A woman enjoying a cup of coffee

For better or worse, the beverages you consume each day contribute quite a lot to the nutritional quality of your diet. Yet many people overlook the calories and nutrients in drinks.

“We think so much about the foods we eat, and we don’t really pay much attention to the beverages we are drinking,” says Penny Kris-Etherton, Ph.D., R.D., a distinguished professor of nutrition at Penn State University who examined the role of beverages for the 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Depending on the drink, the tally can be rather shocking. Have a medium skim-milk Mocha Swirl Iced Latte from Dunkin’ in the morning, a bottle of raspberry Pure Leaf iced tea at lunch, and a glass of red wine at dinner, and you’ve downed 583 calories without even taking a bite of food.

And what do you get for those calories? Some calcium and protein from the milk in the latte and some antioxidants from the wine but not much else—except 80 grams of added sugars, far more than the daily maximum of 25 grams for women and 36 grams for men that the American Heart Association recommends.

Beverages are an important part of the diet, though. They help you stay hydrated—dehydration is a leading cause of hospitalization in older adults—and the right ones can deliver needed nutrients, such as calcium, potassium, and antioxidants. Here’s a guide to what to drink for health and what to sip sparingly.

Okay to Drink Often

Plain water. Water tops experts’ list for hydration and quenching thirst. Though it doesn’t supply a lot of nutrition, it’s calorie-­free. Don’t like it plain? Mint or a slice of lemon, lime, or orange adds flavor but very little or no sugar. Drink throughout the day instead of guzzling a big glass all at once, because small amounts of ­water are better absorbed.

More on Healthy Drinks

Sparkling and carbonated waters. As long as they’re unsweetened, these bubbly options can also be consumed freely.

Plain tea and coffee. Whether decaf or high-octane, your morning cup contains polyphenols—antioxidants that may help prevent certain diseases—and other beneficial compounds. Studies show that black or green tea can help lower blood pressure and risk of strokes and heart ­attacks. Coffee has been linked to a ­reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and kidney stones.

Enjoy your cup of choice with a splash of milk, but skip cream, sugar, and sweet syrups—they add a lot of calories. If you’re concerned that caffeine might be dehydrating, rest assured that moderate amounts (less than 250 mg in one drink) don’t seem to be. Healthy people can safely consume up to 400 mg per day—8 ounces of coffee has 80 to 100 mg; black or green tea, 30 to 50 mg. Switch to decaf in the afternoon if caffeine keeps you up at night. Chamomile, mint, and other herbal teas are calorie- and caffeine-free.

Milk. It’s chock-full of protein, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, and vitamins A and D, so if you like milk, having a glass or two a day is reasonable. (If you don’t, other foods, including dairy products such as yogurt, supply the same nutrients.)

Whole or low-fat, it’s your choice. A recent review article in the New England Journal of Medicine says there’s not a clear connection between either type of milk and an increased risk of heart disease. And note that unlike other beverages, milk can help you feel full. That can be helpful if you’re trying to lose weight—you’ll eat less food—but if you have a ­reduced appetite, drinking milk may limit your intake of other nutritious foods.

Okay to Drink Occasionally

100 percent fruit and vegetable juices. These can supply a variety of vitamins and minerals, as well as phytonutrients such as flavonoids and carotenoids. But fruit juices have a lot of natural sugars—which, in liquid form, your body processes the same way it would added ones.

A small glass a day is fine, but too much fruit juice can increase your risk of type 2 diabetes. Vegetable juices are often high in sodium. Nutrient-rich choices include orange juice, 100 percent cranberry juice, carrot juice, and low-sodium vegetable or tomato juice.

Alcohol. You’ve probably heard that a glass of wine can lower heart disease risk, but no one should start drinking alcohol for the possible health benefits. All kinds of booze pack calories without much nutri­tion and can be dehydrating. And heavy and binge drinking—on the rise in older adults—has many health consequences. Enjoy wine or a cocktail once in a while, but consider the calories.

Drinks made with sugar substitutes. They may be low- or no-calorie, but the research on long-term health effects of aspartame, saccharin, stevia, sucralose, and other sweeteners is still evolving, so no one can say for certain what the health effects are. Unless you’re weaning yourself from sugar-filled beverages, ­experts suggest skipping them.

What to Drink Rarely (If Ever)

Sugary beverages. The leading source of added sugars in Americans’ diets, this category includes sodas, lemonade, coffee drinks, iced tea, and many smoothies. Drinking just one a day is linked to type 2 diabetes, weight gain/obesity, and cardiovascular disease, research shows. A recent study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that sugary drinks have a negative effect on HDL (“good”) cholesterol and triglycerides.

Sports drinks. They may be refreshing and feel fitness-forward, but they’re really appropriate only for endurance athletes such as marathoners, who need a quick hit of carbs or to replenish electrolytes, says David Nieman, Dr.P.H., director of the Appalachian State University Human Performance Lab in Kannapolis, N.C. For the rest of us, they’re just sugars, salt, and artificial coloring in a bottle.

How to Know If You're Hydrated Enough

Surprisingly, there’s no definitive recommendation for daily fluid intake. In 2004, the Institute of Medicine set guidelines of about 9 cups for women and 12½ for men (from water and food). But there’s little consensus on how much a particular individual needs. For a quick check on whether you’re getting enough to stay hydrated, David Nieman, at Appalachian State University, suggests you do these three things first thing in the morning:

• Notice whether you feel thirsty.

• Check the color of your urine.

• Weigh yourself.

If you’re thirsty, your urine is dark yellow (rather than pale yellow), and/or you’ve lost 1 or 2 pounds (without trying), you should make a point of drinking more healthy beverages during the day.

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the May 2020 issue of Consumer Reports On Health