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Is Not Drinking Enough Water REALLY Bad for Me?

author image Joe Donatelli
Joe Donatelli is a journalist in Los Angeles and the publisher of the Humor Columnist website. His work has appeared in Salon, Cracked.com, DAME and other publications. Donatelli is a graduate of Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.
Is Not Drinking Enough Water REALLY Bad for Me?
Adding lemon to water can improve the taste, while drinking from a straw can help you drink more. Photo Credit darby/twenty20


You’ve probably heard that more than 50 percent of the human body is made of water. More amazing is that our brain and heart are 73 percent water, and our lungs are 83 percent H2O.

Yet for some reason, many of us don’t drink enough of it.

Here’s something to talk about on your next trip to the water cooler. Seven percent of all Americans drink zero cups of water a day.

Seven percent.

Zero cups.

That stat comes from a study on American water-drinking habits conducted by Dr. Alyson Goodman for the Centers of Disease Control. Goodman, a medical epidemiologist, was convinced she’d made an error, so she checked and re-checked her numbers, but they were right. Almost one in 10 Americans drinks no water every day. She calls these results “mindboggling.”

“Water is vital for life,” she says. “Many health risks decrease when you drink plain water.”

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Goodman suspects that the people in that seven percent of non-water drinkers are getting their water from coffee, sodas, food and other sources.

In addition to that seven percent that drinks no water, Goodman’s study found that 36 percent of Americans drink less than four cups of water per day.

"Almost one in 10 Americans drinks no water every day."

- Dr. Alyson Goodman

How Much Water Should We Be Drinking?

There is no national standard. The government and leading medical organizations haven’t issued an official guideline on water consumption. This is probably because individual water needs vary by age, body type, gender and activity level.

Of course, there’s no shortage of unofficial recommendations.

The Institute of Medicine’s food and nutrition board does not specify water requirements, but it does “recommend” 91 ounces of water a day for women and 125 ounces a day for men. That amount includes water from all beverages and foods. About 20 percent of daily water intake usually comes through food, which means the actual recommended water intake for women is 73 ounces (9 cups) and for men it’s 100 ounces (12.5 cups).

CDC epidemiologist Goodman said, “While there is not a universal recommendation for how much water someone needs to drink because water needs vary from person to person, the take-home message is that choosing plain water to satisfy your thirst is the healthiest option.

Another typical recommendation is to drink eight 8-ounce glasses of water per day, totaling 64 ounces. This "8 x 8" rule makes it easy to remember, although many miss this mark.

Drinking less than 32 ounces -- or 4 cups daily -- as did half the sample in the study, likely indicates that many people either choose less healthy beverages to satisfy their thirst or drink little water daily.”

There are two easy ways people can tell if they’re getting enough water.

If you’re thirsty, you’re not drinking enough water.

The Institute of Medicine reports that “the vast majority of healthy people adequately meet their daily hydration needs by letting thirst be their guide.”

But: Thirst can be an imperfect gauge, especially for kids and older adults.

There’s another test, and it’s gross, but it could be worth it.

Dr. Martina Cartwright is a registered dietitian who is a contributing editor and expert consultant to IDEA Fitness Journal. She recommends checking your urine. Urine that is the color of pale lemon water or clearer usually indicates proper hydration. If urine is dark yellow, you might not be drinking enough water.

“People who drink a lot of water tend to have a lot of other healthy habits, such as eating fruits and veggies, eating balanced meals, eating with family and friends, eating less fast food,” Goodman says. “These healthy habits cluster together. If someone is looking to make their overall nutrition healthier, water is part of the overall picture.”

When Hot Water is Better Than Cold

Is Not Drinking Enough Water REALLY Bad for Me?
It's important to drink water before, during and after a workout. Photo Credit Costantino Costa/Cultura/Getty Images

Ollie Jay, a researcher at University of Ottawa’s School of Human Kinetics, made the counterintuitive discovery that sometimes a warm drink can cool the body down faster than a cold one. A warm drink triggers a sweat response. So even though the warm liquid will warm the body on the inside, sweat more than compensates as liquid on the skin mingles with the air and cools the body from the outside.

Drinking warm liquids, however, is only beneficial under certain conditions. Anyone who wants to try this should not wear too much clothing (remember the sweat on the skin must meet the air) and should only do so on a hot, dry day. Avoid anything that keeps sweat from evaporating such as humidity or a sweatshirt. If a person is already sweating, Jay advises drinking cold water to cool down.

Ever wondered why people eat spicy food and wear loose clothing near the equator?

This is why.

Water For The Active

For the physically active, water has added benefits. It prevents achiness, and it flushes toxins from the body.

“Drink in advance of activity, during and after as well,” Cartwright says. “By the time thirst kicks in, you are dehydrated.”

What about sports drinks?

Cartwright is also an adjunct faculty member with the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Arizona. She often has to remind her college students that energy drinks and sports drinks are not the same thing.

She recommends plain water for hydration purposes, and only recommends sports drinks for endurance athletes or for those engaged in an activity that causes them to sweat profusely.

A Note For Parents

Is Not Drinking Enough Water REALLY Bad for Me?
Give your kids water instead of sweet drinks to establish healthy habits. Photo Credit darby/twenty20

If you want to raise children who drink water for the rest of their lives, don’t give them sweet drinks when they’re babies. Studies show that babies who drink sweet drinks are more likely to drink soda and other high-calorie beverages as adults.

According to Goodman’s research, people are less likely to drink water as adults if they didn’t eat many fruits and vegetables as a child, ate fast food more than once a week and ate fewer than five dinners per week around a table with family or friends.

How to Drink More Water

If you’re not among the 22 percent of Americans who drink eight cups (64 ounces) or more of water a day, here are two tips to get you started:

1. Pour a pitcher that contains the amount of water you want to drink each day. If you can see it, there is a better chance you will drink it.

2. Drink from a large container with a straw. This will subconsciously cause you to drink more. It’s a trick that fast food chains and bars have long employed. But you can use this hack to your advantage.

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