How to Drink More Water
Thirsty for creative ways to hydrate? One dietitian tackles the H2O challenge for us. Drink up these smart tips and refreshing recipes. Spoiler alert: You can eat your water, too!
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My kids are pretty blasé about tales of what it was like to grow up in the ’80s. They know their parents predate home computers, the internet, and cell phones, and they are, frankly, unimpressed. But we totally rocked their worlds recently with the revelation that no one carried around water bottles when we were kids.
Our dubious darlings wanted to know what we drank. “Not water,” reported Dad to his goggle-eyed progeny. “We had soda (but only the caffeine-free kind): orange drink, Sprite ... this stuff called Capri Sun that came in a pouch you stabbed with a straw.”
“We mostly had iced tea,” I said, surprising no one, since it’s always on their grandparents’ table. Then I filled them in on Kool-Aid, and they just about lost it.
“Wait … so it was like colored sugar in a packet? And it got mixed with water? And parents gave kids that?! Like, instead of WATER?!”
“Well, we drank water sometimes,” said my husband. “Mostly out of the hose.”
“The OUTDOOR hose?”
“Yeah,” I concurred. “Of course, the hoses back then probably had lead in them … ”
The kids are still talking about the Kool-Aid man and wondering if we’ll let them drink out of our (lead-free) hose. And they still seem a little awed that we made it to adulthood without wilting, which says something about today’s vogue for proper hydration.
Jump ahead to:
Of course, we may know we should drink plenty of the stuff, but many of us don’t get enough water. Population-based data on water intake doesn’t really capture the current picture, but per the CDC, between 2011-2014 the average U.S. adult drank about 39 ounces of water per day, or just under 5 cups. For several decades, nutrition research has pointed to a ballpark goal of closer to 8 (8-oz) glasses of water daily for the average healthy adult.
Our actual needs can vary based on physical size and body weight, age, activity level, the weather, pregnancy or lactation status, health, and more. But for everyone, water is essential for survival. That makes sense, considering that our bodies are mostly comprised of water. Babies’ bodies are nearly 78% water at birth, while adults’ are about 60%. As far as distribution, our brains and hearts are over 70% water, while our lungs, muscles, and kidneys are about 80% water — which is a clue to how vital H2O is to our overall functioning.
So, just what does water do?
Here’s a brief and incomplete rundown: It aids metabolism, helps send oxygen and nutrients throughout our bodies, regulates temperature and blood pressure, lubricates joints, absorbs shock, flushes waste out of the body, and is important for the production of hormones, neurotransmitters, saliva, mucus, and blood.
How do you know if you’re getting enough?
The color of your urine is a good indicator:
Light to straw yellow urine: You’re likely reasonably hydrated
Dark urine: You need more water
Clear urine: You might be overhydrated
*Vitamin supplements with riboflavin, aka vitamin B2, can turn urine a shocking DayGlo yellow, but the effect usually dissipates a few hours after the dose.
As for frequency, most healthy people will pee around 6 to 7 times in 24 hours, though 4 to 10 times is generally in the normal range. If you’re urinating in small amounts, or very infrequently, that could be a sign you need more water. Dry skin, cracked lips, thirst, dry mouth, fatigue, or constipation are other indicators that it’s time to drink up.
Some folks find water boring. Others just forget to drink it. Thirst cues can be subtle and are often mistaken for hunger; fortunately once people get in the habit of drinking more water, they often report recognizing when they’re thirsty, and are more likely to drink more often. (Keep in mind that when you first start ramping up your water intake, you may have to pee more often. Don’t let the temporary inconvenience deter you — your body will adjust, and you’ll go less frequently, in higher volume.)
One of the easiest ways to bump up your daily water intake is to begin your day with water. If you usually grab a cup of coffee or tea first thing in the morning, have a glass of water while you wait for it to brew. The water in that cup of Joe counts, too, by the way, but starting with the cool, clear stuff sets the tone for the rest of the day.
While research has demonstrated that moderate caffeine consumption isn’t a major concern on the hydration front, it does have a slight diuretic effect, so it’s not a bad idea to have a glass of water for every glass of coffee or caffeinated tea, too.
Speaking of tea, it’s ideal for making water more enticing. Herbal teas featuring flavors like mint, lemon, berries, ginger, or lemongrass are tasty hot or iced; find a flavor you love, and you’ll be naturally enticed to drink more throughout the day. Just try to avoid sweetening every cup, or you’ll end up exceeding recommendations for added sugars.
