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All About Water

All About Water


It is impossible to overstate the importance of dietary water. Water formed the primordial broth that produced all life on Earth, and it still accounts for most of the bulk of all living things. Every cell of every plant, animal, fungus, and bacterium on the planet is essentially a little tiny bag filled with water, and every cell of every living organism must consume and excrete water in order to function. Without water, we are nothing more than the small pile of dust we will all eventually become.

In spite of the many controversies surrounding dietary water, no one denies its importance in all matters pertaining to health and wellness. After all, the average human body is about 60 percent water. Water is essential to every one of the millions of chemical processes that maintain our bodies, from digestion and respiration to muscle activity, reproduction, and mental processes.

About two thirds of the water in our bodies is locked within our cells where it facilitates and regulates the chemical and bio-electrical functions necessary to sustain life, with the other third existing as a free-flowing liquid (in the form of blood plasma and the liquid between our cells, or interstitial fluid) that transports oxygen and nutrition-with the help of some other very useful molecules-to our all our body's cells, and carries away the waste our cells produce in the continuous processes of metabolism.

Essential to the well-being of all living things is the ability to balance the intake of water with the excretion of water-ideally, there is always the same amount of water entering an organism as exiting it. As humans, we have four avenues for excreting water: through our skin in the form of perspiration; through our lungs in the form of water vapor; through our kidneys in the form of urine; and through our bowels in the form of fecal matter. All four of these processes are constantly active in healthy human beings (even though their individual levels of activity at any given time are variable and dependent on many factors), and no matter how you look at it, getting rid of water is a full-time job for our bodies.

However, there is only one way dietary water can enter our bodies under normal circumstances. Every molecule of dietary water we have ever consumed has passed through our mouth to the rest of the alimentary canal where it was absorbed and distributed throughout our bodies. So how do we maintain a balance between the water entering our bodies and the water exiting our bodies when one is a constant process (four constant processes, actually) and the other only happens periodically? That's a pretty darned good question.

Maintaining proper levels of hydration is simply a matter of replacing the water we excrete through four bodily functions. (In order to avoid further mention of bodily functions and the use of words such as perspiration, respiration, urination, and defecation, from now on I will simply refer to the water we "use," okay? I didn't think you'd mind.) So all we have to do is figure out how much water we use, and then we'll know how much water we need to consume, right? Right, but it isn't as easy as it sounds.

It should come as no surprise that different people require different amounts of water based on their size, age, level of activity, and several other factors. Infants, whose bodies may be up to 75 percent water by weight, need more on a pound-for-pound basis than adults do, and the elderly, whose bodies may only be 45 percent water, need less.

Physical activity generates the need for more water, and everyone knows that a marathon runner needs more water than, say, someone like me whose physical activity is limited to short periods of frenetic typing in between numerous daily naps. Even moderate levels of activity, such as vacuuming the house or planting a few rose bushes will cause us to use more water than we would otherwise, and that water needs to be replaced. And let's not forget that external factors such as the ambient temperature and humidity will cause us to use more or less water regardless of our level of activity.

So how the heck is a person supposed to know how much water he is using? Fortunately, science has some of the answers. For example, it can be demonstrated in the laboratory that it takes about two liters (2 quarts, or 8 cups) of water to metabolize a diet of about 2000 calories, and that's a pretty good place to start. Physicians and nutritionists are pretty much agreed that the average, normal, healthy adult uses about two liters, or eight cups of water in the course of a normal day of normal physical activity under normal temperature and humidity conditions. Keeping in mind that everyone's requirements vary, it's pretty safe to say that the "average" person uses about eight cups of water a day.

So, if the average person uses about eight cups of water a day, then the average person needs to drink about eight cups of water a day, right? Wrong.

I know my female readers are thinking, "But Chef, you gorgeous hunk of a man you, why don't we need to drink eight glasses of water a day if we use eight glasses of water a day?" and my male readers are thinking, "Where did I put my reading glasses?" I'll answer the ladies first.

The reason we don't need to drink eight glasses of water every day to replace the eight glasses of water we use is because not all of our water needs to be in liquid form. I know, it was a trick question, but the point is we need to consume eight glasses of water, and not necessarily drink it. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The whole purpose of this little essay is to dispel and debunk several popular myths surrounding dietary water, and I have the myths all organized and numbered for easy future reference. We'll get to that in a little bit, but first I want to vent on a pet peeve of mine.

