We’ve probably all heard this one before: drinking water can help with weight loss. But is it really true? And if so, how does it work? There has been endless debate on this topic, and unlike a lot of other weight loss tips and tricks, there’s more than just a grain of truth to this one.
The fact is that studies have shown an association between drinking more water and losing weight while dieting, and between drinking more water and lower overall body mass. The tricky word here is “association:” drinking gallons of water each day won’t help you lose weight in and of itself.
If anything, drinking extreme quantities of water is just as bad as any other excess. But here are the facts and reasons for how drinking water can help you shed the pounds.
Hungry or Thirsty?
It may be more difficult than we think to tell the difference between hunger and thirst, according to a study by Dr. Richard Mattes of Purdue University. Hopefully we’re all familiar with the idea that most foods contain a certain amount of water. In the animal kingdom, birds and insects get most of their water from the foods they eat.
For us humans, there’s a similar mental association between thirst and food, which can make it difficult to know whether we’re hungry or merely thirsty. When we think we’re hungry, many of us may reach for a snack, mistaking thirst for hunger, which can be a huge contributing factor when it comes to body weight.
This is why many nutritionists and common weight-loss lore encourage us to drink a glass of water before meals and instead of eating when we feel idly hungry. Instead of consuming calories that we might not need, drinking a glass of water and waiting a little while helps us figure out whether we really were hungry after all.
Water Beats Sugar
Lots of us have a tendency to drink sugary drinks: juice, soft drinks, and all kinds of products that are marketed as “thirst-quenching” or full of electrolytes. When it comes down to it, it’s important to understand that plain old water is the best thirst-quencher there is.
Replacing soft-drinks (even diet ones!) with water can aid in weight loss in several ways.
Water: the Calorie Void
Water has zero calories, period. On the other hand, if you’re drinking a can of soda every day, that’s 200-300 calories! Most people who drink soda consume more of it than that, and replacing soft-drinks with plain old water adds up fast in terms of calorie savings.
Water doesn’t mess with blood sugar
Replacing those sugar-packed soft drinks with water will help regulate your blood sugar, and therefore will make you feel less hungry throughout the day. Every time you drink a can of soda, the 30-odd grams of sugar you’re consuming go straight to your bloodstream: for a while it feels great, but the blood sugar spike stimulates the production of insulin, the hormone that takes sugar out of the bloodstream and converts it into fat.
Insulin can be very good at its job; so good, in fact, that your blood sugar drops below normal, making you feel crabby, anxious, and headachey. Most of all, the blood sugar spike and drop makes you crave more sugar, and that’s how you find yourself heading to the fridge for another soda or for a snack.
Replacing soda with water halts this cycle, which means that you don’t feel hungry as frequently throughout the day.
Double-crossed by diet drinks
You might think that diet soda is a safe and tasty alternative to sugary drinks, and for a long time, the scientific community agreed. However, a recent review of studies on diet drinks and weight loss by Purdue University suggested a different and more complicated story.
According to a review study by the National Institutes of Health, what we gain in calorie savings by drinking diet soda may be offset by some unexpected psychological consequences.
The first is thanks to a concept called “cognitive distortion”: by drinking diet soda, we subconsciously feel like we can afford to make up for it by overeating or consuming sugar in some other form. Even though this fundamentally defeats the purpose, it’s not under our conscious control, which makes it difficult to avoid on purpose.
The second concept functions on a deeper level, and is still being researched by scientists: the theory is that when you drink an artificially sweetened drink, the flavor receptors in your mouth are signaling your digestive system to prepare itself for the arrival of an energy-rich meal.
When the anticipated calories never show up, the digestive system gets confused, and you’re left feeling vaguely dissatisfied. Moreover, researchers have found that artificial sweeteners alter the composition of good bacteria in our stomachs and intestines. These bacteria promote chemical signaling that regulates the release of insulin into the bloodstream; artificial sweeteners disrupt these bacteria, in turn deregulating insulin production.
As a result, insulin is released even when blood sugar is at low or normal levels, pulling sugar out of your bloodstream and causing a similar kind of blood sugar crash as what we described before. In the short term, you end up feeling hungry all over again, and in the long term, this kind of disruption can even lead to diabetes.
These processes underline the fact that water is much more reliable for weight-loss than even diet drinks: instead of trying to trick yourself by drinking something that tastes sweet but has no sugar, you’re being upfront with your body and your brain, so no psychological effects kick in to sabotage your calorie-saving efforts.
Getting enough water: hydration tricks
There are lots of ways to drink enough water to aid in your weight-loss quest, so we’ll go over a few of the basics to getting what you need out of water.
Make basic guidelines work for you
Experts say that to stay optimally hydrated and to avoid those false hunger signals, you should drink a glass every few hours. That might sound like a lot, but the size of the glass is actually very flexible: you can tell how much is enough by keeping an eye on the color of your pee!
Urine should be pale yellow in color; clear urine means too much water, and dark urine indicates dehydration. Every person’s hydration requirements will differ based on weight, height, activity level, and environmental factors like temperature and humidity.
Making water more interesting
Even the most refreshing filtered water can be improved by a boost of flavor, and there are many healthy ways to liven it up without using artificial substances:
- Water can take on a whole new character when consumed as tea, especially green tea, which has metabolism-boosting properties. Be careful about consuming too much caffeine though! Caffeine is a diuretic, meaning that it stimulates the kidneys to process liquids more quickly, so you’ll lose water faster than usual and have to drink even more.
- Sparkling or carbonated water can be a lively alternative to water, though it should be avoided by those of us with IBS because of all that excess CO2.
- Agua Fresca is a fancy name for water infused with pieces of fruit or vegetables. Consider chilling a pitcher of water with slices of citrus, rind and all. Raspberries and cucumbers are also a great option, since both have flavors that carry well in water. That said, avoid non-organic fruit and vegetable rinds, since these may still contain nasty pesticides and chemicals.