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The Problem with Sugar (and Other Sweeteners) When You’re Trying to Stay Hydrated

Why you can’t just drink a bunch of zero-calorie sodas (or other sugary beverages) and provide your body proper hydration

In pursuit of hydration (and let’s face it, a sugary treat in liquid form), many people consume sodas and other sweetened beverages as a substitute for water. There are a few problems with that. First off, your body metabolizes sugars in ways that require more water, which then actively thwarts reaching proper hydration. Zero-calorie sweetened drinks are sugar-free, but they contain sucralose and aspartame, which pose their own growing list of potential health problems, especially when consumed in high amounts. Plus, evidence is growing to suggest that both sugar and those sweet alternatives (natural and artificial) have addictive qualities that not only make it difficult to drop the soda habit but also lead people to eat more sweet snacks throughout their day. This all compounds the problem of maintaining proper hydration.

Liquid is liquid though, right? Doesn’t our digestive system extract that water content from whatever we eat or drink and provide that hydration to various organ systems and cells throughout our bodies? The process is more complicated than that simple description, and ultimately, the answer is: no, not all beverages are created equal. 

First off, metabolizing sugar in your stomach and digestive tract requires water, so right off the bat, you have less of it to distribute out to the rest of your body. The bigger problem exists, though, at a cellular level — which is ultimately where we want the water in our system to end up. Healthy, well-hydrated cells do all the wonderful things for our body that keep our system running smoothly: making our joints juicy, our brain sharp, our skin elastic. 

The cells in your body are always trying to create balance with the blood composition surrounding them. Consumption of sugar increases its concentration in your bloodstream, and as a result, water will move out of your cells to dilute your blood and equalize the concentration of sugar within and outside the cells. That directly reduces cell function and leads to many of the negative effects of being under-hydrated. At the same time, sugar triggers the pancreas to release insulin in order to help sugar pass into your cells — again to create that equilibrium in sugar concentration. In moderate amounts, that insulin transfer will provide energy for cells. But if you’re drinking and eating an excessive amount of the sweet stuff — not burning off that extra energy with exercise — your cells will convert that untapped energy into fat. 

The picture with artificial sweeteners is more complex because those compounds are designed to trick the body into thinking that they aren’t sugar. Research into the effects of sucralose and aspartame (the most common artificial sweeteners in beverages) have shown negative impact on kidney health, as well as a host of other potentially harmful side effects. The link to dehydration is less clear, but the idea of drinking several cans of diet soda or other sweetened beverages as a replacement for water is a bad idea for a number of reasons. 

The problem is now made more complicated by the latest marketing repositioning for sweetened drinks that fall into what was once called the “diet” category. Market research has shown that the term “diet” has fallen out of favor with consumers, particularly younger ones, and the new buzzword that has taken its place is “zero.” Zero of course refers to the calorie count for these beverages, which glosses over all the negative effects of alternative sweeteners when they enter our bodies. It also creates a sense that these products are “pure” or “clean” — much in the same way that one might think of something like… water. 

In the end, water is the most effective and efficient way to hydrate the body. For those that find plain water boring or hard to consume in large amounts, carbonated water or water with natural fruit flavor is a good way to mix things up and stay hydrated. The flavor essences in Hint water have no sweeteners, sugar, or preservatives, so it provides a great way to add some variety to your water consumption routine.

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