Drinking well for health and hydration

by Nicky Gilbert - dietitian, lecturer and Registered Sport and Exercise Nutritionist

We all know that keeping hydrated is essential for health and wellbeing, but when it comes to putting it into practice, it just isn’t quite so easy to get it right. Our drinking habits and choices may need to vary with fluctuating temperatures, not just the weather but our surroundings as well – our clothes, central heating, air con all affect our hydration status as well as activities, training and other lifestyle demands.

So in short, what might be perfect drinking practices on one day may not match your needs on another. Just to further confuse things, very few of us have any awareness of the nutritional content of what we’re drinking and whether we’re making a healthy choice or not.

How much should we drink each day?

Some fluid comes from our food, especially fruit and vegetables which have a high-water content so getting your ‘5 a day’ also helps hydration.

However, each day adults also need to drink at least 6-8 large (250ml or just a bit less than a half pint) mugs or glasses of fluid, which is roughly a minimum of 1.6-2 litres.

Give some consideration to the conditions in which you work, live and exercise and adapt your intake accordingly. Most of us will need to drink more to compensate for losses from sweating during exercise, and from being in air-conditioned or heated vehicles and buildings, wearing thick layers or protective clothing or from training in hot, dry or humid conditions.

Risks for dehydration

- Heating and air con

- Hot environment

- Protective clothing

- Limited access to fluid

- Not taking breaks

- Long hours working or exercising

- Impact on performance

Physical Effects

- Reduction in strength

- Perception of effort is increased

- Tiredness and fatigue

Mental Effects

- Poor concentration

- Reduced skill / accuracy

- Impedes decision making

Monitor your urine colour using the pee test

This is a simple and easy way to check if you are drinking enough.  If you are drinking enough at regular intervals, then you should be visiting the toilet frequently during the day, and your urine should be pale and plentiful.

How often should I be drinking?

Take time for regular drinks breaks to maintain hydration – from the time you get up, throughout the day and during any activity. The problem is that we frequently fail to recognise dehydration until we become thirsty and then it is too late. It is far better to take preventative measures, for as well as limiting our physical performance being dehydrated can affect our decision making and concentration and more prone to be grumpy and anxious.

Some practical reminders to prompt regular drinking

✓ Aim to drink at least 4-5 drinks during a typical 8 hr working day

✓ Take a drinks bottle / travel mug with you on your commute

✓ Keep a refillable drinks bottle on your desk

✓ Take regular drinks breaks

✓ Drink when active

✓ Make use of prompts and reminders e.g. apps, electronic alarms or simply a ‘post-it’ reminder

✓ Ensure you have access to drinking water, hot and cold drink facilities

✓ Keep a drinks diary to track your habits, noting how often and how much you drink

What are the healthiest drink choices?

✓ Both tap water and skimmed milk are healthy choices for frequent drinking. For most of our daily activities, refilling a bottle with tap water alone or with a sugar free flavouring is a cheap, effective and environmentally friendly approach to keeping hydrated.

✓ Skimmed milk also has hydration boosting qualities, is tooth friendly and a nutritious source of calcium and protein.

X Use of sports drinks may be helpful for hydration during lengthy and intensive training sessions, however reliance is not recommended as these acidic drinks can impair dental health.

X It is also wise to be cautious about caffeine in drinks. Not just present in tea and coffee but also chocolate, colas and many sports and energy drinks, it can be easy to exceed safe intakes. Whilst caffeine can usefully reduce sleepiness and aid alertness, it can also increase anxiety, irritability, disturb sleep and you may need more trips to the loo!

Making good fluid choices

Either tap or bottled is fine.

Tap is more environmentally friendly but bottled water might be safer especially when travelling overseas.

Fizzy drinks, squash and flavoured water
All of these can be high in sugar so be sure to look at labels and choose low sugar versions.

All types are acidic and not ideal as the main choice for hydration.

Milk - skimmed or semi-skimmed
Low fat milk is ideal for regular drinking throughout the day.

With isotonic properties, it is highly effective for rehydration after exercise and ideal as a nutrient-rich recovery drink before bedtime.

Plant-based alternatives can be a healthy option – choose those that are fortified with essential nutrients.

Fruit juices and smoothies
A small glass a day contributes one portion of fruit to your ‘five-a-day’ and can also provide essential Vitamin C and other nutrients. However, it is best to restrict intake to just one glass a day as these drinks are also sugary and acidic.

Tea and coffee
Tea and coffee and all types of fruit and herbal teas can helpfully boost daily fluid intake.

Caffeine intakes of up to 400mg/day, or equivalent to 4-5 cups of coffee, tend not to be dehydrating but it is wise to choose decaffeinated alternatives after midday if caffeine causes sleep disturbances.

Be careful not to overconsume ‘coffee-shop’ style drinks which tend to be much higher in sugar and calories.

Sports drinks
Some legitimately support and enhance hydration and effective rehydration and may be suitable for harder, intense or endurance activities (more than 1 hour of intense activity).

However, they also tend to be sugary and acidic, and with many containing caffeine, cannot be considered healthy for frequent use.

Energy drinks
The majority contain a mixture of sugar and caffeine and act as stimulants. They are not considered suitable for effective and healthy hydration and simply contribute to increasing your calorie intake!

And finally, a word about alcohol!

1. Men and women should drink no more than 2-3 alcoholic drinks, 2-3 times as week

2. Alcoholic drinks do not contribute to hydration and can cause dehydration and sleep disturbances.

3. Safe and healthy drinking habits are the same for men and women

✓  14 units or less per week

✓  More alcohol-free days in the week

✓  NO to binge-drinking

Refer to for further recommendations about safe alcohol intake and some useful resources.

Set a healthy drinking goal and make a plan to work towards it

Now think about what is important to you and what you are most able to put in place to drink more healthily. Remember it is best to start with something small that you can achieve relatively easily before moving on to the next step.

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