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That afternoon pick-me-up could be weighing you down

October 1, 2009 |  6:00 am

Who among us isn’t keen on the mid-afternoon coffee break? Faced with a stack of sleep-inducing reports to read or in anticipation of yet another meeting, a jolt of caffeine is often in order.

In New York City, many coffee-seekers head to Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts. For 11 weeks in spring 2007, researchers from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene followed them to count the calories in the beverages they ordered.

Starbucks

Between 2 and 4 p.m., the researchers stationed themselves outside 42 Starbucks and 73 Dunkin’ Donuts outlets across the city and asked patrons to save their receipts. On the way out, customers were asked details about their orders, such as whether they requested whole or skim milk. Altogether, the research team collected data from 1,127 receipts from Starbucks and 1,830 from Dunkin’ Donuts.

Brewed coffee or tea without added cream or sugar contains fewer than 10 calories. At Starbucks, about one-third of patrons chose these drinks, and with cream and sugar they averaged 38 calories. These plain drinks were more popular among Dunkin’ Donuts customers, accounting for 78% of drinks, and with added cream and sugar they averaged 69 calories, according to a report in the October issue of the journal Preventing Chronic Disease.

With fancier fare, the calories added up fast. Presweetened iced teas and coffees at Starbucks averaged 121 calories. More than half of those who ordered milk-based drinks like cappuccinos and lattes wound up with more than 200 calories in their paper cups. Ice-blended drinks frequently passed the 300-calorie barrier, with a venti-sized Strawberries & Crème Frappuccino Blended Crème containing 750 calories, according to the report. (The Starbucks website lists the drink at a mere 580 calories.)

Fewer Dunkin’ customers opted for blended drinks. Milk-based drinks averaged 162 calories, and none of the ice-blended drinks contained fewer than 200 calories. The large Vanilla Bean Coolatta had a whopping 860 calories.

The researchers marveled that most customers who ordered ice-blended drinks could have had “a scoop of high-fat ice cream” for the same calories. Three out of five patrons wound up devoting more than 10% of their daily calorie allotment to these afternoon drinks (based on a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet). If these coffee drinkers didn’t compensate with extra exercise or a smaller dinner, those extra 200 calories would add up fast. A daily habit would amount to 20 pounds of weight gain over the course of a year, they wrote.

When a fancy coffee drink is called for, the researchers offered the following suggestions: Asking for skim milk instead of whole milk would save 76 calories. Skipping the whipped cream will save 60 to 150 calories, depending on the size of the drink. Ordering a smaller size could save hundreds of calories.

-- Karen Kaplan

Photo: Why not get an ice cream cone instead? Credit: Chris Hondros / Getty Images

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