If I poured you three beverages—soda, punch and water—and asked, “Which is healthiest?” the answer would be a no-brainer.
But not necessarily for the reason that you think.
Sure, water is free of sugar, calories and artificial junk, but it’s also healthier because drinking it encourages you to choose better-for-you foods and eat more of them, according to a new study.
Here’s more about how drinking good old-fashioned H2O can change the way you eat for the better.
WE ARE WHAT WE…DRINK?
Researchers at University of Oregon in Eugene and Michigan State University in East Lansing conducted two studies examining the role of drinks on food choices.
In the first study, based on a five-point scale (with 1 meaning “I disagree” and 5 meaning “I agree”), adults reported that they were much more likely to pair soda with salty, high-calorie foods such as pizza than consume soda with raw or cooked vegetables, on average. On the other hand, plain water received ratings that fell into the middle across the board, on average, indicating that it was considered a reasonable complement to most foods.
In the second study, an experiment took this concept a step further. Water, this study suggests, doesn’t just encourage you to choose healthier foods—it actually may help you eat more of those healthy foods. Kids ages three to five in the experiment ate roughly one-third more red peppers or carrots when they were given water instead of a sweetened drink, such as Hawaiian Punch.
HOW BEVERAGES AFFECT WHAT WE EAT
To discuss the findings, I called T. Bettina Cornwell, PhD, coauthor of the study and a professor of marketing at the University of Oregon. These results seem reasonable to Dr. Cornwell, and they make sense to me, too.
For one thing, we begin forming ideas about which foods and drinks “go together” from the time we eat our first Happy Meal at McDonald’s with soda or consume our first sippy cups of water with fruit, said Dr. Cornwell. In other words, these habits are ingrained in us—they may even feel like automatic choices in that you make a decision without truly weighing your options.
But let’s not forget that our taste buds play a role in this, too. Soda has such a powerful, sweet, fizzy taste that it gives us almost a meal’s worth of sensory experience in and of itself. If you’re going to enjoy eating something with it, then, that food is going to have to keep up with it in the flavor department. So it’s understandable that when you drink soda, you tend to reach for extremely salty, fatty foods that are savory and rich—any less-powerful-tasting food would simply be overpowered by soda.
When you choose water, on the other hand, you can appreciate the subtle sweetness of an apple…the delightful combination of bite and smooth nuttiness from a simple oil and vinegar dressing…or the freshness of a piece of broiled (not fried) fish—instead of craving “big hits” of sugar, fat or salt. Like white wine with seafood and red wine with spaghetti bolognese, certain foods and drinks simply make great combinations.
What’s most interesting about this study is that sweet drinks aren’t just bad for us because of their sugar and calorie content, but also because they provide such a huge sensory punch that they make us want to choose savory, unhealthy foods to go with them.
It also made me think about the fact that diet sodas have a “sensory punch” that feels as strong as the kind that you get from regular sodas—even though they’re enhanced by artificial sweeteners and not natural sugar or high fructose corn syrup. Though Dr. Cornwell didn’t study diet sodas, she said that it’s possible that those types of drinks might cause us to reach for unhealthy foods, too. So if you’ve been drinking diet soda to cut calories, you might be canceling out any benefit due to the diet soda’s effects on your food choices. That’s why water is still likely to be your best bet.
If you’re stuck in a rut of drinking soda, punch or even sweetened tea, don’t lose hope. Bad habits can be changed. Obviously, it will take diligence and mindfulness to switch your beverage of choice to water with most meals. But it doesn’t take long to retrain your palate, said Dr. Cornwell—meaning that if you start drinking water with meals, pretty soon you’ll stop missing the overpowering drinks you may have been choosing before. And you’ll start enjoying healthful foods that you may not have enjoyed for a long time.
A double win!