The research participants consisted of 22,000 U.S. adults which asked the participants to recall everything they ate or drank over the course of two nonconsecutive days, and analyzed 10 years of data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
The list of discretionary foods included 661 items including food that do not belong to the major food groups and consist of empty calories. Ninety percent of the people in the study consumed discretionary foods daily.
African-Americans who consumed diet beverages, sugary drinks and coffee, and Hispanics who drank alcohol, had the highest daily calorie intakes across all of the racial and ethnic groups.
Obese adults who drank diet beverages consumed more calories in discretionary foods, as did normal-weight participants who drank sugar-sweetened beverages.
The participants consumed the following beverages as a choice: Coffee consumed by more than half — 53 percent — of the population, followed by sugar-sweetened beverages (43 percent), tea (26 percent), alcohol (22 percent) and diet beverages (21 percent).
Alcohol consumption was associated with the largest increase in daily calorie intake (384 calories), followed by sugar-sweetened beverages (226 calories), coffee (108 calories), diet beverages (69 calories) and tea (64 calories).
“It may be that people who consume diet beverages feel justified in eating more, so they reach for a muffin or a bag of chips,” community health professor Ruopeng An said. “Or perhaps, in order to feel satisfied, they feel compelled to eat more of these high-calorie foods.”
A third possible explanation might be that people opt to drink diet beverages because they feel guilty about indulging in unhealthy food, An said.
“It may be one — or a mix of — these mechanisms,” An said. “We don’t know which way the compensation effect goes.”
People who consumed sugar-sweetened beverages or coffee had the worst nutrition profiles.
“If people simply substitute diet beverages for sugar-sweetened beverages, it may not have the intended effect because they may just eat those calories rather than drink them,” An said. “We’d recommend that people carefully document their caloric intake from both beverages and discretionary foods because both of these add calories — and possibly weight — to the body.”
Ruopeng An, PhD. Beverage Consumption in Relation to Discretionary Food Intake and Diet Quality among U.S. Adults, 2003-2012. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, September 2015 DOI: 10.1016/j.jand.2015.08.009