Studies are clear that we need to drink plenty of water to stay healthy. We need to stay adequately hydrated for optimal health and weight. The biochemistry of that process is incredibly boring and after learning it in detail once, I have promptly forgotten it and have no interest in relearning it. But the science is there. Trust me on this one.
I’m not opposed to drinking water – I drink lots of it every day. However, I prefer to change it up from time to time. The simplest way (and a decently healthy way), is to add some sort of unsweetened flavor to the water – be that a little bit of lime or lemon juice. Another option is adding bubbles to the water.
Most people like drinking bubbles. I happen to be one of them. I don’t know what it is, but for most of us, there’s just something satisfying in feeling those bubbles burst over the roof of our mouth. In fact, many people get a rush of pleasure just hearing the sound of a can being cracked or the bubbles hiss out when opening a twisty lid on a bottle.
Unfortunately, it is an undisputable fact that sugar-sweetened beverages are bad for our health. I don’t think you will find many people claiming that their soda or caramel macchiato latte thing or energy drink is improving their health. You may hear a lot of, “at least it isn’t as bad as —” – although see one of my previous posts about the rabbit hole that can take you down! Because the studies are (finally) out there for everyone to see, our population is slowly decreasing our intake of soda. People don’t really want to be unhealthy.
Why are these things so bad for our health? The argument against regular soda and sports drinks and sugary coffee drinks and fruit juice is pretty easy. If you are a patient in my office or you have heard me speak, I almost always touch upon the biochemistry of the liver. Sugar and it’s close cousins (like honey, or maple syrup or agave nectar or HFCS) are all made up of fructose and glucose bound together. When we drink something containing one of these substances, all of that liquid fructose goes right from the stomach into the bloodstream, blasting the liver, creating metabolic chaos and dysfunctional fat storage inside the liver cells. This rapid infusion of glucose molecules blasts the pancreas, creating an immediate need for large amounts of insulin production to get it taken care of. Two organs, liver and pancreas, both being bombarded by substrate. Makes sense. Check.
However, what about the diet versions of all of these wonderful drinks? Most of us want to be healthy, yet we also desperately want something to replace that liquid sugary goodness. Although most people acknowledge that diet soda is unhealthy at this point, for reasons I can’t understand, many people still consider their diet coffee creamer or water-sweetening drops or direct sales energy booster vitamin drink qualifies as healthy. The data is out on this stuff as well – none of it is making us healthier or thinner or happier. But as a whole, we are simply ignoring the data. I think we want our diet drops and coffee creamers to be healthy so badly, that we just overlook the data.
Whether non-nutritive sweeteners are safe depends on your definition of safe – because we don’t know a whole heck of a lot less about these compounds. Studies have ruled out cancer risk – for the most part. However, those studies were done using small amounts of sweetener – far smaller amounts than the typical amount consumed by Americans today. Remember, these aren’t just found in diet soda – we are ingesting these over and over again in things like sweetened yogurt, protein bars, protein shakes, keto ice cream and essentially anything that is both low-calorie and tastes sweet.
We really don’t have a clue what effect large amounts of these chemicals will have over many years. Most of these non-nutritive sweeteners didn’t have to go through a lot of investigation before they were allowed to be put into food. We honestly don’t know that much about most of them. By ingesting them, you are essentially signing up to be part of a big huge experiment.
And there are other health concerns beside cancer. We have multiple studies associating non-nutritive sweeteners with up to a 36% greater risk for metabolic syndrome and a 67% increased risk for type 2 diabetes – diseases that artificial sweeteners were designed to help prevent in the first place. Add in the fact that we have abundant data about the addictiveness of these substances in rats, and the disturbing fact that many people that consume artificial sweeteners experience a change in the way they taste food. In other words, people who routinely use artificial sweeteners may start to find less intensely sweet foods, such as fruit, less appealing and unsweet foods, such as vegetables, downright unpalatable.