I hate it when people use technical terminology to explain something that the English language is perfectly capable of expressing with ordinary, everyday words. Most people do this to try to make themselves sound more knowledgeable and important than they really are, and whenever I hear someone begin to spout pseudo-technical mumbo-jumbo, my BS alarm goes off. The words that apply in this situation are "hydrate" and "rehydrate."

How many times have you heard someone say, "You need to stay hydrated" or "You should rehydrate" when all they are trying to say is, "You should drink some water"? The bombastic, pedantic approach to discussing health matters is particularly irksome to me because this is one area where language should be as clear, understandable, and unambiguous as possible. Therefore, you will not find me using words like "hydrate" and "rehydrate" unless absolutely necessary because I don't want to sound like a self-righteous know-it-all, and the next time you hear someone use words like "hydrate" and "rehydrate," I hope you will turn to them, smile, and say, "Do you mean drink water?"

Okay, I feel better now. Let's get on with the first myth concerning dietary water. It's everyone's favorite myth on the subject, and I have cleverly labeled it Myth #1. And you left your reading glasses in the bathroom.

Myth #1 - You have to drink eight glasses of water a day

This myth always sounds to me like some sort of unfinished threat, like "you have to drink eight glasses of water a day or you'll get hit by a bus," or "if you don't drink eight glasses of water a day, I'll kill your dog." The specific threat is never voiced, but it is clear that if you don't drink eight glasses of water every day, something really really bad will happen to you. This veiled and mysterious threat alone is apparently enough to persuade some people that it must be true. It is not.

I have already stated that the average, healthy adult needs to consume about eight glasses of water a day to replace the eight glasses of water used every day, and that it doesn't all have to be in the form of liquid water. The bottom line here is that water is water, and it really doesn't matter what form that water is in when it enters our digestive systems.

All living matter is composed primarily of water, and fortunately this includes the foods we eat. Almost all fruits and vegetables are between 80 and 95 percent water (an orange is about 85 percent, broccoli is about 90 percent, cucumbers are about 95 percent water), and this water is released into our bodies during the process of digestion. The meats we eat are usually between 50 and 80 percent water (depending on the meat and the way it is cooked), and even bread, among the driest foods we eat, is about 35 percent water. Water is not only in every bite of every food we eat, but it actually comprises the bulk of everything we eat.

I know that some readers will be thinking that somehow the water in broccoli doesn't count towards the water we must replace, and to this I say without fear of contradiction, why not? Remember, water is water, and if your body doesn't absorb the water in broccoli and put it to good use, then what happens to the water? Aha! I got you there, didn't I?

Of course the water in broccoli is used by your body. After all, your body is no fool, and it will gladly soak up any water it can get its hands on. Your body is also glad to soak up all the water in the various beverages we consume in spite of popular advice to the contrary, and that means we have several more water myths to discuss.

Myth #2 - You have to drink eight glasses of water a day in addition to the water you get from other sources

While I can imagine that the widespread credence given to Myth #1 is due in large part to a simple matter of semantics (the difference between "consuming" and "drinking" water), this myth is pure, unadulterated balderdash. I think its beginnings can be traced back to a clever debating strategy employed by those who have been sucked in by Myth #1 in a scenario that probably went something like this:

Well-meaning but ill-informed wife: Honey, have you had your eight glasses of water today?

Hapless husband: Yes dear. I've eaten four pounds of broccoli today, and let's not forget the half-dozen apples, the quart of milk, the three super-grande double-latte mochaccinos, and the six-pack of diet soda I've had today. Would you get me another beer while you're up?

Wife (realizing that her husband has been consuming plenty of water but not wanting to concede the point): But honey, everyone knows that you have to drink eight glasses of water in addition to the water you get from other sources, you sillykins you.

Husband (conceding the point): Yes dear.

Remember, the reason we need to consume water is to replace the water we use, and there is no medical reason why a healthy person would need to consume amounts of water in excess of that on a regular basis. So the next time you hear someone propagating this particular piece of nonsense, please try to set them straight by saying, "All we have to do is replace the water we use, and it doesn't matter where that water comes from." Or at least nod your head, smile knowingly, and change the subject. Whatever you do, please don't call them sillykins.

