Drink up!

If you are positively prune-like at the end of Dry January then I hope you feel justifiably proud of yourself. Maybe you’ve seen some health benefits too? I’ve heard people say they sleep better, feel more alert, less depressed and can see improvements in their skin and digestion. It’s a great start to the year.

But what next? 

For many the January alcohol fast is what the Lent Fast used to be – a period of deprivation before resuming normal habits. But when it comes to drinking habits most of us could do with reviewing our idea of normal. The government’s new drinking guidelines have finally made it clear that, while drinking alcohol may be a pleasurable pastime, there is no such thing as safe alcohol consumption.

But your so-called relationship with alcohol is only one aspect of the drinking dilemma: the fluids you consume can make or break your health programme. By the time you’ve sipped your way through an average day you could easily consume your recommended calorie intake and be as high as a kite without getting the nutrients or the water you need.

Although fluid balance is an important part of wellbeing, not many of us manage it optimally. Postponing drinking, like postponing peeing, seems to be a normal part of a busy life, with the result that lots of us suffer cravings, indigestion, constipation, cystitis, headaches, pain, dry skin and sticky eyes because our cells and organs haven’t got enough water to function.

There’s also a lot of disinformation around drinks and fluids. For example, I’ve heard it said that whenever you drink coffee you lose more fluid than you gain: that’s nonsense. And I’ve also read that only clear fluids count: that’s rubbish. Most food and fluids contain significant amounts of water, and it all adds up. Soups and broths are a great way to stay hydrated.

The 2 litres per day recommended water intake doesn’t seem to have much evidence to back it up – much depends on your activity levels, air temperature, salt intake, and your diet in general. Generally speaking you can get away with a little more or less without dire consequences – although the incidence of heart attacks and strokes soars on hot days when blood volume drops and clotting factors rise. Many common symptoms that have us reaching for over-the-counter remedies can be solved just as easily with a pint of water (I’m thinking particularly of indigestion and headaches) and if you want to perform at your best, waiting for thirst signals may leave you behind the curve.

If you are confused about what to drink the following points might help you make better choices:

Spend more on wine

Strange advice from a nutritionist you may think. Despite the new drinking guidelines (which should put an end to people claiming that the resveratrol content of the bottle of wine they’ve just consumed justifies the consumption) I don’t believe there’s any need to give up alcohol completely. But most of us could do with cutting down.

My cunning suggestion is a simple maths equation. I’m not suggesting you spend more in total but that you divide the same budget by fewer bottles. If you want to halve your drinking, double your bottle price. Once you are spending more per bottle, you’ll start to notice the individual characteristics of the wine, you’ll also think twice about downing a glass of it without paying attention. I believe it will increase your enjoyment while decreasing your consumption. If you want to take it even further there are plenty of courses you can do to enhance your appreciation of the art and science of wine making.

There are, of course, other ways to reduce your alcohol intake. It’s good to have two or three alcohol-free days each week, and you can significantly reduce the amount you drink if you have a glass of water between alcoholic drinks when socialising.

Take your time over coffee

I’ve always been a fan of fresh coffee, it contains useful minerals and flavonoids, and alkaloids which help your gallbladder contract and play a role in alleviating constipation. Diabetics who drink more coffee have been shown to have better blood glucose control too. But, let’s be clear, it’s not a thirst-quencher.

Coffee is a stimulant, a pick-me up, and we do well to respect that when we drink it. Treat your coffee break as a restorative oasis in your day: slow down, come to your senses. If you can, choose a nice cup, find a comfortable chair with a good view, pick up the crossword, or do a mindfulness exercise. Five minutes is all it takes. Pour yourself a glass of water and drink it at the same time, Italian style.

Be adventurous with tea

Sometimes hot drinks are used more as a sugar hit than a way to savour the flavour. If you are hooked on tea (or coffee for that matter) with lots of milk and sugar, it could be time to rethink your habit: try a slice of lemon instead of milk; look for more exotic teas like Earl Grey, Kusmi tea, or the Dragonfly range that taste great with nothing added; or pour nearly boiling water over a bunch of fresh herbs and spices such as mint or sage or ginger.

That said, I’ve seen food diaries where the nutrition provided by several daily cups of tea may well best thing about the diet! Builders’ tea does provide useful antioxidants so there’s no need to give it up: just ditch the sweetness, including sweeteners.

Get particular about water

Have you noticed that hot drinks taste better made with filtered water? They don’t have that strange film on the top either. Filtering your water not only removes contaminating particles like bacteria, chlorine and heavy metals, it also completely changes the flavour. Lots of people find drinking plain water unpalatable until they filter it.

For me, using filtered water for drinks and cooking is a fundamental; there’s a filter on my kitchen tap. I aim to drink a litre of plain water during my working day, and keep an attractive BPA free drinking bottle on my desk to make it happen. Along with a couple of cups of tea and coffee, and a glass of water at meals and bedtime, my fluid intake comes to well over 2 litres per day and that seems to work well for me. If the central heating is working hard or the weather is hot, I’ll adjust accordingly.

Clients often tell me that when they first start drinking more water it goes straight through them, and they spend more time in the loo. Too true! It’s like house plants – if they are bone-dry when you water them it drains straight through and pools in the bottom of the pot, but when you pour water into hydrated soil it soaks it up like a sponge. Our bodies are a bit like that: the more hydrated we are the better the fluid exchange at cellular level. Drinking water is a habit – the more you do it, the better it works and the better you feel.

Ditch sweet drinks

Fruity and fizzy drinks have no place in a healthy diet; no one I know needs to drink any extra calories. Even athletes who buy into the idea that energy drinks improve performance are simply disrupting their body’s natural ability to manage energy levels to the detriment of their overall wellbeing. It may make you faster but it doesn’t make you healthier which, to my mind, misses the point.

Fruit based juices, smoothies, drinks and cordials, fizzy drinks and flavoured waters are yet another way to drip feed sugar into our systems. Sure, they prop up flagging energy levels, and they do provide hydration, but they are contributing to a worrying rise in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), a condition that used to be found only in alcoholics but is now being observed even in children, the result of excess sugars, and fructose in particular. They feed the ‘sweet tooth’ mentality, providing empty calories that fuel appetite and lead to obesity. What’s more they alter flavour perceptions to the extent that kids believe that plain water is ‘boring’. And I’m sure I don’t have to explain how completely bonkers that is: drinks are not supposed to be a form of entertainment. If you crave a few bubbles now and again, try some sparkling water with half a lime squeezed into it. Heaven on a hot day!

So, there you have it, a trot around the drinks menu to help you maintain the good work you have done during January, and build on it during the coming year. The basic message is that the only drink we should be consuming ad libitum is plain, filtered water. Other drinks have their place but they all – not just alcohol – need to be consumed responsibly if you want to remain on top form.