When it comes to a healthy diet, most of the focus is on the food we eat. But what we drink can have a big impact on our health too! Yet, navigating the diverse world of beverages can be a struggle. Here’s a quick rundown on some of the most common beverages and how they affect our health.
Drink Guide for the Most Common Beverages
Water is the most common beverage in the world – no surprise there! It should be our main choice when we’re thirsty. In the United States, tap water is better regulated than bottled water and is just as safe and clean as bottled water (with some exceptions, such as Flint, Michigan). You can check with your local water company to assess the safety of your tap water and consider a water filter if needed. The recommendation to consume eight glasses a day was based on a 1921 study of a single person (yes, a one-person sample size), but when studied further, this amount actually appears to be a good recommendation for adults.1 A few studies have found that drinking sufficient water is associated with lower bladder cancer and heart disease rates, so we should be sure to stay hydrated with good ol’ fashioned H₂O.2-3 Check out our 6 Pillars of Nutrition, particularly Pillar 3 – Hydrate to Regulate, to learn more about why water is so essential for life.
Tea is the second most common beverage in the world. Although there are a wide variety of tea options, green and black tea are well studied. Both are rich in health-promoting polyphenol antioxidants and both appear to be good for our health. Overall, the data and beverage guides suggest that green and/or black tea consumption is associated with lower rates of cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality.4-5 Interestingly, the consumption of dairy milk/cream along with tea blocks the cardiovascular benefits of tea, so it’s best consumed plain.6 There is less data on herbal teas but many popular options (peppermint, chamomile, ginger, hibiscus) are generally safe and may offer some health benefits. In fact, a few cups of hibiscus tea each day may help lower blood pressure.7 Although tea is healthy for most people, pregnant or breastfeeding women need to be more cautious: non-commercial herbal teas (due to a lack of data) should be avoided, as should any with caffeine, including green and black tea.8
Coffee is the third most common beverage in the world. Similar to tea, coffee is rich in health-promoting polyphenols. Its consumption is associated with a lower risk of death from heart disease, respiratory diseases, diabetes and premature death in general. However, there are a few caveats to this observation.9-10 First, we need to be mindful of what we’re adding to our coffee. As the amount of added sugar and cream increases, the health benefits decrease. Additionally, it appears that there are genetic differences in how people metabolize caffeine. People can either be “fast metabolizers” or “slow metabolizers” depending on their genes. Fast metabolizers are not as affected by caffeine and typically see health benefits with coffee consumption. Slow metabolizers, on the other hand, are very sensitive to caffeine and consuming it may increase blood pressure and heart attack risk.11-12 We can get tested for the gene that dictates this (gene CYP1A2) or we can pay attention to how coffee/caffeine makes us feel. If we notice that coffee/caffeine increases our heart rate, blood pressure or makes us feel anxious, it’s probably best to avoid or limit it.
Alcohol abuse and binge drinking are bad for our health – but you probably already knew that. 😉 Yet, there’s a common idea that moderate alcohol consumption is beneficial. Although some studies have found that people who consume alcohol in moderation (one drink per day for women and 1-2 drinks per day for men) tend to have less cardiovascular disease or tend to live longer, the results from these studies are inconsistent and often subject to confounding factors (e.g. people who drink in moderation tend to partake in other healthy lifestyle behaviors which may explain these observations).13-14 Additionally, there is a growing amount of research suggesting that the less alcohol we consume the better and that none may be best.15 This is especially true for cancer risk, as alcohol consumption increases our risk of a variety of cancers, including breast cancer, even at “moderate intake” levels.16 Given that the risks of alcohol consumption seem to far outweigh any benefits, it’s best to avoid or drastically limit alcohol intake.