Myth #3 - Caffeinated beverages actually rob your body of water because caffeine is a diuretic

In a less spooky incarnation, this same myth also appears in the form "caffeinated beverages don't count in your daily water intake because caffeine is a diuretic." Either way, it's wrong.

It's true that caffeine is a mild diuretic, but notice the word "mild." It does not promote a massive release of water from the body, and paradoxically, the more caffeine you are accustomed to drinking, the less diuretic effect it has on you. (Studies have shown that people who regularly consume large quantities of coffee experience little or none of the diuretic effect of caffeine.) Even if you aren't desensitized to caffeine, the concentrations of caffeine in coffee, tea, and carbonated beverages is so low, and their water content is so high, that your body still uses most of the water, even after the diuretic has done its work.

So where did this myth come from? No one seems to know. My bet is that it was invented by the same guy who invented the "negative calories" theory that says some foods (mushrooms seems to be everyone's favorite example) require more calories to digest than they provide. I guess, according to this guy, a person would die of starvation on a coffee-and-mushroom-only diet if he didn't perish from dehydration first. A person could die from several things while on such a diet (malnutrition, kidney disease, insomnia, or falling off a cliff, for instance), but starvation and dehydration wouldn't be among them.

So the next time you rush to the bathroom after your third cup of coffee, don't blame the caffeine-blame the three cups of water it was dissolved in.

Myth #4 - Drinking alcoholic beverages doesn't count towards your daily water intake because alcohol is a diuretic

Actually, this myth is almost true. Almost, but not quite.

Before we get into that, let me assure you that I am not going to make a case for the consumption of alcohol. Even though many studies have shown a beneficial health effect from drinking moderate quantities of alcohol (1 or 2 drinks per day), no reliable authority recommends this as a means of replacing the water your body requires. There are many other much more salubrious means of replacing this vital bodily fluid which we will get to in a while, so please don't write to me about the evils of the Demon Brew. Unless, of course, you want to get together for a drink.

As in the case of Myth #3, alcohol is indeed a diuretic, and our bodies are prompted to release stored water in the presence of alcohol in the bloodstream. This still doesn't mean that you are going to excrete more water than you consume-remember that beer and wine are between 85 and 95 percent water, and even strong spirits are usually about 60 percent water-but you'll come pretty close. Nutrition experts don't all agree on this subject, but most of them will admit grudgingly that even the water we consume in alcoholic beverages contributes to our intake requirements.

The bottom line is that we still derive water from alcoholic beverages even after their diuretic influence, but drinking alcoholic beverages is a really lousy way to drink water. While the water we get from drinking a beer or a scotch on the rocks will ultimately work its magic on every cell and every organ of your body, so will the alcohol. Any qualified and reasonable authority (note that this disqualifies me on two counts) will tell you that you should only drink alcohol in moderation, and that you should not count on it as a source of dietary water.

Now, if you're still interested in having that drink, I'll be at The Twitching Monkey at 6:00.

Myth #5 - You need to drink plenty of water to replace the electrolytes your body loses in perspiration

This myth's heart is in the right place because we do need to replace electrolytes lost in perspiration. The trouble is, water doesn't contain electrolytes. But first, just what the heck is an electrolyte, and why do we need them?

"Electrolytes" is really just a fancy name for salts. It refers to the many ionic compounds of sodium, calcium, potassium, magnesium, and several other metals. Of the many salts needed by our bodies, the ionic compound of sodium and chlorine represents the majority of our needed electrolytes, with salts of potassium, calcium, and the other metals running a distant second in terms of the amount our bodies require. In other words, the "electrolytes" your body needs to function is basically plain old table salt.

The function of electrolytes (okay, salt) in the body is to make the electrical connections in our bodies work. Without them our nerves wouldn't be able to communicate with the various organs of the body. They are a good thing, and we need to replace them on a regular basis or we die.

The only trouble with this myth is that water doesn't contain any electrolytes to speak of. Even so-called "mineral" waters only contain trace amounts of them, and the bottled waters on the market are pretty much 100 percent pure water. Water is not a source of electrolytes.

Normal, healthy people get all the electrolytes they need in the foods they eat, and only marathon runners and endurance athletes need to worry about replacing them. The electrolytes provided by sports drinks aren't needed by healthy people of moderate activity levels, and some of them even contain such a high concentration of salts that they actually lead to mild dehydration as your body flushes them out, so consumption of sports drinks should always be done in moderation.

