Driving down one of the main roads where I live, I recently saw a recurring ad. The copy of the ad reads “Not all waters were created equal”. This attracted my attention as I have long known this, and it has been on my list of blog post themes to cover for a while. Unfortunately for them, it is not clear what water is being advertised. Nice message, but bad advertising! But I digress.
As someone who drinks about 3 litres of water daily, I have always taken great care to pick good quality waters. I might not know my wines, but I think I am well on my way to becoming a water sommelier. Apart from various research papers, studies and articles, I spend a fair amount of time at the supermarket carefully reading the labels on the water bottles before I pick one to put in my trolley. I have my trusted brand but it isn’t always in stock, and every so often I also like to try a new one. You might also catch me reading the labels when I am served a bottle in a restaurant or other F&B outlet.
No, I am not mad. Not entirely, at least. The reasoning behind such scrupulous research is very simple. Consider the fact that water makes up between 60 and 80% of the human body, and that water is not just important to stay hydrated, but it is also essential in bodily functions including in helping with the elimination of toxins, as well as in transporting nutrients in the body. However, none of this can happen unless the water you drink is the right water. A case in question was during my last holiday. Regardless of the amounts of water I drank (3 to 4 litres) a day, I was constantly thirsty, and although my diet had changed, it was not bad enough to explain the sudden constipation I suffered from, nor the constant thirst. I realised into my third day there, that the problem was that I was dehydrated and the water we were being served was not helping with this. A careful look at the label confirmed this. I started drinking a pot of tea, two or three times a day, in between bottles of water that is, and everything reverted to normal as if by magic. I stopped feeling thirsty and started eliminating toxins again.
Why we need water (but we can live without food for days)
We have all heard how it is possible for the human body to survive without food for days, but it won’t go very far without water. Why do we need water?
1. To stay hydrated – water is essential for all bodily functions.
2. To help weight management – the water in vegetables slows down absorption and contributes to the feeling of being fuller. Your body is also geared to send you signals. If you ignore feelings of thirst and you don’t drink sufficient water, it will revert to plan B, which is to send feelings of hunger, as it knows it can get water from food. (Remember this next time you are hungry, drink a couple of glasses of water and wait 10 minutes and see if the hunger abates before you stuff your mouth with unnecessary calories.)
3. Helps to maintain muscle tone - (think of the cramps after strenuous exercise!)
4. Helps your skin to glow, to keep it toned and smooth – rather than lathering on creams, try drinking more water! Hydrate from the inside out, rather than from the outside in.
5. Helps kidney function – the kidneys are the filter in your body which help expel toxins.
6. Helps you stay regular and maintain healthy intestinal functions, from the gallbladder, bile ducts all the way down the gut!
7. Helps prevent metabolic syndrome – studies have shown that the consumption of mineral waters may help prevent metabolic syndrome.
Some water is also contained in other foods (especially fresh fruits and vegetables) but you would need to eat large amounts to keep your body properly functioning and sufficiently hydrated, so it is essential to drink plain water.
So how do you go about choosing the right water for you?
The different properties of water
Water is classified on the basis of four main characteristics, which are outlined below. It is also worth noting that although most medical texts recommend the average adult should be drinking 1.5 to 2 litres of water per day (excluding teas and other drinks), the amount depends on many factors including your body mass, age, level of physical exercise, health needs and your environment. Aside from the obvious (you will need more water in warmer climates and when you sweat more due to intense physical activity), the water you drink will also affect your health. Remember not all waters were created equal!
Water is generally classified on the basis of:
1. Fixed residue – the amount of residual mineral salts (in mg) after the evaporation of 1 litre of water at 180°C.
Levels below 50mg/L means the water has very low mineral content. This is suitable for children and to help get rid of kidney stones.
Levels between 50-500mg/L is water which is slightly mineralised and is suitable for everyday consumption by everyone. In Italy there is even a specific name for this and it will appear on commercial water labels as “Oligominerale”.
Levels between 500-1500mg/L is when a water can be called mineral water. This is a good choice for athletes but best avoided by people with kidney problems.
Levels over 1500mg/L should only be drank under medical supervision as the high content of minerals can interfere with many functions in the body.
Bear in mind that “light” water with the lowest fixed residue is more diuretic as it also contains lower levels of sodium.
