hot chocolate, mulled cider and sparkling wine. ’Tis also the season when Americans put on half of our annual weight gain. Granted, that’s just two pounds a year, and a pound or two between Thanksgiving and New Year’s doesn’t seem all that bad. But if it happens year after year after year…well, you can do the math.

It’s easy to blame the holiday cookies, but festive foods and rich desserts aren’t the only culprits. At 500 calories, a Starbucks 16-ounce eggnog latte has almost twice the calories of a regular-size (2-ounce) Snickers bar. A cup of rich hot chocolate can add up to 13 Hershey’s Kisses.

Sugar-sweetened beverages (soft drinks, sports drinks, sweetened teas, etc.) are a key contributor to excessive weight gain and obesity. That was the conclusion a team of Harvard researchers reached last August after analyzing 30 beverage studies. And their analysis did not take into account holiday drinks that are even higher in calories.

Not to be a Scrooge—I love a glass of wine or a cup of hot cocoa when it’s cold out—but I recognize that if I don’t want to gain weight, I’ll need to count the calories I drink. However, I am an exception. Most of us don’t consider the calories we get from beverages in the same way we think of those we get from foods. And those calories do count: in fact, soft drinks are now the number one source of calories in Americans’ diets.

One reason for this, as Purdue’s Richard Mattes, Ph.D., R.D., discovered in a series of rigorous studies, is that we don’t compensate for calories we take in from beverages the same way we do for those from solid foods.

Mattes found that subjects who snacked on a large handful of peanuts (500 calories) were likely to eat less at their next meal. This compensation didn’t happen in other studies where he provided the calories as a beverage instead. Not surprising when you consider that peanuts have 8 grams of protein and almost 3 grams of fiber per ounce—both of which help you feel satisfied. Even an apple, which has 5 grams of dietary fiber, will satisfy you longer than drinking the same number of calories in an 8-ounce glass of apple juice, with no fiber.

Fiber and protein don’t fully explain why drinks aren’t as satisfying as solid food. Some scientists hypothesize that the simple act of chewing may be an important influence as well. Preliminary studies on chewing and satiety look so promising that Wrigley, the chewing gum company, has launched the Wrigley Science Institute to study whether gum-chewing might help people manage their weight. According to Institute Director Gil Leveille, Ph.D., research on monkeys has demonstrated that chewing helps release cholecystokinin, a powerful hormone that helps make you feel full.

But who wants to pass on the party drinks and just chew gum during the holidays? My solution is to think about what I drink so I can leave room for my favorite holiday foods. Most of the time I choose beverages with no calories. These include coffee, herbal teas and water. I make exceptions, though. One is skim milk, which I drink a couple of times a day. An 8-ounce glass has just 90 calories and provides 316 mg of calcium, about a quarter of the 1,200 mg I need daily.

I remember how great Mom’s hot chocolate tasted after I’d come in from an hour or two of ice skating. Now I make hot cocoa with skim milk and often sweeten it with Splenda to keep the calories down. The other exception I make is wine. I’d rather run an extra mile on the treadmill than give up the joy of a glass of great Chardonnay with dinner (just 100 calories).

The good news is we don’t drink holiday beverages every day. So as long as you think of them as occasional treats and work them into your overall eating and exercise scheme, you should be fine. And if you do want that eggnog, here's EatingWell’s fabulous, lower-cal recipe.