If You’re Cutting Back on Sugar, Beware of the Restaurant Drink Menu

It’s loaded with options high in calories and sugar

Couples at a restaurant deciding on drinks

If you’ve been out to eat at a large chain restaurant recently, you may have noticed the beverage portion of the menu looked a little (or a lot) longer than it used to be, with milk shakes, coffee drinks and sodas galore.

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Your eyes aren’t fooling you. Beverages now make up one-third of restaurant menus, according to a study recently published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. And — surprise! — many of the drinks that have been added to menus in recent years are chock-full of sugar.

Newer, sweeter options

The study looked at the evolution of the menus of 63 U.S. chain restaurants (including fast food, fast casual and full-service restaurants) from 2012 to 2017. Researchers examined the calorie, sugar and saturated fat content of the beverage offerings.

The number of drink options jumped by 155 percent between those years, with 82% of the increase driven by sweetened beverages.

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The sweetened beverages that were added to menus after 2012 also trended toward higher sugar content but less saturated fat, the researchers said.

“The study shows us that the sweetened options and the diverse choices available on the menu has really increased, which I think is surprising in light of the obesity epidemic and all the research that’s coming out how much sugar impacts our body,” says registered dietitian Ariana Cucuzza, RD, who did not take part in the study.

The uptick in sweetened beverages is problematic because of how often Americans eat out, she says. A recent survey from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that as many as one in three Americans eats fast food every day.

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Too much sugar has been linked to weight gain, blood sugar problems and an increased risk of heart disease.

So how can you avoid falling into a sugar trap?

  1. Read nutrition labels to learn how many grams of sugar are in the drinks you’re choosing from, so that you can make better choices. “You can make healthier choices by picking things that are unsweetened, such as unsweetened ice tea or water (flavored seltzer waters are really popular now), which are usually available at restaurants as well,” Cucuzza says.
  2. Planning ahead can also help you make better choices throughout the day. For instance, if you know you’re going to eat out for dinner, you can make healthier choices for breakfast and lunch to limit the damage.

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