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Healthy Beverage Guidelines

Drink Up, But Drink the Right Stuff

Eight to twelve cups of water daily, that’s what the SparkPeople plan suggests. Whether you are having a hard time drinking that much water, or just want to drink a variety of beverages (coffee, tea, diet soda, juice), many dieters challenge and question the "8-12" rule.

Both the beverage-drinking patterns and overall health of U.S. adults have changed considerably over the past several decades. In the 1970s, Americans got 6-8% of their daily calories from drinks, but today, 21% of their daily calories from beverages. Not counting what’s in that glass, cup, can or mug may be a major cause of the alarming increase in obesity.

In March 2006, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published guidelines for beverage consumption, developed by the Beverage Guidance Panel. These experts reviewed years of research on beverages and health to make recommendations for adults. The panel stressed that a healthy diet should NOT rely on fluids to provide calorie or nutrient needs, and that water is necessary for metabolism and normal physiological function. In fact, water is the only fluid that the body truly needs.

Use the following guidelines to evaluate your own beverage intake, based on 6 categories (levels). Details of the full study are available on line at www.BeverageGuidancePanel.org

Healthy Beverage Guidelines for Adults
  • Consume 12 cups (96 ounces) of fluids per day.
  • For an adult on the standard 2,200-calorie diet, no more than 200-300 calories should come from fluids.
  • Adults consuming fewer than 2,200 calories should limit calorie-containing beverages even more—to less than 200 calories daily.
Level 1: Water
When eating a healthy diet, water can meet all of your fluid needs. This is the ideal choice and what SparkPeople also encourages!
  • Recommended Daily Consumption: At least 2-6 servings (20-50 ounces)
    * NOTE: Consume additional water if you limit other beverages.
  • Calories per Serving: 0
Level 2: Unsweetened Coffee and Unsweetened Teas
Coffee has some limited health benefits, while tea provides a variety of flavonoids and antioxidants. Both contain caffeine, which should be limited to less than 400 milligrams daily (or less than 300 mg for pregnant and breastfeeding women).
  • Recommended Daily Tea Consumption: 0-5 servings (0-40 ounces)
  • Recommended Daily Coffee Consumption: 0-4 servings (0-32 ounces)
  • Calories Provided per Serving: 0
Level 3: Low-Fat (1%) or Skim (fat-free) Milk and Unsweetened/Fortified Soymilk
Milk is an important source of calcium, magnesium and potassium. Through fortification, it is also a good source of Vitamin D. Fortified soymilk is a good alternative with many of the same benefits.
  • Recommended Daily Consumption: 0-2 servings (0-16 ounces)
  • Calories Provided per Serving: 85-100
Level 4: Non-Caloric, Artificially-Sweetened Beverages
This category includes diet soda, diet drinks, and artificially-sweetened drinks, teas and coffees. Although the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has approved non-caloric sweeteners as safe, some studies suggest that diet drinks condition adults to have a higher preference for sweets. These teas and coffees also contain caffeine. (See level 2 above for guidelines.)
  • Recommended Daily Consumption: 0-4 servings (0-32 ounces)
  • Calories Provided per Serving: 0 
Level 5: Caloric Beverages with Some Nutritional Benefits
This category includes fruit and vegetable juices, sports drinks, whole and reduced-fat (2%) milk, sweetened or flavored milk, and alcohol. Many vegetable juices are high in sodium, so select low-sodium varieties. Fruit smoothies are considered high-calorie versions of fruit drinks and should be enjoyed sparingly.
  • 100% Fruit & Vegetable Juices and Smoothies provide nutrients in their natural state, but lack fiber and some of the nutrients that are found in whole fruits and vegetables, which should be eaten for satiety and caloric balance.
    • Recommended Daily Fruit Juice Consumption: 0-1 serving (0-8 ounces)
    • Calories Provided per Serving: 100-150
    • Recommended Daily Vegetable Juice Consumption: 0-1 serving daily (0-8 ounces)
    • Calories Provided per Serving: 50-100
  • Sports Drinks were designed for endurance athletes who need to replace electrolytes, sodium, chloride, and potassium levels that are diminished during endurance events.
    • Recommended General Consumption: Drink very sparingly.
    • Recommended Consumption for Endurance Athletic Events (strenuous activity that lasts over 90 minutes): 0-2 servings (0-16 ounces)
    • Calories Provided per Serving: 0-40
  • Whole Milk and 2% Milk contain a significant amount of calories, fat, and saturated fat, so they are not recommended.
    • Recommended Daily Consumption: 0 servings
    • Calories Provided per Serving: 120-160
  • Sweetened or Flavored Low-Fat Milk products contain the same nutrients as low-fat dairy products (Level 3), but more calories due to the added sweeteners.
    • Recommended Consumption: Drink very sparingly.
    • Calories Provided per Serving: 150-160
  • Alcoholic Beverages, when consumed in moderation, have some health benefits for adults, including reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, and gallstones. Moderate intake of alcoholic beverages has been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer, while excessive alcohol consumption causes serious health and social problems. Pregnant women should NOT drink alcoholic beverages due to the increased risk of birth defects.
    • Recommended Daily Consumption for Adult Women who Choose to Drink Alcohol: 0-1 serving
    • Recommended Daily Consumption for Adult Men who Choose to Drink Alcohol: 0-2 servings
    • One serving of alcohol is: 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits
    • Calories Provided per Serving: 100-200
Level 6: Caloric, Sweetened Beverages without Nutritional Benefits
This category includes soft drinks, fruit drinks, fruit punch, fruit cocktail, fruit aid, and caloric/sweetened teas and coffees. These foods are higher in calories and have little (if any) nutritional benefit. Caloric sweeteners have been linked to poor dental health, excess caloric intake, weight gain, and Type 2 diabetes. Some studies suggest that sweet, flavored drinks can condition adults to have a higher preference for the taste of sweetness. These drinks should be limited as much as possible.
  • Recommended Daily Consumption: 0-1 serving (8 ounces)
  • Calories Provided per Serving: 75-130
    *NOTE: The caloric contents of tea and coffee vary greatly according to the ingredients added.

