In the beginning there was water—abundant, refreshing, providing everything the body needs to replenish the fluids it loses. Read Here.
Humans relied on it as their only beverage for millions of years. Milk came next, with the advent of agriculture and the domestication of animals. Then beer and wine and coffee and tea, all drunk for taste and pleasure as much as for the fluids they provide. The newcomers—soft drinks, sports and energy drinks, and the like—offer hydration but with a hefty dose of unnecessary calories that the body may have a hard time regulating.
With so many choices, all with different, sometimes unexpected effects on health, it’s easy to be confused about the “best” beverages for health. This prompted a group of nutrition experts from across the U.S. to form the independent Beverage Guidance Panel. These six researchers, including Dr. Walter C. Willett of the Harvard School of Public Health’s Department of Nutrition, reviewed the evidence on beverages and health and ranked categories of beverages into six levels, based on calories delivered, contribution to intake of energy and essential nutrients, and evidence for positive and negative effects on health. (1) The winner? Water. But that doesn’t mean that water is the only beverage that’s good for your health, or that everyone needs to drink eight glasses of water a day.
Beverage Guidelines from the Experts
The Beverage Guidance Panel distilled its advice into a six-level pitcher, much as food experts have done with the food pyramid. The group published its recommendations in the March 2006 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Here is a description of each level:
Level 1: Water
Water provides everything the body needs—pure H2O—to restore fluids lost through metabolism, breathing, sweating, and the removal of waste. It’s the perfect beverage for quenching thirst and rehydrating your system. When it comes from the tap, it costs a fraction of a penny per glass. Water should be the beverage you turn to most of the time.
It’s impossible to set a single requirement for how much water the hypothetical average American needs each day. The amount you need depends on how much you eat, what the weather is, and how active you are. So instead of setting an estimated average requirement for water, as it has done for other nutrients, the Institute of Medicine has set an adequate intake of 125 ounces (about 15 cups) for men and 91 ounces for women (about 11 cups). (5) Note that this is not a daily target, but a general guide. In most people, about 80% of this comes from beverages; the rest comes from food. As for the oft-repeated nutrition advice to “drink eight glasses of water every day,” there’s little evidence to support it, but this would be one excellent way to fulfill most of a person’s fluid requirement.
Level 2: Tea and Coffee
After water, tea and coffee are the two most commonly consumed beverages on the planet. Drunk plain, they are calorie-free beverages brimming with antioxidants, flavonoids, and other biologically active substances that may be good for health. Up to three or four cups of coffee or tea a day appear to be fine. Green tea, especially the strong variety served in Japan, has received attention for its potential role in protecting against heart disease, while coffee may help protect against type 2 diabetes. (2, 3) More research on the health benefits of tea and coffee is needed, but one thing is for certain: The addition of cream, sugar, whipped cream, and flavorings can turn coffee or tea from a healthful beverage into a not-so-healthful one. For example, a 16-ounce Mint Mocha Chip Frappuccino with Chocolate Whipped Cream contains 470 calories. Tucked in this beverage (which is actually closer to a dessert) are 12 grams of saturated fat—nearly a day’s worth—and 71 grams of sugar, the equivalent of 17 teaspoons of sugar. (4) Keep in mind that for pregnant women, the jury is still out on whether high coffee or caffeine intakes increase the risk of miscarriage, but it seems prudent to limit caffeinated beverages to one cup per day. (For more information about coffee and chronic disease, see Ask the Expert: Coffee and Health.) Read More.