It should come as no surprise that when it comes to the beverages we choose on a daily basis, what we drink can directly and drastically affect our long term health. Having just read 'Chapter 8: You Are What You Drink' in Walter C. Willett, M.D's Eat, Drink and Be Healthy, The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating, I picked up a few useful tidbits we can all use to make the best drink decisions for our health every day.
Dr. Willett himself states that "...what and how much you drink may be just as important as what and how much you eat" when it comes to healthy lifestyle - a crucial point that gets overlooked by so many of us on a daily basis. We're so often all wrapped up in scrutinizing our every dietary move about our meals, that we fail to recognize the extent to which the liquids we consume are weighing in on our bodies.
"You dry, you die"
Our bodies are comprised of about 50% water, and it is absolutely fundamental to our survival that we maintain this ratio to live, plain and simple. We need enough fluid in our system to undergo a seemingly endless variety of bodily functions, from "...making enough urine to flush away toxic by-products of digestion and metabolism and other wastes, maintaining blood volume, preventing body salts from getting too concentrated, and replenishing whatever water [we] lose". Metabolic tasks such as these are critical to our survival, and they can only be achieved by ensuring an abundant intake of fluids on a regular basis. I'll drink to that!
How Much Is Enough?
The amount of fluid required for healthy bodily functions varies depending on several factors, including genetics, diet, activity level and environment. As Dr. Willett points out, we all need "...about a milliliter of fluid for every calorie burned", which boils down to about eight 8 oz. glasses of water for a typical 2,000 calorie per day diet. Basically, the more you eat, the more you should be drinking. Same goes for activity and environmental factors: the more you move and the harder your body has to work to maintain a steady temperature in extreme weather conditions, the more fluids you need to stay healthy.
What to Drink?
These days there is a slew of different beverages to choose from on a daily basis, most of which are marketed as being good for you. Keep in mind, though, that cleverly packaged sports drinks, natural sodas, vitamin waters and the like oftentimes deliver extra calories and sugars to your daily intake, which when done on a daily basis can add to your waistline, not to mention your grocery bill. Here's a closer look at a few of the most popular drinks available today.
Soda Sucks (Nutritionally Speaking)
In my opinion, drinking soda/pop/cola or whatever you want to call it, is probably the worst beverage choice we can make for ourselves in regards to our long term health. As pointed out in the book, "an extra 150 calories a day can translate into a fifteen-pound weight gain over a year", yikes! Keep in mind that one 12 oz. soda typically has 182 calories, and "has absolutely no nutritionally redeeming value". Thanks for a whole lot of nothing, soda.
Watch Out for Janky Juice
Let's be clear on this one: not all juice is created equal. Dr. Willett makes an important point that "... real juice (as opposed to juice-flavored sugar water) can be an important part of a healthy diet". How do you know if your juice is legit? Simple, disregard everything on the front of the label, and focus on the ingredients. Here's a great side-by-side to show you what to look for:
See the difference? Note the percentage of real juice and how it directly correlates with the amount of vitamins and minerals. Hardly any real juice = hardly any nutritional value. Also, keep an eye out for long ingredient lists, especially ones containing words you need to Google the pronunciation of and the seemingly ever present 'high fructose corn syrup', AKA synthetic sugar.
Milk: Does it Really Do a Body Good?
If you're like me and most people in the States, you were raised on cow's milk. It's been touted as one of the healthiest beverages available to us for decades, and we've been lapping it up every day throughout our lives as a result. Newsflash, people, "... there are more reasons not to drink milk in large amounts than there are to drink it", and Dr. Willett comes right out and says, "I don't recommend it as a beverage". Boom. Between the advice of this Harvard doctor (among countless others) and the fact that imagining putting my mouth on a cow's teat (which, let's be real, is essentially what is happening when we drink milk) totally freaks me out, I'll pass on this beverage, thanks.
There are a lot of mixed reviews on coffee (okay, and pretty much everything else on the topic of health and nutrition) but, as with most anything else, I see it as having less to do with coffee itself, and more to do with how we use it that tips the scale to 'good' or 'bad'. The book states that "[c]offee is a remarkably safe beverage." It also makes a point to mention that "...there are downsides to caffine. Drinking too much coffee can give you the shakes, make you irritable, and keep you from sleeping. It's also addictive". The upside of drinking coffee includes a lower chance of developing kidney stones, gallstones, type 2 diabetes and it can straight up save lives. That's right, "Both the Nurses' Health Study and a study from a large California HMO have shown that suicide rates are as much as 50 percent lower among coffee drinkers than non-coffee drinkers". So, if you struggle with depression, I'd say go ahead and drink the coffee if that's your thing, just don't go filling it with tons of sugar and cream!
Again, the jury is still out on how good tea is for you to drink on a regular basis. As stated in the book, tea proves to "improve cholesterol levels and artery function and inhibit early steps leading to cancer", at least in the laboratory. Dr. Willett clarifies that, "[in] real life, though, the evidence is mixed and often contradictory". Surprise, surprise. There are a lot of different scientific thoughts on tea, and I by no means feign to be an expert on the nutritional benefits it does or does not have. I do know, however, that drinking tea provides me with the same warm, fuzzy sensation of taking a moment for myself and enjoying a nice warm beverage without giving me the jitters, headache and tummy ache I've experienced with coffee in the past.
Water = Winning
At the end of the day (and the beginning and middle, for that matter) water is the absolute best choice we can make for ourselves when faced with the question of what to drink for several reasons. As the book points out, water "...has 100 percent of what you need... and no calories or additives". Furthermore, "...when it comes from the tap, water costs a fraction of a penny per glass". Sometimes, the best things in life really are free!