Monday, 2 December 2013

The drinking water myth


So we all know that you should drink quite a lot of water to stay healthy, right? It reduces the strain on your kidneys and your bladder. It's good for your bowel. And your skin. And it stops you getting 'dehydrated'.

Well, regular readers will recall that I'm writing a book right now on 'The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain'. And I'm afraid to say that - just as most people didn't smell that bad, despite only having a bath once or twice a week - we don't appear to need that much water after all. All those cups of tea and coffee that people drank instead during the 1950s and 1960s? That might have done just as well.

So where did the idea come from? Well, it probably came from three, relatively interconnected, historical sources: the first, state-driven attempts to make us 'better', and 'healthier', partly so that we could ward off foreign menaces and serve the warfare state of the 1940s and 1950s. It does look as if the US National Academy of Sciences was the source of the idea (registration required), in a not-very-well-sourced set of 1945 recommendations. The second reason? Bottled water's attempts, from the 1970s onwards, to persuade us that it's 'purer' and 'better' than tap water - though it isn't, of course. A third reason for the rise of this concept, which has seen everyone marching around with plastic bottles of water even though they don't feel thirsty, is an increasing food festishism and faddism related to the way in which we eat food. Hunger? Seasonality? They're almost gone, relaced by a set of food-as-lifestyle indicators that are supposed to say more about who you are than how you feel. Bottled water makes you look healthy, fashionable and busy: you'd better get it down you if you want to look like a top sportsman or woman. Even they don't need quite so many bottles of isotonic sports drinks as they're told, but still.

Sure, if you're going to the gym a lot, or sweating it out in some hot climes, you should in all probability get a couple of litres in you a day. And it's better than guzzling down all those calories in fruit drinks. Otherwise, your body will just retain more of what you've got - and you should be more than okay. You can get most of the water you need from the food you eat anyway. Get plenty of fruit and vegetables and a couple of glasses of water in you every day, and you'll probably be fine.

That's it for today - not much of a public health announcement, but enlightening about our mythic 'knowledge' and common sense, all the same. 

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