I bet you've heard it said that you need to drink at least eight glasses of water a day in order to stay properly hydrated. Perhaps you've also read that by the time you feel thirsty you're already in an advanced state of dehydration, or that most of us are chronically dehydrated. Chances are also good that you've been told that drinking caffeinated beverages like tea and coffee cause you to lose more fluid than you take in.
What would you say if I told you that all of these widely held truths are little more than urban legends?
I can almost hear your shocked expressions!
The dehydration myth has become so firmly entrenched in our collective consciousness that it may indeed come as a surprise to learn that there is very little scientific support for any of these notions.
Look, as excesses go, drinking a lot of water isn’t a bad one. It won’t make you fat. It won’t rot your teeth or give you a hangover. Drinking lots of water can temporarily assuage hunger pangs, which dieters find useful. It can also help prevent kidney stones in those susceptible to them. Drinking more can ease constipation and—ironically—also alleviate water retention.
The body has a fairly efficient mechanism for getting rid of excess water so under normal circumstances it’s hard to get yourself into trouble drinking water—except the kind of trouble that happens when you find yourself in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the interstate. Ouch!
Still, as a nutritionist, I feel compelled to point out that most people can stay perfectly hydrated on significantly less than eight glasses of water a day.
So who started this notion that nothing less than two liters of water a day will keep us from multiple-organ failure? You have to wonder whether this whole thing was somehow cooked up by the $60 billion bottled water industry, which has somehow figured out a way to take a cheap and widely available commodity and sell it at a mark up of anywhere from 250% to 3,000%, creating an environmental disaster of nightmarish proportions in the process.
While I love a good conspiracy theory as much as the next guy, I don’t actually think that’s what happened.
Like most urban legends, this one does contain a drop of truth. The average person needs about two liters, or approximately eight glasses, of water a day to replace what is lost through normal biological functions like breathing, sweating, and urinating.
But that doesn’t mean that you need to drink two liters of water. In fact, hypothetically, you don’t have to drink any water at all. For one thing, you can easily get a liter or liter and a half of water just from the food that you eat, especially if you eat lots of fruits and vegetables, which are up to 97% water.
Secondly, contrary to another widely held nutritional myth, coffee, tea, sodas, and other beverages also help fulfill your fluid quota.
What?! Have I lost my mind? Don’t I know that caffeinated beverages like coffee and tea are dehydrating? Actually, they aren’t. Dr. Ann Grandjean is a hydration researcher at the University of Nebraska and she has done some research that might surprise you.
Dr. Grandjean has demonstrated that if you regularly drink caffeinated beverages, the diuretic effects are almost negligible.
In other words, if you drink coffee every day, your body retains the same amount of fluid from a cup of coffee as it does from a cup of water.
If you don’t drink caffeinated beverages regularly, drinking a cup of coffee ends up being the equivalent of drinking about 2/3 of a cup of water. In other words, drinking coffee will hydrate you—just not quite as efficiently as water will.
Hey, don’t get me wrong: I’ve still got a pretty stiff water habit myself and I think you’re better off drinking water than just about anything else. But I’ve seen how overzealous the hydration police can get and thought it was time to separate fact from fiction.
There are a few more important things to say about hydration but they affect a smaller number of folks.
– The thirst reflex does decline with age and the elderly are at elevated risk of dehydration.
-- Excessive thirst and urination can be a warning sign for diabetes.
-- Those involved in sustained, strenuous exercise or spending extended periods of time in very hot or dry conditions need a lot more fluids to stay adequately hydrated.
-- When you’re sweating a lot, you need to replace sodium and potassium as well as fluids to prevent a potentially serious condition called hyponatremia.
But barring ill health, extreme conditions, or intense physical activity, most people will stay well hydrated by eating a reasonably healthy diet and drinking water or other non-alcoholic beverages when they are thirsty. As a rule of thumb, if you are urinating several times a day and your urine is pale in color, you are doing fine.
About Monica Reinagel, The Nutrition Diva
Monica Reinagel is a board-certified Licensed Nutritionist and a professionally-trained chef. She is the host of the Nutrition Diva podcast which is part of the Quick and Dirty Tips network. She has authored three books on health and nutrition, developed recipes and diet plans for websites and other publications. Monica's professional affiliations include the American Dietetic Association, the International Association of Culinary Professionals and the American Guild of Musical Artists.
Reprinted by arrangement with Quick and Dirty Tips, a division of Macmillan Holdings, LLC.