Is Your Favourite Drink Healthy?
Whether your glass is half-empty or full doesn’t matter so much as what’s in it. Fix your drinks – and watch your health improve
Getting your diet right is fundamental to improving your health, physique and performance. Anyone with the slightest interest in their own body knows that. But when it comes to what you drink, things get a bit more... fluid.
It’s all too easy, for instance, to undo a day’s healthy eating with one large mochaccino, or to kid yourself that calories from beer don’t really count while forgetting that, since they’re mostly coming from sugar, you’re setting yourself up for a fat-storing insulin spike with every gulp. The average American, according to research published in the Journal Of Clinical Nutrition, consumes around 400 calories in liquid form a day, and the UK isn’t far behind – and with drink sizes creeping up, it’s only going to get worse.
On the flipside, there are definite benefits to drinking your calories… if you’re doing it properly. The same reasons drinking can be problematic – it’s quick, and it’s easier than eating when on the go – can also make it a handy way to help you hit your goals. If you’re trying to add strength or size and you’re struggling to hit your daily macro totals, adding milk to your protein shake is a no-brainer. If you’re trying to eat an extra daily portion or two of vegetables, getting them in juice or form isn’t necessarily ideal, but it’s a lot better than neglecting them entirely.
And, of course, if you’re trying to get your body to run like a well-oiled machine, good old H20 is the only lubricant you need. So sit down, raise a glass, and recalibrate your fluid intake today. It might be the only tweak you need to get a body worth drinking to.
The bad Almost nothing: it’s the bringer of life, and essential for a whole host of your body’s most important processes. Yes, you can theoretically overdose – more than two litres an hour isn’t recommended – but a more likely problem is that while glugging, you won’t take in enough electrolytes to undo the damage of dehydration. Fix it by lightly salting your food with Himalayan pink salt: it has more trace minerals than standard table salt.
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The good Everything else. Proper hydration improves blood flow, kidney function and cognition, as well as keeping the body’s processes online for better fat loss and improved sleep. It can also aid fullness – worth bearing in mind if you’re trying to resist the lure of the snack drawer.
Alternative sources Technically, there aren’t any, though the European Food Safety Authority now recommends that 20-30% of your daily intake should come from food.
If you’re going to drink it... Keep it regular. If you’re used to sitting at your desk for extended periods, set a phone reminder app to let you know it’s time to grab a glass. Want to go more low-tech? Take a swig every time you put the kettle on or have a snack, preferably before anything else passes your lips.
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The bad It depends on your constitution. “Milk can cause inflammation and be hard to digest, which in turn can have a negative effect on your hormones,” says trainer, nutritionist and Multipower ambassador Ant Nyman. Your tolerance of the milk sugar lactose can vary depending on DNA, with the odd evolutionary quirk making you better (or worse) able to digest it. If you’re unsure, a mini-elimination diet is cheaper than DNA testing. Cut it out for a fortnight, then bring it back and note any differences in energy or body fat.
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The good It’s a fine source of calcium, potassium and vitamin D – and a cheap way to load up on casein, which can give you a solid slow-digesting hit of protein if you take it in your whey shake.
Alternative sources If intolerance is a problem, goat’s milk has comparable calcium and protein to cow’s milk, but it’s easier to digest because of lower lactose levels. “Alternatively, try some of the new milk alternatives like rice, hemp and almond,” suggests nutritionist and anti-ageing expert Rick Hay. “Almond is high in vitamin E, while hemp is packed with omega 3 fatty acids, magnesium, betacarotene, iron and essential amino acids.”
If you’re going to drink it… For an occasional splosh in tea, any milk is fine but if you’re a more hardcore consumer, consider investing in quality. According to a study published in the Journal Of Clinical Nutrition, drinking full-fat dairy products can actually lower your risk of heart attack – if the cows were grass-fed, which increases their milk’s concentration of the healthy fat CLA.
