Drink to your health, with water

Part 8 in our 12-month series on resolutions for real health improvement

By Dr. James Beckerman, M.D., Providence St. Vincent Heart Clinic - Cardiology, part of Providence Heart and Vascular Institute

Of all of the beverages sold in all of the grocery stores, coffee shops and restaurants on the planet, there is only one that your body actually needs: water. The others, for the most part, are simply unnecessary - and expensive - calories.

Water is essential for your good health. It keeps your blood flowing, provides cushioning for your joints, transports nutrients into your cells and flushes out waste. In the hot summer months, drinking water is especially important - drink too little and you could find yourself dehydrated and overheated.

As another health bonus, water is great for weight control. Simply put, water takes up space. When you drink a glass before a meal, it can make you feel less hungry, functioning as an appetite suppressant. Researchers have found that drinking four to six glasses of water a day is associated with weight loss. Drinking even two glasses of water a day will speed up your metabolism and help you burn calories faster.

Water is the perfect, no-cost, no-calorie beverage, and it comes right out of the kitchen tap whenever you want it. But instead of drinking water, too many Americans are choosing sodas, energy drinks, coffee drinks, fruit drinks, sports drinks and other high-calorie beverages. Today, an average of 21 percent of our daily calories comes from beverages. That's just way too much.

This month, your resolution is to make water your main beverage. I'm not suggesting that you cut out all other beverages (although that would be great), but a healthy goal is to cut back liquid calories to no more than 10 percent of your total daily calories. Here are some strategies and statistics to help motivate you.

Sugar? How sweet it was...

Sugary soft drinks are high in calories, low in nutritional value, and scientifically proven to be associated with obesity. Drinking just one can of soda a day could correspond to a weight gain of about a pound a month. Next time you crave a sugary soda, just say no. But before you switch to diet soda, read on.

Ditch the diet soda

You might assume that diet sodas are the perfect substitute for sugary drinks - but you'd be wrong. The scientific evidence suggests that people who consume significant quantities of sugar substitutes may actually take in more calories overall than those who stick with just plain sugar. One study found that a daily can of diet soda was associated with a 41 percent increased risk of becoming obese - that's even higher than the risk for drinking a comparable amount of regular soda.

The reason for this is that sugar substitutes taste so much like sugar that they trick our minds and bodies - but only at first. When you pop open a can of artificially sweetened soda, your insulin levels increase in anticipation of a big sugar load. When the sugar does not arrive, that insulin spike makes your blood sugar levels fall. This disruption in your sugar balance makes you crave more sugar to set things right. That craving, coupled with the virtuous feeling of having made a low-calorie beverage choice, makes you more likely to reward yourself with an extra cookie later on. So what's a person to do - go back to sugar-sweetened sodas? Nope. The ideal alternative is no soda at all. Drink water instead.

Don't look for energy in a drink

Like any sugar-sweetened beverage, energy drinks are generally high in calories, and contain multiple servings in a single can or bottle (which is almost always consumed in a single sitting). If you do choose to drink energy drinks, look for the lowest-calorie options, and limit yourself to one serving. A better option: avoid all the additives and calories of energy drinks and choose black coffee or tea, instead. Better yet: get energized naturally by eating nourishing foods, exercising for 30 minutes every day, sleeping for 7 to 8 hours every night, and - you guessed it - drinking plenty of water.

Keep coffee drinks under control

At about 5 calories per cup, a little black coffee in the morning isn't a bad thing. It's when that coffee habit turns into a daily Starbucks Grande Java Chip Frappuccino that things start to go south. There are 340 reasons why that Frapp tastes so good. If you drank one every day, you'd be on a course to gain nearly three pounds per month. I'm not suggesting that you give up your favorite coffee drink forever, but you might actually enjoy it more if you thought of it as a once-in-a-while treat, rather than a daily necessity. To keep calories in check, switch to the "light" version, request nonfat instead of whole milk, cut back to the smallest serving size, skip the whipped topping, and work your way back to black coffee - or green tea - on most days of the week.

Eat - don't drink - your fruit

Although fruit juices do have some nutritional benefit, they are relatively high in calories and simple sugars. If you eat a whole piece of fruit instead of drinking a glass of juice, you will consume about half the calories. In addition, the high water content and fiber in the whole fruit will make you feel more full, which may reduce your appetite for the rest of your meal or for snacks later on. Still thirsty? Have a glass of water with your apple or orange.

Limit alcohol to weekends

Consumed in moderation (one drink a day for women, one or two for men), alcohol is associated with a lower risk of heart disease. The calories, however, can add up quickly. A light beer or a glass of red wine supplies 100 calories; many mixed drinks weigh in at 200 to 350 calories; and that mudslide you were thinking of ordering for dessert - 800 calories. To keep your liquid calories in check, stick with water during the week, and limit alcohol mainly to weekends.

Find ways to make water wonderful

If you or your kids find water just too boring, kick it up a notch:

  • Float slices of orange, lemon or lime in a pitcher of water to infuse it with citrus flavors.
  • Mint, lemon balm and ginger are delicious additions to water, too.
  • For something more sophisticated, try a few rounds of cucumber in your water.
  • Miss the carbonation of soda? Buy sparkling water, or skip the plastic bottles and get a home carbonation system to make your own for about 25 cents per liter.
  • Need electrolytes after a strenuous workout? Skip the sugary sports drinks and stir a vitamin packet into your water bottle instead.
  • Craving caffeine? Dunk a tea bag in your water - iced tea costs only pennies to make, tastes great, and still clocks in at 0 calories, assuming that you don't add sugar.
  • Make a pitcher of caffeine-free tea to sip throughout the day. Dozens are available with mint and natural fruit flavors that have their own subtle sweetness.
  • Green tea is a particularly healthful choice, supplying natural compounds that may help prevent cancer, reduce heart disease and delay aging.

As you water your garden to prevent drooping this summer, remember to do the same for yourself. Drinking six glasses a day - whether flavored with fruit or teabags, or left pure and natural - will keep you feeling perky and well hydrated without adding unwanted calories. I'll drink to that.

James Beckerman, a cardiologist with the Providence Heart and Vascular Institute in Portland, Ore., is the author of “The Flex Diet.” You can learn more about him and his weight-loss philosophies at www.theflexdiet.com.