Myth #6 - There's no such thing as drinking too much water

Some people think that they can drink as much water as they want with no ill effects other than the inconvenience of increased trips to the bathroom. Wrong. And not only wrong, but downright dangerous too.

When a person drinks more water than needed, the excess water does what all water in the body does: it transports electrolytes out of the blood stream and into the bladder. The danger in drinking too much water is not so much the water itself-it's not like you're going to swell up and pop like a water balloon-but rather, the reduced level of electrolytes in the blood. This is a condition known as hyponatremia, and it's a killer.

When the body begins to run low on electrolytes (remember Myth #5?) the electrochemical functions of the body start shutting down. The nervous system is unable to communicate with the organs, and the organs can't do all the things they're supposed to do. Since the brain needs these electrolytes more than any other organ, the initial symptoms of hyponatremia are usually behavioral and include confusion, drowsiness, and a lack of attentiveness, or what some of us have come to accept as "my normal waking state." That's why overhydration is also known as water intoxication.

Death by overhydration is rare because a healthy human body usually automatically adjusts the levels of electrolytes in the blood, but it can be a genuine concern to some kidney and heart patients. The New England Journal of Medicine recently published a study reporting that 13 percent of the runners who finished the Boston Marathon were suffering from hyponatremia because of the large quantity of water they consumed during the race; many deaths by hyponatremia have been attributed to the use of the illegal drug Ecstasy and the increased liquid consumption it provokes; and college students die every year from hazing rituals involving chugging water or beer. Too much water is a bad thing.

As with so many other things regarding dietary water, the prospect of overhydration and hyponatremia is not something the normal, average, healthy person needs to worry about. But don't think that you can drink unlimited amounts of water-containing beverages without paying a price.

Myth #7 - If you're thirsty, you're already dehydrated

Stated differently, this myth also claims that if you are thirsty it's too late to drink water because your body is already dehydrated. Let's get one thing straight from the gitgo-it's never too late to drink water if you're thirsty and still alive. I think the intended message behind this myth is that thirst isn't a very good indicator of when your body needs water. Once again, I say baloney... with one caveat.

The truth is, thirst is a very reliable indicator of your body's need for water. It has stood us well for millions of years, and it has done a pretty good job for most of the other animals on the planet too. Just ask any child what "thirsty" means, and they will tell you it means you need something to drink. No one denies that thirstiness means your body wants a drink, but is it really so unreliable that the "sense" of thirstiness only kicks in when we're teetering on the brink of death by dehydration? Come on, does that really make sense to you?

A recent article published by the Dartmouth School of Medicine (remember, I'm going to give you links to all of these articles at the end of this essay) points out that the thirst response is usually triggered when less than 2 percent of the water in our blood has been depleted, whereas most nutritionists consider dehydration to begin at a reduction of 5 percent. In other words, thirst is normally a very good indicator of dehydration and typically provides plenty of advance notice for us to stop whatever we are doing and drink some water long before we turn into a small pile of dust.

The only caveat here is for the elderly. Our "sense" of thirst declines with age so the elderly need to pay extra attention to their fluid consumption, but for the rest of us thirst is not only an excellent gauge of our body's need for water, but it's also a pretty darned good early-warning defense against genuine dehydration as well.

Myth #8 - If your urine is dark it means you're dehydrated

I know I promised to try to get through this whole discussion on dietary water without using words like "excrete" and "urination," but it's kind of tough to get around using such language with this particular myth. I'll skip to the chase-it ain't so.

Granted, dark urine may be a sign of dehydration, and this myth is obviously based on the fact that when a person is dehydrated their urine becomes more concentrated. Unfortunately, the color of urine is no indicator of its concentration.

Everything we eat, drink, and breathe (yes, even the air we breathe) winds up to some degree or another in our urine, and dark urine can be caused by a host of factors in addition to dehydration. Conversely, it is quite possible for a severely dehydrated person to have crystal clear urine depending on their diet (and many other factors).

So once again, let thirst be your guide to the current state of your body's need for water (see Myth #7) because if you rely on the color of your urine to determine if you're dehydrated or not, you could be wrong either way.

Myth #9 - 75% of Americans are chronically dehydrated

This is actually a corollary of Myth #1-remember, the one about how you'll die a miserable death when your body turns to dust because you haven't had your eight glasses of water today? Apparently "someone" conducted a survey and found that only 25 percent of Americans actually drink eight glasses of water a day like good boys and girls. When you think about it, it's amazing that Americans can accomplish anything at all considering we're nothing but a nation of walking, talking, TV-watching dust bunnies.