2. pH level – in other words is your water more acid or alkali? The pH level indicates the concentration of hydrogen ions and the amount of protons. Levels below pH7 indicate the water as acidic, anything over pH7 is alkali, and a pH of 7 is neutral. Most of the waters found at the supermarket will be pH7 or less, which is fine as long as your diet is not over acidic. Remember, to sustain health it is better to keep your body slightly alkali, but without overdoing it, as too much alkalinity and you will undo all your hard work! Similarly an acidic body breeds more free radicals which in turn speed up ageing and increase the risk of disease. As always, the right amount is somewhere in the middle. When in doubt choose neutral water with a pH value of 7.
On the subject of acidity it should be noted that people who drink fizzy drinks as a norm, in addition to the excess sugar, caffeine and additives contained in these, are promotiong a very acidic environment in their body since the average fizzy drink has a pH of 2.5!
3. Hardness – this indicates how much calcium and magnesium the water contains. It is measured in degrees (F) and each degree is the equivalent of 10mg/L. So soft water will be 15 F or under, whilst hard water will be 30F or over.
The RDA for magnesium is approximately 500mg. Water containing more than 50mg of magnesium per litre will be considered high in magnesium. Magnesic water, containing values higher than 50mg/L potentially has no harmful side effects except it has a strong laxative effect (you have been warned!). Magnesic water has also been found useful in the prevention of arteroscleorisis due to its dilating effect of the arteries.
Calcium on the other hand, is useful for teeth, bones, nervous system health and in blood clotting. The average amount found in most commercially available waters is between 50 to 150mg/L. Higher levels are only recommended during pregnancy and as a preventative measure for osteoporosis. In fact, studies have found that calcium-rich water is as good a source, if not better, for calcium than dairy products. It is has been shown to be more bioavailable than calcium sourced from food!
4. Sodium – this indicates how many mg dissolve in a litre of water. Your body needs sodium but you need the right balance between sodium and potassium for optimal health. You therefore need to also consider how much sodium intake you have through food. The more processed foods you have, the less you are likely to require from your water, especially if you suffer from high blood pressure and heart problems. The Recommended Daily Amount (RDA) for an adult is 4g/day, which is not a lot when you think about it. Bear in mind though, that if in extreme conditions of heat and strenuous exercise you will require higher levels of sodium to help your body retain fluids and prevent dehydration, as my friend discovered during a marathon in the desert. He forgot to take the sodium tablets and as a result he was unable to finish the race due to dehydration, whilst more experienced runners had no problems.
Other information to look for on the label
Asides from the information above, the label will include other elements:
· Potassium – usually it will be around 1mg/L in bottled waters. There is no maximum RDA.
· Chloride- and more specifically sodium chloride (a salt) can range between 1mg/L and 1000 mg/L. For a healthy adult less than 2mg/L is preferable. With higher chloride content the more salty the water will taste. As for sodium, people suffering from hypertention or heart disease should aim to keep the sodium level in water to a minimum.
· Bicarbonate – if the levels are above 600mg/L then it is referred to as hydrogencarbonate. Whilst some bicarbonate is good for digestion and helps to reduce acidity levels in the body, once again balance is the key.
· Sulphates- Levels should be under 155ml/L. In high quantities and if associated with magnesium it can have laxative properties.
· Fluorides- Although dentists recommend these for healthy teeth and bones, large quantities ingested in the body can not only lead to stains on tooth enamel but can also cause alterations in the process of bone calcification and there are many claims as to its high level of toxicity. Some countries still add fluorides to tap water, in Italy the maximum content allowed is 1.5mg/L in tap water but regulations vary from country to country.
· Nitrates- the lower the level of nitrates the more “pure” a water is considered. A level of 45mg/L is the maximum recommended for ordinary mineral waters, and this drops to 10mg/L if the water is for babies and toddlers.
· Trace elements – these are the elements that water on its journey over the earth’s crust collects, both essential and toxic ones (in the form of heavy metals). For water to be made commercially available the toxicity levels need to be below the recommended amounts (which vary from country to country).
One final point about labels, bottled drinking water is just tap water which has been filtered and bottled. If you want natural (mineral) water (from a spring or natural source) choose one which clearly indicates where it comes from.
How do you know when you are drinking enough water?
The best rule of thumb is best described in Dr Mercola’s own words “You should be drinking enough water to turn your urine a light coloured yellow”.
When it comes to your health choosing the correct water is an important element towards overall health. It’s not just about how much you drink but what type of water you drink.
If you want to find out more about the health benefits of different types of water then click here for part 2 of the H2O question! (I did warn you I take my water seriously!)