“I understand that drinking enough fluid is important for health but water’s a bit tasteless. Does anything else count?”
The good news is – yes, up to a point.
There will always be purists who believe that such drinks as tea and coffee should be avoided, or limited at least, and not included in your water intake amount, but although tea and coffee contain caffeine, which has diuretic properties, the amounts are low enough to be relatively insignificant and most experts seem to believe that tea, coffee, milk or fruit juice do count as part of your water intake and some drinks may also include other useful nutrients.
Being English, I know a number of people whose fluid intake would be practically zero if you didn’t include tea! Many people claim that simply adding flavouring, such as lemon, to water can help, and studies have shown that people do indeed consume more fluid if the drink is flavoured in some way. Although claims are made for the presence of, say, lemon in its own right, it seems likely that the increased tendency to drink, regardless of the nature of the flavouring, is the most important factor. However, some commercial flavoured water also contains sugar and should be avoided.
Also be aware that these options are not necessarily direct equivalents in terms of quantity; a cup of coffee is not the same as the equal volume of water and should only provide part of the overall intake, not replacing water completely.
Green tea may be a healthier option than ‘English’ tea or coffee, and there are many claims for its health-giving qualities, from being high in anti-oxidants to helping prevent certain cancers and improving cholesterol levels and heart disease. Does green tea contain caffeine? Yes it does, but in smaller quantities than coffee, though there is some variation depending on the variety. Same goes for white tea, by which I mean the young tea leaves known as ‘white-tea’, not ordinary tea with milk added to it!
The makers of isotonic sports drinks claim that these drinks are designed, supposedly, to enter and re-hydrate the system more quickly than plain water, a fact which they claim is little understood outside of the sports science world. However, you may only get any such benefit from heavy workouts of more than about 45 minutes; otherwise, you may be better off sticking to water. On the other hand, critics say the amount of sugar they contain is enough to condemn them, regardless of any hydrating qualities they may, or may not, have. One healthy alternative to commercial sports drinks is coconut water, which also contains electrolytes.
Other soft drinks also count technically in terms of water content, but may be unhealthy in other ways – sugar content in fizzy drinks, for example. The bottom line is that pure, healthy water is still the most healthy drink as the major part of your fluid intake.
Does beer count as water intake?
“Older civilizations drank beer or wine didn’t they? So what about alcohol?”
For much of European history, beer was drunk, even by children, because it was safer than drinking water which was often unclean and could lead to illness. Depending on where you read it, there are two reasons given for beer being safer:
the alcohol and acids & tannins killed bacteria and other nasties; or
the water to make the beer was boiled. Take your pick. Like Greek wine, the beer was very weak by today’s standards so that the level of water content was far greater than any diuretic effect of the alcohol content.
Nevertheless, you’ll be glad to hear that even modern, mild beers can help to hydrate you as level of water content is still a little greater than the diuretic effect of the alcohol but it’s not a direct replacement for water as it does make you visit the toilet more often.
So, in the theoretical Sahara-crossing trip to which I referred earlier, if you ran out of water and, dreaming of a cold beer (like John Mills in ‘Ice cold in Alex’)
came across a man on a camel who offered exactly that or nothing (an unlikely scenario, I grant you) I’d take the beer. But that’s not quite the same as a long-term policy of daily fluid intake.
If you know your Homer (the Ancient Greek epic poet, not the Simpson) you’ll have noticed that there are lot of references to drinking wine, but they diluted their wine with water so it was a lot weaker than your average bottle of pinot noir.
Today, wines and spirits are not a substitute for water because they are more severe diuretics than tea or coffee or beer. They dehydrate by inhibiting production of vasopressin or ADH (anti-diuretic hormone). Vasopressin helps the body absorb and distribute water and controls the kidneys’ release of water in urine. When dehydrated, the kidneys reduce the level of water in urine (making it darker).
The lack of vasopressin due to alcohol means that water is sent from the kidneys directly to the bladder so more water is released and you go to the toilet more often and hence become dehydrated.
When you do drink alcohol, you can reduce its effects – and the possibility of a hangover – by drinking water beforehand and at the same time. (Well alongside, not from two glasses simultaneously, you understand – unless you want to make a fool of yourself. Mind you, drink too much alcohol and you may risk doing that anyway!)