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Salute! How to Drink to Your Own Good Health

By Beth Sumrell Ehrensberger, RD, MPH

Raise a glass to your health—but what should you be pouring? It seems like every time you hear a health headline, it’s about a medical expert’s opinion on what you should—or shouldn’t—be drinking. With so much confusion, it’s difficult to pin down just what’s the least damning drink to wash down all that recommended bran and produce. But since a 2006 report revealed that the average American is getting more than 400 calories per day from soft drinks, sports drinks, juices, high fat (whole and 2%) milk and alcoholic beverages—which is double what we should be taking in from these choices—it’s clear that that we need to rethink our drinks. So ready your glass and read up—we’re taking the confusion out of libation.

Sports Drinks
Take a quick gander around the gym, basketball court or track, and you’ll see a variety of shockingly-hued sports drinks littering the sidelines. Should you get in on the action too? The quick and easy answer: unless you’re intensely working out for an hour or more, it’s best to rehydrate with good ole H2O. Sports drinks can cause you to break even (or tip up) on the calorie scale—and that’s factoring in your workout. Think of it this way; let’s say you played volleyball for half an hour with some of your colleagues at the company picnic. After playing, you down a 32 oz bottle (about 200 calories) of a sports drink. Too bad for you: even after crushing your cubicle-mate in a competitive game (and depending on your body weight) you probably added a few extra calories to your day with that sports drink. True, there are new, lower or no-calorie versions of old sports drink favorites, but even they contain more additives than you really need.

Alcoholic Drinks
Everybody knows too much beer can equal a belly, but that’s really just the beginning of the trouble alcohol can spell for your pants size. For many, summer time is prime time for relaxing with a smooth adult libation and taking in the slower pace. But careful with your swigging: you’re probably taking in a lot more calories than you think. Suppose you’re out with your buddies devouring some Mexican food at the new neighborhood joint. If you order a big margarita to wash it all down, you can swallow as many calories as two fast food Chicken Gordita Supremes plus two orders of guacamole and one order of sour cream on the side. And that’s just the calories from your drink! Add in your dinner and you’ve got a full-on diet blow out. The damage control? If you’re really jonesing for a cocktail, go ahead and order it, but go for the smallest size (and don’t reorder) and then modify what you eat. As for your Mexican meal with the margarita—let your friends enjoy the chips and guac while you pass and enjoy your drink…and select something healthy from the menu.

An even better choice than liquor cocktails, which are often mixed with cloyingly sweet and calorie-dense mixers, is light beer or wine. Luckily, light beer is getting more interesting, with some brands adding flavor enhancements like a hint of lime. But while wine has merits as a lower calorie choice, mixed research indicates that it’s not the health elixir early studies suggested. If you don’t like red wine, there’s no need to start drinking it, since you can get nearly the same heart-healthy benefits by eating a variety of fruits, veggies and whole grains and by following a low fat, active lifestyle.

Unless your juice screams ‘100% juice’ somewhere on the bottle (probably on the front—companies are usually proud to brag), you’re filling up on syrupy sweetness. And beware of “juice drinks” and “juice cocktails,” which masquerade as healthy choices in the juice aisle but are actually more sugar than fruit. Read the label carefully to be sure of what you’re getting, but in most cases it’s best to make another selection, like 100% fruit juice. And though 100% juice counts toward your daily goals of fruit or vegetable intake, it’s best to limit it to one serving per day. It’s all too easy to gulp down a meal’s worth of calories in one long pull; plus, with juice you’re missing the filling fiber from whole fruit. Pouring an 8 oz glass with apple juice twice can set you back nearly 230 calories—about the same as your breakfast bagel. Instead, try stretching your juice calories by mixing up a refreshing spritzer. Mix one-half cup juice with one-half cup (or more) sparkling water. You may even find you like this fizzy, less-sweet treat more than a full glass of straight-up juice.

Several years ago, milk made headlines with big weight loss claims. While those claims are controversial, milk does play an important role in the diet outside of weight loss. Studies indicate that, generally speaking, Americans don’t drink enough low fat milk (the average is only half a serving)—and the government recommendation is three cups or the equivalent. Since milk provides nutrients that can help rebuild muscles after exercise, it’s a good idea to squeeze in your daily three, especially if you’re active. But just make sure the moo-juice you’re sipping is non-fat or 1%; 2% and whole milk is loaded in calories and saturated fat. A small nonfat latte is a good way to add milk if you’re not a big fan of a tall, cold glass.

Soft Drinks
You don’t have to be a diet genius to know that soft drinks are not a healthy choice. But just how bad is that occasional large fountain soft drink? Let’s put it this way: for the same caloric damage, you could have your 12 oz soda or a serving of potato chips. Trouble is, those chips often saddle up beside the soft drink. So enjoy both, and in one sitting, and you’ve snacked away over 300 empty calories. Diet soft drinks, of course, are free of calories, but recent research from the University of Texas has found a correlation between drinking diet soda and the increase in risk for obesity. Scientists believe part of the explanation may be due to the “tease” of diet soda—you give your body a soda that’s sweet but offers no calories—so your brilliant body craves those calories (and will probably succeed at getting them from something else after you finish your soda). Besides the issue of adding weight, many diet sodas are sweetened with a variety of sugar substitutes, most of which are not endorsed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer health watchdog group. With so many questions still existing about the safety of artificial sweeteners (except sucralose) it’s better to find a fizzy alternative without the artificial sweeteners. Try the juice spritzer we mentioned if you like the fizz, or crack open a can of unsweetened seltzer water instead of soda.

H20, Really?
Your bottom line best bet for hydration is water. Plain, unflavored, (and most times free) tap water. Take a skip on the enhanced water that sport additives like fiber and vitamins—you’re essentially buying artfully marketed claims that take a swift bite out of your wallet, and offer little for you in return. And be mindful that bottled water, while a better choice than a soft drink any day, can mean trouble for the earth with all the discarded plastic building up in landfills. Instead, purchase a BPA-free water container and use a safe tap water source to fill up often. If you don’t enjoy the taste of plain water there are plenty of ways to add a little interest. Adding sliced fruit (berries, citrus or melon) or cucumbers to water can add appealing flavor. Sometimes it just helps to load up your water with crushed ice and a few sprigs of mint. In the summer, brewing up a pot of herbal, unsweetened tea can add refreshing flavor to your water, too.

So just how much water should you be drinking? A 2008 University of Pennsylvania editorial shook up the notion that the "eight-by-eight" (eight glasses of water, eight times a day) watering schedule was necessary. Though the eight-by-eight rule is controversial and not grounded in science, it can serve as guideline for how much water to drink and encourage you to remember to drink. Ultimately, the amount you should have depends on several variables; your climate, age, sex, activity level, metabolism and diet, so the answer is different for everyone. However, if you produce light colored urine, drink a glass of water at each meal and in-between, and hydrate before and after working out, you’re probably drinking enough.

So “bottoms up”—keeping in mind that you are not only what you eat, but what you drink, too!