Here are four fun ways to add flavor, and make plain water look more enticing:
The adage “we eat first with our eyes” applies to water, too — if it looks pretty and refreshing, we’re more likely to find it enticing. Slow sippers will appreciate that when the ice melts, they’ll get a flavor boost, too.
Fresh fruit adds color, aroma, and a hint of flavor, and transforms regular water into a seriously luxe treat.
This spa-worthy water is infused with cucumber, citrus, and mint. Top it off with sparkling water if you like a little fizz.
This foolproof technique for refreshingly clear iced tea works with any flavor, and is totally sugar-free.
Steer clear of sweet stuff … most of the time
If you’re trying to transition from soda, sparkling water is your friend. Bubbles make even plain water fun; in fact, some sparkling mineral waters are a good source of calcium. You can doctor them with a squeeze of lemon or lime, or a splash of juice, or opt for unsweetened flavored seltzers. If you’re really craving a sugary fix, try stirring a teaspoon or two of pure maple syrup into your fizzy water — your drink will have far less sugar than the average soda.
Try to minimize juices, sports drinks, and coconut water, too. A glass here and there isn’t a big deal, but these heavily marketed beverages often pack a lot of sugar. An electrolyte-replacing sports drink can be helpful after strenuous activity and/or on very hot days, but most people simply don’t need them most of the time.
If you do need a sports drink, try one of these dietitian-developed recipes:
Designed to keep endurance athletes hydrated before, during, or after high-intensity exercise, this recipe also includes ingredient substitution info and tips in case you want to customize your quaff.
Maple syrup boasts anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties and bumps up the potassium content in this DIY sports drink — three factors that may be a boon for sports recovery.
When all else fails, accessorize
There’s a veritable “drink your water” industry, offering everything from water bottles (and bottled water) to flavor enhancers and drink-tracking apps. Find a bottle you really love, tote it around, and refill it when you’re done. If you hate lukewarm water, get an insulated bottle to keep things at just the right temperature. If you feel motivated when you can see your progress, go for something clear. 64-ounce pitchers or carafes are also good options: Fill one at the start of the day, and use it to keep refilling your glass. When the water’s gone, you’ll know you’ve met the 8-glass recommendation.
Drink your food and eat your water
We’re taking a cue from the irreverent “Waffles + Mochi” theme song (fans of Michelle Obama’s kids’ show about the origins of food will know just what we’re talking about), and turning things on their heads a bit. While emphasizing water as your primary beverage gets you the furthest toward your hydration goals, there’s definitely room to use food to help meet your needs. The trick is to pick fruits and veggies with a very high water content (like watermelon), and to make sure the prep doesn’t end up eliminating most of the water. For example, raw cucumbers or grapefruits provide lots of water; sauteed spinach or zucchini, not so much, thanks to evaporation during cooking.
These recipes will give you a feel for what to look for:
Melons are so refreshing because they have a high water content and provide electrolytes such as potassium. A sprinkle of feta provides sodium, another important electrolyte that also tends to stimulate thirst, so pour a big glass of sparkling water to enjoy with your salad. (While excessive sodium intake can cause a host of health problems, a small amount is actually necessary, and getting it in the context of a potassium-rich meal is a good move.)
When top-notch tomatoes hit the farmer’s market, earmark some of them for your blender: It’s officially gazpacho season. This cold soup is a Spanish cuisine classic, and it’s ideal on a hot summer day — juicy tomatoes and cucumbers will cool you off and help you hydrate.
While the health benefits of coconut water are often overblown, it is a decent hydrator and its natural light sweetness makes it ideal for popsicles. These are studded with fresh berries, which makes them pretty and flavorful.
If you start with juicy fruits, throw in some ice cubes, and skip the added sweeteners, smoothies are another option (they’re also often fiber-rich, which gives them a nutritional edge over juice).
Don’t overdo it
One note of caution: As with everything, too much of a good thing isn’t so good. Pushing yourself to drink water constantly can lead to overhydration, or in extreme cases, a dangerous condition called water intoxication. Signs of overhydration include consistently clear urine, headaches, nausea, and muscle cramps. Water intoxication can cause seizures or coma, and may be fatal.
Most people are unlikely to drink too much water if they’re listening to their bodies. But athletes (even of the weekend warrior sort) may benefit from a consult with a dietitian (RDN) who specializes in sports nutrition. These experts can help you craft a hydration plan for optimal performance and safety.