I include it in this list of popular myths surrounding dietary water because it is representative of the many urban legends going around, mostly by email. Did you know that "preliminary research indicates that 8-10 glasses of water a day could significantly ease back and joint pain for up to 80% of sufferers," and "drinking 5 glasses of water daily decreases the risk of colon cancer by 45%, plus it can slash the risk of breast cancer by 79%, and one is 50% less likely to develop bladder cancer," and "one glass of water shut down midnight hunger pangs for almost 100% of the dieters studied in a University of Washington study?"

The problem with all these myths is that they are unsubstantiated. Just because someone says it's so doesn't make it true, ya know? I spent the better part of a day trying to locate these "studies" and I couldn't find a single result for a web search on "75% of Americans are chronically dehydrated" that wasn't either an urban legend website or one where someone was trying to sell something to alleviate this grave condition. Not one university website, nor scientific journal, nor medical database seems to contain a single reference to this study as far as I could determine. Do you want to know why?

Because it's baloney, that's why. "Consider the source" is always good advice, and it's never better than when applied to matters concerning your health. If you hear "someone" say that drinking lots of water will cure your arthritis, decrease your risk of breast cancer, or give your breath the delightful aroma of freshly mown hay (I just made that one up), don't believe it. And don't take my word for it either (even though I will back up every statement I have made regarding dietary water with reliable sources at the end of this little essay)-ask your doctor instead.

I don't know about you, but after that dizzying assortment of myths regarding dietary water I could use a bit of good old-fashioned summarizing:

-The average person uses about 2 liters, or 8 cups of water a day and this water needs to be replaced. Dietary water requirements vary according to age, size, and level of physical activity.

-Our bodies willingly accept any water we offer them, whether in the form of solid foods or beverages (including caffeinated, alcoholic, and carbonated beverages), and we don't have to consume all the water our bodies need in the form of liquid water.

-Drinking too much water can be dangerous to your health, especially if you are an endurance athlete. Thirst is a reliable indicator of your body's water needs (except for the elderly), so let it be your guide. The color of your urine is not a reliable indicator of your body's need for water.

-We need to stop paying attention to claims of water's miraculous properties as a weight loss aid and cure-all. All living things need water to survive, but beyond that, there is nothing miraculous about it.

There, that feels better. So we need to consume about 2 liters of water a day, and our bodies really don't care where that water comes from, right?


Okay, so our bodies aren't particular about where we get our dietary water, but surely there must be some sources of water that are better for us than others, right? I mean, if this weren't true, why would anyone ever drink anything other than scotch on the rocks?

There are indeed sources of dietary water that are preferred over others, and while our bodies don't really care where the water comes from, they do care about all the other stuff that accompanies the water we consume. This leads to the sad yet inescapable conclusion that there are better ways to get your water than to let the ice melt in your whisky. Let's take a look at them, even if we do so reluctantly.

Most people get between 40 and 60 percent of their dietary water from the solid foods they eat, and assuming a healthy, well-balanced diet, this is the most important source of dietary water. Remember that most of the things we eat are between 80 and 95 percent water, and our bodies also need the proteins, carbohydrates, fats, minerals, and vitamins that accompany the water in solid foods. Considering that solid foods make up the bulk of our water consumption while providing us with everything else our bodies need (with the sole exception of atmospheric oxygen), it is clearly the winner in The Miss Best Source of Dietary Water Pageant.

After solid foods, the next best source of dietary water is plain old ordinary tap water. The vast majority of the readers of this ezine have perfectly safe and palatable water coming out of their taps at a price so low that most of us think of it as free. Whether you're on a municipal water system or have an artesian well, the chances are pretty close to 100 percent that your water is safe from chemical and bacterial contaminants, and the chances are darned good that your tap water tastes pretty good too. (New York City tap water is a perennial winner in blind taste tests, and the rumor that "every glass of New York City water has already been drunk by seven other people" is just another one of those urban legends.)

Some people do live in areas where the water supply is perfectly safe but it doesn't taste too good, and those are about the only people who have a good reason to buy bottled water. Keep in mind that most bottled waters on the market are little more than tap water that has been filtered and bottled and, in spite of catchy names and glitzy packaging, water is just water no matter how you look at it. You can buy these fancy bottled waters with exotic foreign names if you like, but just remember as you are doing so that Evian spelled backwards is "naive."

