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ENVIRONMENTAL NUTRITION: The best thirst-quenching drinks

By Sharon Palmer, R.D., Environmental Nutrition on

Ah, the water of life ... essential for maintaining health. It performs many critical functions in your body, including maintaining internal temperature and blood pressure, cushioning joints and organs, aiding digestion and absorption, transporting nutrients, and ridding your body of toxins.

But what's the best way to hydrate your body for optimal health and peak performance? Today you have a wide variety of choices, including tap and bottled water, fruit juice and fruit drinks, energy and sports drinks, coffee and tea drinks, and sodas. Yet some of our beverage choices are leading us down the path to obesity and chronic diseases instead of good health. A California Center for Public Health Advocacy study found that adults who drink one or more sodas per day were 27 percent more apt to be overweight or obese compared with those who do not drink soda.

A flood of sugar-sweetened beverages

"Sugar-sweetened beverages provide empty calories that most people don't really need," says sports dietitian and author Ellen Coleman, M.P.H., M.A., R.D., C.S.S.D. About 50 percent of the added sugars in our diets come from sugar-sweetened beverages -- the single largest contributor of calorie intake in the U.S. If you do the math, you'll see that sipping these sweet drinks, that contain about 150 calories per 12-ounce serving, can lead to calorie overload. Studies have shown that calories consumed from a beverage don't register the same sense of fullness that you derive from calories from solid food. And sugar-sweetened beverages aren't just limited to sodas--they also include sweetened coffee and tea drinks, fruit drinks and lemonade, smoothies, sports drinks, and energy drinks.

Water, your beverage of choice

"If you're looking for a lifestyle that will reduce your risk of chronic disease and overweight, and are exercising 30 to 60 minutes per day, you don't need to drink anything more than water," says Coleman. Although she says sports drinks "aren't evil," it's all about energy balance: Most people don't need the extra calories in sports drinks for their routine exercise regime.

However, "If you're a competitive athlete or an endurance athlete with a high sweat ratio, you may benefit from something more than water," says Coleman. For these athletes, she recommends sports drinks that contain carbohydrates (6 to 8 percent) for energy and sodium to replace sweat loss to help improve athletic performance. However, Coleman suggests that you remain cautious when it comes to energy drinks, which also can contain high amounts of caffeine, other stimulants, and additional herbal ingredients that may not have proven benefits.

Nutrient-rich drinks

Some beverages, such as milk and fruit juice, can provide important nutrients along with water content. Coleman says fitting a one-half cup serving of 100 percent fruit juice into your diet every day is fine, but more than that will only give you excess calories. And watch out for the added sugars and high calories of the many smoothie drinks now available in restaurants and supermarkets. In most cases, you're better off eating whole fruits in their fiber- and nutrient-rich package. Low- or fat-free milk and fortified soy milk can help you meet your requirement for important nutrients, such as protein, vitamin D, and calcium.

Sipping coffee and tea

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