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Member Comments

  • I think these guidelines have changed drastically since 2006. Water is my beverage of choice but I drink 1-2 cups of coffee daily. I no longer drink soda of any kind and limit fruit juice as well.

    I do not drink the speciality coffees or juices at all. The amount of sugar in those drinks was a big factor in my decision to stop them as well as soda.
  • Hafe incareased water consumption and decreased coffee.
  • Good guidelines for fluid intake. I enjoy my coffee with other things to drink and usually much more than suggested.
  • I drink more coffee than water. Want to reverse that.
  • It's mildly bemusing how they say 0 - 1 servings per day of crap like soda, but say 0 servings at all for 2% milk. Milk is far more nutritional than straight up sugar and chemicals.
  • Have switched to all unsweetened almond milk and no soda, diet or otherwise. Diet soda has far rEach ing negative affects on health and should be avoided at all costs.
  • Questionable saying alcohol has benefits, those who do NOT drink, should NOT be encouraged to do so for some small benefit
  • Could Becky possibly review this in terms of the new recommendations that have been appearing .
  • I liked this article. Never drank soda until diet soda came around and still don't drink much well, because I'm "cheap" and water is cheaper even when you buy seltzer. I'm also addicted to caffeine so coffee is a lot of my fluid intake and yes, I know it also dehydrates but I generally stop drinking it by noon and begin to sip water. I just don't like water ... and that includes flavored water.
  • I drink mostly tea and water. Unless tea leaves have calories that I don't know about, then I'm doing pretty good, because I know that other than that, it's just water. I brew it by the gallon and almost always have some in my fridge. I used to drink sweetened tea, but I've been fasting from sugary drinks and unhealthy snacks (with rare exceptions) since last May, so I got used to it plain.

    I have to disagree about the artificially sweetened drinks. After years of drinking Diet Coke, I realized that I had aspartame poisoning. My brain was shot; I was like a dementia patient. I thought that I was going to end up in a nursing home in my 20s, but, being desperate, I used what little brain power I had left to research memory loss. I kept coming up with articles saying that aspartame could cause it. I figured that I could do an experiment and see if it helped, and within a weekend, my memory started to improve. So I avoid it like the plague and have my kids do so as well.

    I also question the wisdom of 1% milk being better than whole milk. People are way too afraid of fat. Fat is needed to make your cells and keep them healthy. Calories, of course, are important, but as long as you factor in the calories, they shouldn't be a problem. I don't know many people who guzzle down milk all day like people do soda anyway.

    I look at the health of my grandparent's generation... they were thinner and healthier than most of us are today, so they must have been doing something right. My grandma was healthy and had a sharp memory for over 80 years. I figure that in many ways, if our habits mimicked theirs, we'd be better off. They didn't drink any (or at the very least, very little) soda, and most of their beverages would have been healthy.
    I drink coffee, day and night, iced in summer , my dietitian says no magic in plain water. And not to worry about counting all those danged cups of water, for gosh sakes! So many women wind up in the ER because of forcing all those cups of water down, poor kidneys can't take it. Quit obsessing about water and pay attention to food calories. That's where the weight comes from.
  • I didn't think we were suppose to drink diet cokes, but that's one of the beverages they say is ok, on the beverage guideline, explain.
  • I didn't think we were suppose to drink diet cokes
  • I've been using unsweetened vanilla almond milk, instead of a dairy milk. It's only 30 calories per serving. Seems like a good alternative to me. Any opinions?
    I tend to drink ALOT of un-sweetened hot tea, especially in the winter, its useually a cup of peppermint, a cup of another herbal tea, and also a cup green tea and/or black tea. Is this unhealthy? I just really enjoy tea :/

About The Author

Becky Hand Becky Hand
Becky is a registered and licensed dietitian with almost 20 years of experience. A certified health coach through the Cooper Institute with a master's degree in health education, she makes nutrition principles practical, easy-to-apply and fun. See all of Becky's articles.