The bad You know this one already. “Regular fizzy drinks are laced with sugar,” says Mary Cotter, nutritional therapist at Nuffield Health. “There can be up to ten teaspoons of sugar in one can. Sugar triggers the release of fat-storing hormone insulin, and wreaks havoc with energy. Some fizzy drinks contain caffeine, and the combination of sugar and caffeine puts the body on ‘high alert’, triggers the release of stress hormones, and creates energy slumps. They are not suitable for hydration during exercise because of the high sugar content.” So… pretty bad.
Even in “diet” versions, the artificial sweeteners interfere with hunger hormones ghrelin and leptin, changing how our gut and brain communicate and telling our brain we are hungry when we are not. According to multiple studies, diet drink consumers tend to pack on the calories elsewhere.
The good Yes, there are benefits to using some soft drinks as fuel – but that doesn’t mean swigging Dr Pepper before a 20-minute jog around the park. “If you are planning on exercising for 90 minutes or more, you could benefit from an isotonic sports drink – they provide both carbohydrate and electrolytes to maintain glycogen stores and speed up hydration,” says Cotter. “Don’t confuse them with ‘energy’ drinks, which contain too much sugar and can hinder hydration.”
Alternative sources If all you want is a fizzy pick-me-up, a squeeze and/or slice of lemon or lime in sparkling water should be your go-to: it has a slight insulin-blunting effect, as well as hydrating you. Alternatively, go classy. “Switch to kombucha,” suggests Cotter. “It’s a slightly fizzy fermented tea which comes with a host of gut-friendly bacteria, and it’s great for supporting the immune system during heavy workouts and keeping your gut happy on a long run. You could even switch the Friday wine for kombucha and ice in a wine glass.” Kombucha’s available from health food stores in a variety of natural flavours – and it’s easy and cheap to make your own if you want.
If you’re going to drink them... At least save them for training days (and preferably around your workouts), when your body will use some of the sugar to replace glycogen stores. Or go diet, and have a healthy snack on hand – a handful of walnuts will do it – to save your body from getting too confused.
The bad Don’t believe what you’ve been told about beer’s ability to lower blood pressure, improve cognition or reduce the risk of kidney stones. Yes, there are small, inconclusive studies suggesting that beer can help with any of them, but the calorie hike and increased risk of alcohol-related accidents easily offset any possible benefits.
The good Not much. “There are some social and psychological benefits of alcohol,” says Cotter. “The occasional drink with friends can be a social tonic – but so could heading out for a game of five-a-side or a walk with your wife.” And the other benefits are fairly limited. “Moderate amounts of alcohol have been shown to raise levels of HDL or ‘good’ cholesterol,” says Cotter. “For a 60-year-old man, one drink a day may offer protection against heart disease that is likely to outweigh potential harm.”
Alternative sources Yes, there’s vitamin B in beer – thank the brewing process – but not so fast: there’s also evidence that alcohol blocks its bioavailability, mitigating those effects. Get it from eggs instead.
If you’re going to drink it… Keep it to the NHS recommendations: 14 units or less a week, and preferably less than four a day. Try to have two consecutive days off each week to let your liver get to grips with the damage, and give it a helping hand. “Increase your intake of liver-supportive foods and antioxidants such as beetroot, B vitamins, green tea, as well as cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli, kale, cauliflower and brussels sprouts,” says Cotter. “If you fancy a beer, make a cauliflower and chickpea curry to have with it, steam-fry cabbage with ginger and oyster sauce, or put kale in a salad. Or juice a beetroot with carrot, orange and ginger for a chaser.”
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The bad There’s some, but most of it comes under the category “optional extras”. “If you’re loading up on milk, sugar, foam or whipped cream, you aren’t doing yourself any favours,” says Nyman. Drinking it to excess can also cause restlessness or insomnia – or decrease its effectiveness as a stimulant. There’s no evidence that the caffeine “taper” practised by some cyclists actually work – but you should still cap your intake at two or three cups per day.
