All drinks are not created equal! You may be surprised by the truth behind your favorite thirst quenchers. Read on to discover the good, the bad, and practical tips for how to balance your sipping habits with your overall health.
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The human body is over 60% water, so it’s not that surprising that drinks are such an integral part of our lives. We need them constantly to stay alive!
Beverages have come to represent us – as a culture and as individuals. What we choose to drink says a lot about what we are and what we aspire to. Are we looking for pleasure? Nourishment? Escape? Or are we looking for the promise of something more abstract – rejuvenation, clarity, fun?
No matter what you’re thirsty for, it’s important to know the facts about the health benefits as well as risks of many of our society’s favorite potables.
- Tap water
Upside: Safe, cheap, and environmentally friendly, tap water is both the most boring and the most effective choice you could make to quench your thirst. Think of it as the Canadian banking system: it’s as reliable as it gets, but not all that exciting.
Downside: Although some claim that tap water is variously polluted, the scientific consensus is that, at least in the United States, it’s the most harmless bet in town. There’s usually traces of fluoride to reduce tooth decay, but in quantities so small that it’s perfectly safe to drink – and often crucial to warding off gum disease, especially in children. The only real downside is that the flavor varies from region to region and can sometimes be unpalatable.
When to Drink It: As often as you’d like, it’s key to keeping your body hydrated.
- Bottled spring water
Upside: Here’s where the storytelling comes in. Many people are drawn in by the idea of drinking water from a cool mountain spring like a hero in a fantasy story, and there are some indications that minerals in the water can be advantageous. The earthy flavor is appealing to some as well.
Downside: First of all, there’s a price tag that goes along with that fairytale. As for the water itself, it doesn’t undergo the same quality control as tap water, and has been found to sometimes include harmful contaminants.
When to Drink It: Skip it if you have a better option, but in a pinch it’s just fine.
- Bottled filtered water
Upside: The taste of filtered water is what draws people in: it’s clear and cool, and and undeniably refreshing. As pure and contaminant free as water comes.
Downside: The minerals have been filtered out, which isn’t necessarily better for your system. Instead of equilibrating with your mineral-rich blood, it can have a sapping effect on what’s already there to reach homeostasis. And of course there’s the issue of costliness.
When to Drink It: If this is your go-to beverage, great! Remember that the minerals in regular tap water can be beneficial though, so don’t be afraid of it if a bottle isn’t readily available.
- Green tea
Upside: Green tea has some demonstrated antioxidant properties that make it a nice, healthy choice of beverage when taken in moderation. Its subtle and delicious flavor has captivated people for thousands of years.
Downside: Keep in mind that the antioxidant effect is very mild, and is only effective when taken consistently over a long period. It’s not medicine, and it shouldn’t be taken in high doses to compensate, since it’s also caffeinated.
When to Drink It: Drinking a cup of green tea a day is a healthy and relaxing habit.
- Black tea
Upside: Wildly popular and delicious, black tea has a strong flavor that’s typically blended with some combination of milk, sugar, lemon, or honey. It’s a nice treat.
Downside: There’s a fair amount of caffeine in black tea, so it can aggravate your system when taken in excess. Since it’s often combined with sugar and milk, it’s also fairly caloric, which won’t help your waistline in the long run.
When to Drink It: If you enjoy it, a cup of black tea with skim milk and a small amount of sugar every day is perfectly acceptable.
Upside: Coffee’s rich, complex flavor has made it one of the most popular drinks on the planet, launching a million corner businesses and attracting eager drinkers from all walks of life. It’s a darkly delicious, mildly stimulating beverage that can make socializing a bit more lively.
Downside: That stimulant is of course caffeine, and caffeine takes its toll on your body, artificially raising your heartbeat and blood pressure. It can affect your sleep patterns, and be addictive too. Also, since it’s typically combined with cream and sugar, it can be a highly caloric drink.
When to Drink It: Try not to drink it every day, but if you must, limit yourself to one cup before noon.
- Cranberry juice
Upside: Cranberry juice has been demonstrated to help stave off urinary tract infections, and is also high in vitamin C. It also has some limited antioxidant properties that can be especially helpful if the juice is taken consistently over time. This can be done safely, since it’s a relatively low-calorie drink when unsweetened.