Plus, since these sweeteners don’t contain fructose, they don’t blast the liver (at least we don’t think they do!). But they definitely blast the pancreas – causing us to release a lot of insulin in a big fat hurry. And when our insulin is high but our blood sugar doesn’t match up, we feel bad. We get edgy and shaky and hangry – which then prompts us to eat something starchy or sweet to quickly raise that blood sugar up to match the insulin surge. In essence, they increase our food seeking behavior.
However, back to water. Compared to energy drinks and diet coffee delicacies and soda, water is pretty boring. Not bad, but definitely not exciting. If you are trying to cut back or eliminate your intake of sugar sweetened beverages and artificially sweetened beverages, yet you still want something with flavor, you have limited options.
Add to that this fact: it’s been my experience that those of us that are ex-soda addicts need bubbles – especially mid-afternoon. I have no idea why – again, not something that I want to dive deep into – but the reality is there. How do we find bubbles and variety and interesting without sugar or sweeteners?
Here’s the solution. Sparkling water. Every soda company right now is trying to get you to buy their version of sparkling water. They are going all out. Probably not out of concern for our health and well-being, but because they see the writing on the wall. In the last decade, as the data has became too obvious to ignore, Americans have cut back on their soda consumption. In reaction, soda companies initially poured their energy into no-calorie or low-calorie drinks sweetened with non-nutritive sweeteners. As the data on these is getting too big to ignore, chances are pretty good that Americans will start drifting away from them as well. We aren’t stupid. But our collective desire for flavor in our drinks has to go somewhere.
Sparkling water has lots of bubbles – and some type of essential oil. Not a sweetener, but some type of oil that provides a little bit of flavor. If your palate is used to soda or non-nutritive sweeteners on a regular basis, when you first try sparkling water, you will think it’s terrible. Most people do. However, when you de-sweeten those taste buds, you can eventually appreciate the flavor and the bubbles without the sweetness. Eventually, you will enjoy them. Maybe not as much as you once enjoyed your sweet liquid dessert, but for most people, a can of sparkling water is a nice change from plain old tap water.
If bubbles aren’t your thing, I wouldn’t work really hard to try to like sparkling water. Just stick with regular water. It will save you money and hassle. I have absolutely no interest in or knowledge about teeth, but I think it is also better for your teeth to drink regular water too. Something about bubbles and acidity and enamel. In the scheme of things, nothing to be terrified about, but it’s out there.
But if you are trying to get healthier and you are in the loop of needing and craving and indulging in sugar sweetened beverages and/or diet (non-nutritive-sweetened) beverages, stop and see if you can make the switch. Get your taste buds back to their baseline normal. Again, there are a million versions out there – there’s essentially something for everyone.
My favorites are hi-biscus La Croix (not only because of the fun name, but the flavor as well!), cucumber blackberry La Croix and Lime La Croix. My oldest son is a La Croix fan as well – although he prefers lemon, lime and orange. My middle son likes the watermelon Bublé, the orange vanilla Polar Seltzer and all of the Aha flavors, and my youngest likes cherry Bublé, passionfruit La Croix and pamplemousse La Croix. There are definitely a million different flavors to try and enjoy.
One last word of warning – make sure and read your labels. A few beverage companies have gotten sneaky and have put marketing claims on their water saying things like, “no added sugar and no artificial sweeteners”. Stevia is technically not considered an artificial sweetener since it comes from a plant, so these companies load their waters up with stevia and place them alongside the waters flavored with essential oils. (Remember, just because something comes from a plant doesn’t automatically make it healthy. Cocaine comes from a plant. So does heroin. So does penicillin.)
Look at the ingredients in your water. If the ingredients are water, natural flavors and that’s it – you should be fine. If there is more than those two things, keep investigating. Chances are, you might be simply getting another variety of diet soda, which will keep you on the hamster wheel – which is ultimately where those beverage companies want you to stay!