We have all been told at some point that proper hydration requires us to consume eight glasses of water a day. That works out to about two liters, which is an awful lot of fluid, considering the average human stomach (when unexpanded) is about the size of a balled fist.
But health researchers have refuted the eight-glasses-a-day claim as a silly myth riding a wave of flimsy scientific literature. In fact, many of the groups behind the public push for over-hydration have been exposed as having — surprise! — monetary interests in the fluid industry.
For example: In a 2011 article published in the British Medical Journal, Margaret McCartney debunked the eight glasses a day myth and noted that one water advocacy group in Europe, Hydration for Health, is not only sponsored by, but was actually created by food giant Danone. Under the company’s expansive culinary umbrella? Volvic, Evian, and Badoit bottled waters.
Set aside the entangled interests of Big Bottled Water, and you’ll see that study after study continues to show that the human body is remarkably resilient when it comes to quenching our thirst. Saharan nomads, for example, are capable of subsisting on very little water for days at a time in one of Earth’s most hellish climates, as was first noted in 1976 by anthropologist Claude Paque.
You and I, on the other hand, may get a bit cranky in our air-conditioned offices if we forget to visit the water cooler for a morning, but it’s highly, highly, highly improbable that we’d shrivel and die at the dusty hands of the dehydration monster. Consider all the other stuff we consume. Despite the widely held notion that tea and coffee dehydrate us, they actually count toward our overall water intake, says Dr. Stanley Goldfarb, a nephrologist (kidney researcher) at the University of Pennsylvania. Even though we’re told it’s important to drink eight glasses of water a day, “there’s no evidence that benefits health in any real way and it really represents an urban myth,” says Goldfarb. Even something like, say, a baked potato, is 75 percent water.
So where exactly did this eight glasses of water a day voodoo come from? The very idea of a “minimal water requirement” is actually a fairly recent notion that first appeared in dietary guidelines published in 1945 by the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences. The academy spuriously suggested that “2,500 mL [2.5 liter] of fluid should be ingested on a daily basis,” although a primary clinical study was never actually cited.
The idea may have been at least partly put forth by Frederick J. Stare, an influential 20th century nutritionist and founding chairman of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. (He passed away in 2002 at age 91.) Stare was one of the first to recommend that humans consume six or so 12-ounce glasses of water a day.
Since then, researchers have begun to see eight glasses a day as an overestimate (especially considering our diets), but there are still advocates pushing for eight glasses of pure water or more. Those proponents include Dr. Fereydoon Batmanghelidi, a medical practitioner in Virginia who claims that a lack of water is responsible for many preventable diseases. Water, after all, is still good for us. Recent studies have suggested that adequate hydration may not only give our cognition a boost, but goes a long way toward keeping chronic kidney disease at bay.
As for how much we should be drinking, there is unfortunately no hard and fast rule. (Sorry!) And when you include all the other stuff we munch on or guzzle throughout the day, we actually consume more than the recommended two liters. A 1995 Australian survey found that the diet of average adults provides more than enough daily fluid: Women take in about 2.8 liters a day, and men consume 3.4 liters a day.
Research suggests that drinking water when you start to feel thirsty is sufficient should you desire to continue existing. Clearly, it’s all relative, as when you feel thirsty will be different if you’re drenching yourself in spin class or spinning in your cushy chair at work. As with most things, it’s probably best to listen to your body before proceeding accordingly.
Some classic signs of dehydration include skin tenting (where you pull up your skin and it is slow to snap back), light headedness when rising, rapid heartbeat, headaches, thirst and mental confusion. I always know that I am well hydrated when I urinate once an hour and the urine is nearly clear. Sometimes following the signs are better than just plugging in an arbitrary number.