Downside: Many varieties of cranberry juice contain added sugar, which may cancel out the positive health effects.
When to Drink It: Unsweetened, you can drink a glass a day and be happy you did.
- Orange juice
Upside: Orange juice is rich in Vitamin C and contains other beneficial compounds like flavonoids (in the pulp) and antioxidants. It’s also famously sweet and a great addition to a hearty breakfast.
Downside: It might just be too sweet: a cup of orange juice has over 20 g of sugar – significantly more than you should be drinking in a single beverage. Also, industrial processing has resulted in most OJ being sapped of its natural flavor and reconstituted with ‘flavor packs’ that provide a shadowy approximation of the real thing.
When to Drink It: It’s hard to resist having a glass with breakfast, but you should try: there’s far too much sugar in it to drink regularly.
- Apple juice
Upside: It’s a sweet little treat most of us associate with childhood, and its tart flavor is a lot of fun with bagged lunches and afternoon snacks. It also has some scattered health benefits from mineral nutrients like boron, which strengthens bones.
Downside: Given its relatively low-impact nutrition profile, apple juice can’t really come back from its very high sugar content – 28 g a cup. That’s far more than it’s worth.
When to Drink It: Not too often – on hikes, maybe, or at picnics.
- Fruit smoothie
Upside: These aggressively marketed beverages from makers like Odwalla and Naked are a tempting alternative to the high-fat, high-salt snacks they’re usually sitting next to. They’re usually dosed with vitamins and other additives that can be healthy, and they’re a delicious treat in the morning.
Downside: Sad to say, given its high, naturally occurring sugar content, fruit isn’t as healthy as you’d like it to be. When taken in concentrated, pulp form, the benefits are limited and the drawbacks are accentuated. A bottled smoothie can pack over 300 calories and upwards of 60 grams of sugar!
When to Drink It: Try to limit yourself to one smoothie a week, and make them at home with the addition of healthy options like spinach, flax seeds, almond milk and berries to limit sugar and calories.
- Protein shake
Upside: These milk- and soy-based beverages are helpful if you’re in a hurry and you’re looking for a little sustenance in your snack. They can be a nice boost to your energy and provide some high-quality calories.
Downside: The protein additives are usually of mixed quality, and they’re absorbed differently by the body. There’s also a fair amount of sugar, which isn’t ideal, and in the absence of other, more substantial food, you run the risk of not reaping the purported benefits.
When to Drink It: When you’re pressed for time, between more nutritious meals, or if you’re an athlete recovering from a work out.
Upside: High in calcium and vitamin D, which aids in the absorption of calcium.
Downside: High in fat and calories unless you choose the skim variety.
When to Drink It: It’s still good for growing kids, but consider alternatives such as rice, almond or soy milk, which are all high in calcium but lower in the saturated fats of dairy milk.
Upside: It’s sweet, it’s refreshing, and there are indeed some vitamins in there.
Downside: Oblique to its marketing, VitaminWater is shockingly high in sugar: 33 g per bottle. People looking for a good story from a brand that emphasizes its vitamins are in for a disappointing ending: its parent company, Coca-Cola, is presently being sued by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
When to Drink It: Probably best to just skip this one altogether, unless you’re in the middle of a basketball game and that’s all there is in the cooler.
- Diet soda
Upside: Whatever else it may be, soda is a lot of fun. It’s sweet, dark, mysterious, and it has all those bewitching bubbles that dance on your tongue. So strong in its flavor that it can mask a spirit to make an easy cocktail, it’s hard to resist. Plus it’s often calorie free, hence, the “diet.”
Downside: Of course, there’s still sugar – and its substitute, notorious aspartame, has a rap sheet like a Mafia don to whom the charges just won’t stick. It has been linked to cancer in lab rats, but a long-term European study cleared it of any particular wrong-doing in humans. Other studies have suggested that metabolically, the body reacts to aspartame the same way it does to sugar, thereby entailing the same adverse health effects.