If you are one of those people whose water tastes icky, I suggest you buy your bottled water in large quantities (such as those 5-gallon jugs) and that you steer clear of water with fancy names and huge promotional budgets. Spending anything more than a few cents a gallon on water is just money down the drain-literally.

After solid food and plain old water, there are several sources of dietary water that I'll categorize as "pretty good, but not perfect." The first of these is fruit juice.

Generally speaking, real fruit juices (as opposed to fruit-flavored sugar water) are an excellent source of water as well as vitamins, minerals, and in some cases, dietary fiber. They are also an excellent source of calories due to the natural and added sugars they contain, and failure to take these calories into account when considering your daily caloric intake can lead to severe shrinking of the belt. You can mitigate this effect by diluting canned or bottled fruit juices with water.

Be cautious of so-called "all natural fruit juices" and "no sugar added" beverages because they frequently contain only a small amount of real fruit juice and a large amount of corn syrup or concentrated fruit juice (usually apple juice), both of which are just code words for "more sugar." As always, a careful examination of the contents listed on the label is recommended.

Among real fruit juices, grapefruit juice stands out because of its tendency to interact with prescription medications. It can reduce the absorption of certain medications for allergies, heart disease, hypertension, and cancer, and it can also raise the concentration in the blood of other medications for hypertension, epilepsy, and drugs used to lower cholesterol. There is also evidence that consumption of grapefruit juice contributes to the formation of kidney stones. The bottom line with grapefruit juice is that you should consult your doctor if you are taking medications of any sort prior to making grapefruit juice a part of your regular diet.

It pains me to say this because milk is one of my favorite beverages, but there is little to recommend it from a nutritional standpoint. Whole milk is about 87 percent water, and since water is always water regardless of what you do to it, there is no denying that milk is a valuable source of dietary water. Unfortunately, it is also a good source of saturated fats and sugars (those dreaded "carbs"). And even though milk is also a source of protein, vitamins (especially milk fortified with vitamins A and D), and minerals, there are other sources of these nutrients available to us that don't include all the fat and sugar and are therefore lower in calories.

Many readers will point to milk as a valuable source of calcium, and this is true. However, most Americans already receive plenty of calcium in the foods we eat, and there is little evidence to suggest that additional calcium in the diet will postpone or prevent diseases such as osteoporosis. Even if additional dietary calcium is desired, there are much less expensive and much more healthy sources than milk.

Let's not forget the sugars in milk. These not only make milk high in calories relative to most other natural beverages, but at least 50 million Americans (and the majority of the rest of the world) lack the enzymes necessary to digest lactose, one of the primary sugars found in milk. This is a condition known as lactose intolerance, and it's not an imaginary ailment or a fiction developed by picky eaters. Lactose intolerance is natural condition and is found almost universally in all adult mammals with the exception of humans of Northern European extraction. Lactose intolerance is the norm rather than the exception, and milk is loaded with the stuff.

And don't get me started on the fat content of milk. Whole milk is about 4 percent fat, and most of this fat is the saturated ("bad") fat otherwise known as butter. Now I like butter as much as the next guy and I cook with it frequently, but I don't really want a nice big pat of butter dissolved in every glass of milk I drink, so I only buy non-fat, or skim milk. But even skim milk has traces of fat (typically less than one half of 1 percent), and even that small amount adds up over time for regular consumers of milk.

Finally, there is the expense. One national chain of supermarkets that I shop at sells milk for $4 a gallon. Fortunately they also sell a cheaper house brand for less that $3 a gallon right there on the same shelf. Even the no-name brand is an expensive way to get your drinking water, and from a nutritional and cost standpoint, you would be better off having a glass of water and a multivitamin pill instead of a glass of milk with your breakfast.

The bottom line with milk (as well as all other dairy products) is that it should represent only a small portion of your daily caloric intake and total water consumption, and it has no business being promoted as one of the "four major food groups" that the USDA has defined in its food pyramid. Remember, the USDA serves the farmers, ranchers, and dairy producers of the United States, and not the consumers.

The next category of sources of dietary water is what I will call "soft drinks." These include flavored water of every description, including coffee, tea, carbonated and non-carbonated beverages, and the so-called "sports drinks." I'll skip right to the chase on this one: these amount to little more than flavored water, and no matter how you look at them, they are an extremely expensive way to get your daily allotment of good ol' H2O.