Kombucha is a drink that has been growing in popularity. It is made by fermenting sugar and tea (often green or black tea). What you end up with is a mildly sweet/acidic carbonated beverage. Kombucha is a popular drink in the health/wellness world and is marketed as a cure-all health elixir. However, virtually all of the health claims made about kombucha are unsubstantiated, as there are very few human studies on the health effects of drinking kombucha.17 Trust us, we were as shocked to hear this as you are! This is the case with any “probiotic” or “gut health” claims. Although kombucha does contain a variety of bacterial species, there’s no evidence that drinking it has any lasting effects on our gut bacteria. On top of that, there have been a handful of case reports of people experiencing lactic acidosis or liver and kidney issues after consuming kombucha. Although these are rare, there may be some safety concerns regarding kombucha, especially with non-commercial, homemade varieties. In theory, kombucha may offer some benefits, but that’s only because it’s typically made with green or black tea, which are healthy on their own. Infrequent consumption of commercially-prepared kombucha is likely safe for most adults but is not needed for good health and is unlikely to lead to any health benefits you wouldn’t achieve from simply drinking tea.
Humans have no nutritional or biological need for cow’s milk or products derived from it. In fact, about 70% of the world’s population is lactose intolerant.21 Additionally, despite the marketing campaigns we grew up with, telling us that “milk is necessary for strong bones,” drinking milk does not appear to protect against bone fractures and may increase risk of prostate and endometrial cancer.22 We’re better off getting our calcium/protein from plant sources, such as beans, dark leafy greens, soy foods, nuts and seeds. Plant-based milks are generally healthier than cow’s milk, but choose brands with clean ingredients (best if you can pronounce them all) that are fortified with vitamin D and calcium. Organic, unsweetened soy milk is probably the healthiest plant-based milk, as you get the most nutrition bang-for-your-buck.
Despite marketing campaigns featuring professional athletes, most people—athletes included—do not need to consume sports drinks. The only time these may offer a benefit is when people are truly dehydrated, engaged in prolonged exercise without consuming any food/snacks or during bouts of illness like the flu when food/beverage consumption is low, and people may be suffering from vomiting/diarrhea. Other than that, these are just sugary beverages that are doing more harm than good.
Coconut water is basically a naturally occurring sports drink. Although it does contain a lot of minerals, it also contains a fair amount of sugar. It can be useful in all the previously mentioned situations where sports drinks can be useful but is unnecessary in most cases. Enjoy it once in a while but no need to consume it in large amounts.
Frequent consumption of any sugar-sweetened beverage is associated with worsening health.23 Although diet sodas do not provide any calories and may be a better substitution compared to a sugar-sweetened beverage, they are not healthy by any means.24 It’s best to avoid all soda—both regular and diet—and replace them with water, coffee (if tolerated) or tea.
Most sparkling water is just water with carbon dioxide added to it. Flavored varieties typically add a non-caloric natural flavor enhancer. There isn’t a lot of data on the health effects of drinking these beverages, but most health experts consider them safe. One potential downside is that the acidic carbon dioxide may degrade the enamel of our teeth. Ways to lessen this effect are to drink from a (reusable) straw, or rinse your mouth with regular water after consumption.
BEVERAGE GUIDE: FINAL THOUGHTS
We hope this beverage guide helps you navigate the diverse world of beverages – there are endless options, so we always encourage you to look beyond the marketing campaigns and do your own research. Stay hydrated, YA•YE Gang!
