The recently released figures from the beverage industry show that the sales of regular soft drinks fell in 2005 for the first time in 20 years. But we are still not drinking as healthfully as we should. Our drink choices fall short of the recommendations from the Beverage Guidance Panel, which is a group of respected researchers.

Today, more than 20 percent of our calories come from beverages. We consume, on average, 150 to 300 more calories every day than we did 20 years ago, and about half of the increase comes from calorie-containing drinks. Although the drop in soft drink sales is a good development, it amounts to less than a one percent decrease in sales. Furthermore, a drop can only represent a positive change if we reduce our calories from beverages or choose more nutritional drinks. Unfortunately, we're not doing either.

Beverages have poor "satiety value," which means that they provide calories without satisfying hunger. That's why the Beverage Guidance Panel recommends that at least 60 percent preferably 80 percent of what we drink should be water and unsweetened tea or coffee.

For good health, the Panel advises limiting caffeine to 400 milligrams (mg) per day, which is the amount in four eight-ounce cups of caffeinated coffee or eight cups of regular tea. Water is the preferred beverage, and three to six cups of it daily are the Panel's recommendation.

One survey suggests that ready-to-drink bottled tea sales increased substantially in 2005, but this is not as good as it sounds. Bottled tea lacks the level of health-protective compounds found in fresh hot tea. In addition, because of the calories in sweetened tea and coffee drinks, they are not as healthful as water and unsweetened versions.

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The most desirable kinds of drinks with calories are lowfat and nonfat milk and soy beverages because of their nutrients. The Panel suggests drinking no more than 16 ounces a day of these, although this low limit would require all adults to use a calcium-fortified food or supplement daily to meet current recommendations.

Drinks sweetened with zero-calorie sweeteners represent the next level of beverage choice. The Panel suggests limiting them to 32 ounces per day. Although these drinks are considered safe, long-term human studies are needed. If you choose drinks from this category, you should make sure your caffeine intake stays within the 400 mg daily amount.

Higher calorie drinks that offer some health benefit are the next best choices, according to the Panel. They include 100 percent fruit juice restricted to eight ounces a day because of its concentrated calories, no more than one standard alcoholic drink per day for women and no more than two per day for men, and whole milk in very small amounts. Sports drinks are also in this category because most are lower in calories and sugar than regular soda. The panel recommends, however, that they be used sparingly, except by endurance athletes, since they are a source of significant calories.

The least recommended drinks provide concentrated calories without any significant nutritional value. These are regular soft drinks, fruit punches, sweet teas, high-calorie smoothies and gourmet coffee-based beverages with sugar, chocolate, or whipped cream. You should consume these drinks sparingly no more than eight ounces a day because regular consumption could cause weight gain and perhaps increase overall health risks.

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