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When it comes to nutrition, food often serves as our focal point. However, your beverage choices can likewise make or break your best dietary intentions. We’re learning this more and more as the “Big Gulp generation” is now growing into adulthood with much different health profiles than those of their grandparents or even parents. More than ever before, drinks figure into the sugar and calorie content of our overall diets, and unhealthy beverages can undoubtedly compromise our health and weight-loss efforts. That said, you can make a healthier selection each time you reach for something to drink — and while we are huge advocates for plain water, there are other hydrating options that extend beyond it.

The Importance of Daily Hydration

Being properly hydrated literally makes every biological process in our bodies easier. Good fluid status is necessary to carry nutrients to our organs, diffuse nutrients into our cells, dilute pollutants, and transport waste products to their respective bodily exits. All we need to aid our bodies in performing these functions is simply water. I’m a firm believer that we all want to be drinking more water than anything else. In fact, I strongly emphasize good hydration habits in the beginning stages of my clients’ weight loss and health journeys. It’s just that important to feeling and functioning your best. We recommend that adults consume about half of their goal body weight in fluid ounces of water. For example, a 150-pound adult would aim to drink at least 75 ounces of water for daily hydration. With that in mind, how can the dozens of additional options that line the beverage aisles and menus fit into our diets?

Cool Drinks to Choose

The best approach for everyday hydration is to stick with basic water in lieu of any sugar-laden or artificially sweetened sodas, energy drinks, teas, or “ade” beverages. Although you might be tempted toward fruit or vegetable juices in an effort to add nutrients, I recommend avoiding these for hydration purposes. Vegetable and especially fruit juices (without the natural fiber of their whole-food forms) contain enough sugar to spike your insulin levels. Reserve juices to spritz on salads or to add flavor to home cooking instead.

Warm Drinks to Choose

During the cooler seasons of the year, we’re drawn to warm beverages to take the chill off. A hot mug can be comforting and soothing, but it doesn’t have to be calorie- or sweetener-laden. Many people, of course, like a little something added to their coffee or tea. I suggest opting for a bit of stevia or monk fruit sweetener. If you prefer creaminess, try canned coconut milk or organic and pasture-raised heavy cream.

What About Sports Beverages?

Does the average exerciser even need these sweet nectars, or was this industry simply an offshoot of the soda boom? My rule of thumb is this: Don’t even consider anything except water unless your bout of exercise activity is longer than 90 minutes of moderate to hard effort. This less-than-90-minutes pattern would hold for most of us and how we tend to exercise. Even if your workout is longer and more strenuous, you’re still better off leaving the conventional sports drinks on the shelf and opting for a healthier alternative instead, such as UCAN Hydrate.

What Are Options for an Occasional Splurge?

There are some beverage choices that can be enjoyed every once in a while, but that I’ve seen people mistakenly treat more as daily hydration. These options offer some potential health-supporting benefits that may offset the impact of their sugar content and be nutritionally worth the calories when consumed in moderation.

  • Kefir (plain, full-fat): This is a bacterially-fermented dairy product akin to a liquid version of yogurt. It may help support digestive balance better than most commercially offered sugary yogurt options.
  • Kombucha: This is another fermented beverage that is often made with strains of yeast and bacteria that may also support a healthy digestive balance and bacterial environment. Many commercially-available varieties can come with quite a bit of sugar (and very little fiber), which is why I’d consider this a splurge instead of daily hydration.

What Are My Social Options?

Parties and gatherings may present still more options to choose from. This could be cranberry spritzers, margaritas, grasshoppers, cider, eggnog, or dozens of other choices in the alcohol category. These types of drinks aren’t going to support your overall wellness and there are plenty of health reasons to recommend keeping them to a minimum. However, if you do consume, there are some options that are more preferred from a health perspective than others.

When it comes to alcohol, a dose-dependent toxin, we want to look for the least toxic option we can find. Most of the time that means clear, distilled spirits such as vodka, gin, rum, or tequila. Mix your choice with a healthier liquid from the top section above (e.g. club soda or sparkling water) and garnish with a little fruit. These combos offer fewer toxins and may make it easier to detoxify, but we still need to keep our overall intake of these cocktails at a moderate level to stay healthy.

Dry wines (as opposed to sweet wines) typically are the next safest alcoholic option as they contain the lowest amount of residual sugars. Compared to beer and sugary mixer drinks, you’ll be much better off managing your energy and hunger the morning after.

Wherever you find yourself facing a choice on how to quench your thirst or meet your hydration needs, make the smartest decision for your health. Just remember that what’s in the drink matters more than any claim on the label. If you’re not sure which is the best option, look for the simplest choice of all — a glass of water.

Keep the conversation going.

Leave a comment, ask a question, or see what others are talking about in the Life Time Training Facebook group.

paul-kriegler-registered-dietician-life-time
Paul Kriegler, RD, CPT

Paul Kriegler, RD, LD, CPT, CISSN, is the program developer for nutritional products at Life Time. He’s also a USA track and field coach.

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