Rethink your coffee drink

By Kimra Hawk, RD, LD, registered and licensed dietitian, Providence Outpatient Nutrition Services, Providence St. Vincent Medical Center

If you’re trying to keep a lid on weight gain this holiday season, get to know what’s under the lid of your favorite coffee drink. That peppermint mocha you treat yourself to could deliver as much as one-third of your full day’s recommended calories, a hefty dose of sugar and your entire limit of saturated fat for the day.

It’s easy to understand the appeal of ducking out of the cold for a hot, festive beverage. But it’s important to be aware of what else you’re getting, in addition to a few fleeting sips of sweet, toasty comfort.

Let’s look at that peppermint mocha, for example: Order a venti (large/20-ounce) at Starbucks with 2 percent milk plus whip and you’ll get 500 calories. That’s a quarter of the calories that a young, fit, healthy woman needs in a day, and about a third of the calories that a sedentary woman in her 40s or 50s needs if she’s looking to lose a few pounds. Looks like you might have to skip lunch if you choose that coffee drink.

In addition, you’ll get:

  • 18 grams of fat, including 10 grams of saturated fat – the kind that raises cholesterol and heart disease risks. That’s nearly the full day’s limit of saturated fat for many people, according to American Heart Association recommendations.
  • 13.5 teaspoons of sugar – the same amount you’d get if you ate two full-size Snickers bars.
A peppermint mocha delivers nearly the same amount of calories and saturated fat that you’d get from a Big Mac (550 calories, 10 grams saturated fat) or six tablespoons of full-fat mayonnaise (540 calories, 9 grams saturated fat) – not that I recommend substituting those.

If nothing will do but that chocolatey, peppermint splurge, consider ways that you could get the same pleasure with less caloric pain:
  • Order a short (8-ounce) at 220 calories, saving 280 calories over the large. Let’s face it, the first few sips are the best anyway.
  • Order it “skinny” – made with nonfat milk, sugar-free syrup and no whip. A venti skinny peppermint mocha cuts the calories to 170, the fat to 2 grams and the sugar to 18 grams (4.5 teaspoons). A tall (small/12-ounce) has only 100 calories.
  • Try a nonfat latte or steamer with mocha or peppermint syrup and skip the whip – just 150 to 160 calories for a tall, plus no fat. As an added bonus, the milk delivers about one-third of your recommended daily calcium. Request sugar-free syrup to shave more calories.
  • Have a regular cup of coffee with or without a shot of sugar-free syrup (zero calories) and a York Peppermint Pattie (60 calories, 1 gram total fat, ½ gram saturated fat).
  • Order a cup of peppermint tea (zero calories) and savor a square of dark chocolate (27 calories, 2 grams total fat, 1 gram saturated fat).
If you’re going to a coffee shop just to be social, consider having lunch instead of a coffee drink. For about the same 530 calories you would have sipped away on a Starbucks venti Caramel Brulée Latte or White Chocolate Mocha Frappuccino®, you could get:
  • A whole-wheat turkey sandwich with avocado, lettuce, tomato and mayo (378 calories), a flourless chewy chocolate cookie (170 calories, or 85 if you split it) and a cup of black coffee with a sprinkle of cinnamon (zero calories)
  • A chicken and greens Caesar salad bowl (340 calories), a banana (105 calories) and a short nonfat chai tea latte (100 calories)
  • A ham and Swiss panini (340 calories), an apple (95 calories), half an oatmeal cookie (110 calories if you split it) and a cup of peppermint tea (zero calories)

Using your calories for real food (and I don’t mean the 400-plus-calorie pumpkin breads and pound cakes) will leave you much more satisfied and less likely to overeat later. In addition, if you choose whole grains, lean proteins and crunchy fruits and vegetables, you’ll wind up with more energy and fewer sleep problems than you’d get from a sugary, caffeinated coffee drink.

I don’t mean to pick on Starbucks – all coffee shops offer a variety of choices that range from naughty to nice. When you’re trying to watch your weight, it really pays to take a minute and explore the nutritional information on your coffee shop’s website. Look up your favorite drink and explore the alternatives:

  • Switching from whole milk to nonfat can save up to 120 calories.
  • Requesting sugar-free syrup saves 20 calories, or about a teaspoon of sugar per pump.
  • Skipping the whip can trim up to 110 calories.

It may not sound like much, but 100 calories here and 100 calories there adds up quickly. At the end of the holiday season, it can make the difference between losing, maintaining or gaining pounds that you’ll have to work hard to lose next year. Why set yourself up when there are so many tasty, low-calorie alternatives?

As I write this, I’m thoroughly enjoying a white chocolate peppermint tea from Teavanna (which is owned by Starbucks). It’s warm and cozy, smells decadent and tastes like a white Christmas in a cup – with no sugar, fat or calories lurking under the lid. Cheers to that, and happy holidays.