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.
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
Though health experts were once wary of the ancient, plant-based beverages coffee and tea, times have changed. A number of health benefits have been linked with these beverages, as long as your brew comes without extra sugary and high-fat toppings. Coleman reports that, contrary to urban legend, coffee and tea will not dehydrate you -- in fact, they can help you meet your fluid needs for the day. If you have problems tolerating caffeine, you can choose decaffeinated versions of coffee and tea.
-- Coffee perks. Hundreds of studies, the majority positive, have been published on coffee and health, which may be linked to the coffee bean's high antioxidant status. Coffee has been linked to improved mental and physical performance, lowered risk of depression, and protection against Parkinson's disease, type 2 diabetes, colon cancer, and liver function.
-- Tea time. The health bonuses of tea--especially green tea--are well publicized. All true teas--black, white, oolong, and green--that originate from the leaves of the camellia sinensis plant are rich in flavonoids, which power tea's benefits including heart health, cancer prevention, enhanced immune function, reduced mortality, bone protection, and weight loss.
-- Herbal brews. Although red tea and herbal teas made from a wide variety of plants as diverse as hibiscus, chamomile and spearmint are not true teas, they still provide health bonuses. Research suggests that herbal teas may possess antimicrobial, antiviral, antioxidant, and antitumor actions that may lead to disease protection.
Keep in mind that the environmental impact of drinking billions of bottled and canned beverages is staggering. Resources such as water and oil are required to produce the containers, carbon emissions are released in order to manufacture, transport and refrigerate them -- and most of those bottles and cans end up in a landfill. Your "greenest" drink is plain old tap water. You also can lower your carbon footprint by making beverages such as coffee and tea at home instead of purchasing them bottled.
How much is enough?
Most people let thirst be their guide in meeting their body's fluid needs. You get about
80 percent of your water from beverages and another 20 percent from foods, such as fruits
and vegetables, which can consist of at least 90 percent water. Aim for these hydration goals
established by the Institute of Medicine:
--Women: Consume 2.7 liters of total water from beverages and foods each day -- that's about nine eight-ounce glasses from beverages.
--Men: Consume 3.7 liters of total water from beverages and foods each day -- that's about 12 eight-ounce glasses from beverages.
Daily Healthy Beverage Guidelines
Follow these tips, based on recommendations from the Harvard School of Public Health and the Beverage Guidance Panel, to help plan your optimal beverage intake for the day.
--Water. At least half of your daily fluid should come from water. If you are aiming for 12 cups of fluids a day, that means six should come from water. And even more is better; up to 100 percent of your daily beverage needs can come from water.
--Coffee and Tea. About one-third (about three to four cups) can come from unsweetened coffee or tea. Just remember to go easy on flavorings, such as sugar, cream or whole milk. If you don't like these beverages, substitute them with water.
--Low-fat milk. Milk can make up another 20 percent (about two 8-ounce glasses) of your total beverage consumption. Less is fine; just make sure to replace the calcium from another source, such as fortified soy milk, green leafy vegetables, almonds, calcium-fortified foods, or calcium supplements.
--Fruit Juice. Up to one small glass (4 ounces) of 100 percent fruit juice may be included in your daily beverage intake.
--Alcoholic Drinks. If you drink, you can include up to one to two alcoholic drinks (12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of spirits) for men and up to one for women as part of your daily beverage intake.
--Diet Drinks. Optimally, you may want to exclude diet drinks made with artificial sweeteners, but up to 8 to 16 ounces a day may be allowed.
--Sweetened Beverages. Ideally, you should consume zero drinks sweetened with added sugars, such as cane sugar or high-fructose corn syrup, but up to a maximum of 8 ounces may be allowed.
(Environmental Nutrition is the award-winning independent newsletter written by nutrition experts dedicated to providing readers up-to-date, accurate information about health and nutrition in clear, concise English. For more information, visit www.environmentalnutrition.com.)