The good It’s a workout aid. According to one PubMed study, it can improve performance by up to 12%. Caffeine also helps fat cells break down body fat and use it as fuel for training, and there’s some evidence that in moderate doses coffee can prevent stroke and certain forms of cancer.
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Alternative sources For cancer protection, colourful veg is key; for a caffeine hit, green or black tea will do the trick. If you’re feeling low on energy in the mornings, though, fixing your light levels might be as effective as chugging an Americano: install the F.Lux app to filter the blue light out of your screens at night, then try to get a hit of sunshine early in the morning.
If you’re going to drink it... Time it properly. “Trial and error is best here, but most people benefit from having a black coffee or an espresso ten to 20 minutes before a workout,” says Nyman. “Avoid having coffee later in the day – it’ll get your heart racing when you’re supposed to be settling down and getting ready to sleep. Sleep is a vital part of achieving the body and health you desire, so take it seriously.”
The bad It takes out all the good parts. “Fruit in its natural form is high in fibre, aids digestion and provides vitamins,” says Nyman. “In fruit juice form, however, much of the fibre has been removed – you’re simply slurping on sugar.”
The good “If you’re going to have fruit juice, the best time is post-workout when the high sugar content would go some way towards refilling glycogen levels that have been depleted during your workout,” says Nyman. “Cranberry juice is a good option because it’s high in helpful antioxidants.”
Alternative sources For vitamin C and antioxidants, go straight to the source: eat your fruit without processing, or whizz it into a smoothie where the fibre content stays (mostly) intact. Or take the hipster option: “Cold-pressed juice is a much healthier choice,” says Hay. “It keeps more of the fibre and nutrient content intact, and that will help with digestive function and to keep blood sugar levels more steady.”
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If you’re going to drink it... Choose wisely, and don’t stick to fruit. Beetroot juice is the pros’ pick: beets contain high levels of nitrates, which the body converts into nitrate oxide – boosting endurance and improving performance during high-intensity exercise. Drinking 500ml a couple of hours before exercise can give you a 2% increase in cardio economy.
The bad If you’re serious about gains, a glass or two a day is too much. “Even low intakes of alcohol can affect your muscles,” says Cotter. “Alcohol slows muscle recovery because it is a diuretic and this leads to dehydration and electrolyte imbalances, increasing your risk of cramps and muscle strains.” Booze also interferes with sleep quality, creating a spike in cortisol which wakes you up too early and reduces the body’s recovery time. Binge drinking can also reduce testosterone levels – and, of course, it’s a source of empty calories, which aren’t ideal for fuelling for your efforts. Leave 48 hours between boozing and any serious training session.
The good Are you sitting down? “There’s nothing proven,” says Cotter. “The so-called French Paradox – which attributes the low incidence of cardiovascular disease in France to wine, among other things – actually probably arises from a number of factors, such as the tendency to consume fewer calories, sugar and fried food, coupled with a healthier work/life balance in comparison with other developed nations – not just drinking red wine.”
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Alternative sources Perhaps you’re drinking it for the resveratrol, the much-touted wonder-nutrient found in most glasses of red? The truth is, other sources do it better. “You can get resveratrol by eating any dark red or purple fruit or vegetables,” says Cotter. “Red grapes don’t need to be fermented into wine to do the job, and blueberries, peanuts and dark chocolate all work too.”
If you’re going to drink it... The units-per-week rules of booze still apply, but also consider the damage that you’re doing to your folate levels. “Folate plays a role in preventing cell mutation – a risk factor for cancer – and alcohol blocks its absorption,” says Cotter. “If you choose to drink, consider eating more dark green leafy vegetables daily. Throw some spinach in a smoothie, or kale in your stir-fry.”
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From 2008 to 2018, Joel worked for Men's Fitness, which predated, and then shared a website with, Coach. Though he spent years running the hills of Bath, he’s since ditched his trainers for a succession of Converse high-tops, since they’re better suited to his love of pulling vans, lifting cars, and hefting logs in a succession of strongman competitions.