This category of beverages is notorious for its high sugar content. Would you believe nine teaspoons (45 ml) of sugar in a 12-ounce can of Coca Cola or Pepsi? Would you put that much sugar in your coffee? Would you let your children put that much sugar on their breakfast cereal? I didn't think so. Ignoring for a minute the deleterious effects of that much sugar in the diet (which can lead to diabetes and obesity), the typical soft drink contains about 150 calories. Do you know how many push-ups you need to do to burn 150 calories? You don't want to know.

Artificially sweetened soft drinks are mercifully low in calories, and even though the artificial sweeteners used have been tested and deemed safe by most reputable health authorities, you shouldn't overlook the possible unknown health effects of consuming large quantities of these substances over a lifetime. I'm not sounding an alarm here, just pointing out that large quantities of just about anything can have unpredicted effects, that's all.

The so-called "sports drinks" are a remarkable case of deliberate and blatant misinformation promulgated by consumer goods marketing companies on the trusting and gullible American public. These are nothing more than sugar water flavored with artificial flavors and colored with artificial colors, with a pinch of "vital electrolytes" thrown in for good measure. Let's keep in mind that "vital electrolytes" is just a code word for salts (primarily sodium and potassium compounds), and that only marathon runners and endurance athletes need to worry about the electrolyte balance in their bloodstreams. The rest of us get all the electrolytes we need in our ordinary, everyday diets, thank you very much.

Some of the "sports drinks" have such high concentrations of salts that they can actually lead to dehydration if consumed undiluted in sufficient quantities, and Soccer Moms should be advised that their young athletes would be much better off with a glass of water and an apple after a soccer match than glass of bottled Madison Avenue pseudo-scientific marketing hype, no matter how attractive the packaging might be.

The last category of beverages we'll take a look at in our discussion of sources of dietary water is alcoholic beverages. For further information on less desirable sources of dietary water, please stay tuned for my future essays "All About Bilge Water" and "All About Pond Scum." That's right. If you want to drink water in a less salubrious form than alcoholic beverages, get your straw out and head for the nearest liquid sewage treatment facility.

Even though beer and wine are between 80 and 90 percent water, it's hard to find an unhealthier source for your daily water ration. Sadly, scotch and other hard liquors are an even poorer choice. I don't need to educate you on the health risks associated with alcohol consumption, so I won't. And even though we have already seen that the water contained in alcoholic beverages does indeed count towards your daily water requirements in spite of the mildly diuretic quality of ethyl alcohol, it's a lousy way to keep your body from turning into a prune.

The only sane advice regarding the consumption of alcoholic beverages is to consume them in moderation, and don't forget the useless calories they add to your diet (about 100 for a scotch on the rocks or a glass of wine, and about 150 for a 12-ounce can of beer) the next time your belt shrinks a notch or two. Drink them if you enjoy them, but don't count on alcoholic beverages as a major source of your dietary water.

Now, who wants to go have that drink?

Additional Reading

Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating by Walter Willett, M.D.

On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee

The Oxford Companion to Food by Alan Davidson

Drink at Least 8 Glasses of Water a Day
-Really?" article published by The Dartmouth Medical School

Water: How much should you drink every day?" article by the Mayo Clinic staff

Need for 8 glasses of water a myth: nutrition experts." article by The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

Hyponatremia among Runners in the Boston Marathon" article by Christopher S.D. Almond, M.D. et al, The New England Journal of Medicine

Risks Of Overhydration With Exercise" article by Cycling Performance Tips

Not a Sop to Drink" article by Urban Legends Reference Pages


Copyright © 2005 Worldwide Recipes. All rights reserved.

About "The Chef"
Joe BarksonJoe Barkson has been writing and publishing under the pen name "The Chef at Worldwide Recipes" since 1998. He came to food writing late in life following checkered careers in computer marketing, graphic design, and teaching high school Spanish. A lifelong interest in food and cooking ("I've been eating since I was a baby," he is fond of saying) was nurtured by extensive international travel during his formative years, and this accounts for the emphasis on world cuisine in his choice of recipes and themes. Twice married and currently happily single, he lives in rural Georgia with a hyperkinetic schipperke that answers to Cooky when the mood strikes him.


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