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- Adolph, E F. “The regulation of the water content of the human organism.” The Journal of physiology 55,1-2 (1921): 114-32. doi:10.1113/jphysiol.1921.sp001960
- Michaud, D S et al. “Fluid intake and the risk of bladder cancer in men.” The New England journal of medicine 340,18 (1999): 1390-7. doi:10.1056/NEJM199905063401803
- Chan, Jacqueline et al. “Water, other fluids, and fatal coronary heart disease: the Adventist Health Study.” American journal of epidemiology 155,9 (2002): 827-33. doi:10.1093/aje/155.9.827
- Zhang, Chi et al. “Tea consumption and risk of cardiovascular outcomes and total mortality: a systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective observational studies.” European journal of epidemiology 30,2 (2015): 103-13. doi:10.1007/s10654-014-9960-x
- Tang, Jun et al. “Tea consumption and mortality of all cancers, CVD and all causes: a meta-analysis of eighteen prospective cohort studies.” The British journal of nutrition 114,5 (2015): 673-83. doi:10.1017/S0007114515002329
- Lorenz, Mario et al. “Addition of milk prevents vascular protective effects of tea.” European heart journal 28,2 (2007): 219-23. doi:10.1093/eurheartj/ehl442
- McKay, Diane L et al. “Hibiscus sabdariffa L. tea (tisane) lowers blood pressure in prehypertensive and mildly hypertensive adults.” The Journal of nutrition 140,2 (2010): 298-303. doi:10.3945/jn.109.115097
- James, Jack E. “Maternal caffeine consumption and pregnancy outcomes: a narrative review with implications for advice to mothers and mothers-to-be.” BMJ evidence-based medicine, bmjebm-2020-111432. 25 Aug. 2020, doi:10.1136/bmjebm-2020-111432
- Zhao, Yimin et al. “Association of coffee drinking with all-cause mortality: a systematic review and meta-analysis.” Public health nutrition 18,7 (2015): 1282-91. doi:10.1017/S1368980014001438
- Loftfield, Erikka et al. “Association of Coffee Consumption With Overall and Cause-Specific Mortality in a Large US Prospective Cohort Study.” American journal of epidemiology 182,12 (2015): 1010-22. doi:10.1093/aje/kwv146
- Cornelis, Marilyn C et al. “Coffee, CYP1A2 genotype, and risk of myocardial infarction.” JAMA 295,10 (2006): 1135-41. doi:10.1001/jama.295.10.1135
- Palatini, Paolo et al. “CYP1A2 genotype modifies the association between coffee intake and the risk of hypertension.” Journal of hypertension 27,8 (2009): 1594-601. doi:10.1097/HJH.0b013e32832ba850
- Di Castelnuovo, Augusto et al. “Alcohol dosing and total mortality in men and women: an updated meta-analysis of 34 prospective studies.” Archives of internal medicine 166,22 (2006): 2437-45. doi:10.1001/archinte.166.22.2437
- Goulden, Robert. “Moderate Alcohol Consumption Is Not Associated with Reduced All-cause Mortality.” The American journal of medicine 129,2 (2016): 180-186.e4. doi:10.1016/j.amjmed.2015.10.013
- Wood, Angela M et al. “Risk thresholds for alcohol consumption: combined analysis of individual-participant data for 599 912 current drinkers in 83 prospective studies.” Lancet (London, England) 391,10129 (2018): 1513-1523. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(18)30134-X
- Bagnardi, V et al. “Light alcohol drinking and cancer: a meta-analysis.” Annals of oncology : official journal of the European Society for Medical Oncology 24,2 (2013): 301-308. doi:10.1093/annonc/mds337
- Kapp, Julie M, and Walton Sumner. “Kombucha: a systematic review of the empirical evidence of human health benefit.” Annals of epidemiology 30 (2019): 66-70. doi:10.1016/j.annepidem.2018.11.001
- Asgary, S et al. “Improvement of hypertension, endothelial function and systemic inflammation following short-term supplementation with red beet (Beta vulgaris L.) juice: a randomized crossover pilot study.” Journal of human hypertension 30,10 (2016): 627-32. doi:10.1038/jhh.2016.34
- Ghavipour, Mahsa et al. “Tomato juice consumption reduces systemic inflammation in overweight and obese females.” The British journal of nutrition 109,11 (2013): 2031-5. doi:10.1017/S0007114512004278
- Guasch-Ferré, Marta, and Frank B Hu. “Are Fruit Juices Just as Unhealthy as Sugar-Sweetened Beverages?.” JAMA network open 2,5 e193109. 3 May. 2019, doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.3109
- Storhaug, Christian Løvold et al. “Country, regional, and global estimates for lactose malabsorption in adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis.” The lancet. Gastroenterology & hepatology 2,10 (2017): 738-746. doi:10.1016/S2468-1253(17)30154-1
- Willett, Walter C, and David S Ludwig. “Milk and Health.” The New England journal of medicine 382,7 (2020): 644-654. doi:10.1056/NEJMra1903547
- Harvard School of Public Health: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-drinks/sugary-drinks/
- Harvard School of Public Health: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/do-you-really-need-that-diet-soda