When to Drink It: With a cocktail or a pizza – so not that often.
- Cafe latte
Upside: It’s the comfort-drink of the solidly middle class: darkly flavorful but inviting, just expensive enough to justify it psychologically as a treat.
Downside: Caffeine should always be taken in moderation, and milk is very high in calories – including sugar. Add to that the sugar or flavor shot typically taken with it, and it’s a satisfyingly unhealthy indulgence.
When to Drink It: Save these as a weekend treat, or after a nice dinner out, but opt for skim milk and skip the sugar if you are watching calories.
Upside: It’s a classic treat that goes deep into the American psyche, for better or for worse. People enjoy this impossibly sweet confection with a vengeance, in all walks of life, from ball games to movie theaters, and it means a lot to them.
Downside: Its ubiquity and extremely high sugar content have made it one of the deciding factors in the obesity epidemic, with a number of powerful adversaries lined up to tax or otherwise reduce its prominence. A regular coke from a fast food chain, so common in everyday life, has 44 g of sugar; that’s 11 teaspoons.
When to Drink It: Maybe the best answer to the crisis of health consciousness is not to enjoy it less, but to it enjoy it more – the occasional times you have it. Treat it like a very special treat.
Upside: A lighter version of a milkshake that’s almost as fun – and socially acceptable for adults to drink at any time of day.
Downside: It’s even sweeter than its hotter cousin: like ice cream, the cold masks the flavor, so more sugar is added to give it the kick you’re looking for. In a regular Starbucks Grande Frappuccino, you’re looking at a whopping 430 calories, of which 130 are from fat. That’s about the same as a Big Mac. But the pièce de résistance is the jaw-dropping 69 g of sugar – equivalent to 17 and a quarter teaspoons.
When to Drink It: Once a month – if you’ve earned it, and if you really, really like it. Even then, skip the whipped cream add on, and get the smallest size available. We promise, it will still satisfy your sweet tooth!
- Energy drink
Upside: Aggressively marketed to people looking for a good time whatever the cost, these can give you an exciting boost of energy when you’re dragging.
Downside: It’s a concentrated dose of sugar and caffeine – basically a pure form of all the things you’ve been trying to avoid in the other beverages. One tiny can of Red Bull has 27 g of sugar and 80 mg of caffeine, so taking one gulp is more or less like downing a cup of black coffee and a can of coke all at once.
When to Drink It: If you’re over 25, it’s probably time to just give up on these. If you’re a college student pulling an all nighter writing a paper—good luck.
Upside: Alcohol is the single most dangerous substance we routinely ingest, and it’s probably not a coincidence that it’s the most fun. Stories tend to go that way. Beer is the most laid-back of choices if you’re looking for a buzz; and the variety and drinkability make it the life of any party.
Downside: Taken to excess, beer can stop being fun really fast: vomiting, hangovers, impaired judgment, the risk of addiction, and long-term health problems including liver damage. But you knew that.
When to Drink It: Weekends only, and always follow it with a glass of water to maintain hydration.
Upside: Wine is a whole subject unto itself, with a literature of appreciation going back thousands of years. Delicious, bewitching, and dizzyingly complex, the ancient Greeks famously declared that the truth was in a glass of wine, and it seems as good a place as any.
Downside: Alcohol, of course, is the greater part of wine’s charm, and its concentration is fairly high in most wines – well into the double digits. However much we enjoy it, alcohol never stops being bad for you – whatever minor health benefits may be so forcefully touted in grape juice.
When to Drink It: Appreciate this libation paired with quality food and friends, and in moderation, and you’ll avoid crippling hangovers.
Upside: Liquor is the single most powerful chemical agent it’s legal to consume – so you know it’s going to be a heck of a lot of fun. Whiskey, vodka, tequila, and rum are some of mankind’s favorite drinks.
Downside: It’s fully half pure alcohol, so from a nutritional perspective, it’s pretty much all downside. Overindulgence, addiction, dependence, and long-term health consequences are all on the table as possibilities.
When to Drink It: Keep consumption to a minimum, or none at all – and never to quench your thirst. Birthdays, weddings and holidays are appropriate.
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