Beverages, nutrition

6 Healthy Drinks (Other Than Water)

What you drink can have a HUGE impact on your health. I mean, think about it: how much fluid do you drink per day? It adds up pretty quickly, so if you’re drink choices are less than ideal… well, that can add up quickly too!

Luckily, there are plenty of healthy options other than plain ol’ water (although I think you should get your body used to the taste of plain ol’ water, also)!

What makes a drink healthy?

Before we start our list of healthy drinks, we first have to figure out what exactly makes a drink “healthy.” If you’ve read my nutrition philosophy, you know that I follow a low-carb lifestyle (most of the time, haha), and so my definition of healthy may be different from some other folks’ definitions, although I think there are some universal things we can all agree on.

Here are my criteria for a healthy beverage:

  • Contains no artificial sweeteners or added sugars
  • Is not a less nutrient dense form of another food (bye-bye, fruit juice!)
  • Does not contain food dyes, additives, or artificial flavors
  • Is not a reduced-fat version (reduced fat = more sugar)
  • Conditional: low in calories (ex, I’m trying to lose some weight so I’m leaning towards low- or no-calorie beverages; however, my hyperactive 4-year-old has more wiggle room)

So, let’s get into our list!

1. Coffee

Coffee is magic, and we all know it. Something about that first sip in the morning is just… perfection.

Luckily, coffee is actually pretty great for you too, as long as you’re not mainlining it or adding tons of sugar or coffee creamer.

Along with the caffeine – which can actually have some beneficial effects in small doses, like perking you up and slightly boosting your metabolism – coffee contains polyphenols (plant antioxidants), which can help neutralize unstable compounds in your body and decrease your risk of certain chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

The sweet spot seems to be about 3-4 cups per day, as one large study found that those who drank 3-4 cups of coffee per day had the largest reduction in risk of heart attack, heart-related death, and death from any cause. However, this research was mostly based on observational data, so you have to take it with a grain of salt.

I typically drink two (admittedly large) cups a day and start to feel gross if I have any more than that, but the takeaway here is that your morning brew is good for you!

2. Tea

Tea is another super-healthy drink. There are three main types here in the States, but the varieties are literally endless. Here are the 3 types:

  • Green: Green tea is made from fresh tea leaves (no further processing beyond drying) and has a light, floral flavor
  • Black: Black tea is made from tea leaves that have been oxidized, resulting in a darker color and stronger flavor
  • Herbal: Herbal teas are made from things other than tea leaves, such as herbs, spices, and fruits

Like coffee, all of these teas are generally great for you if you’re not adding a bunch of extras. Bubble tea and chai lattes and matcha frappes are great and all, but they are LOADED with sugar. There’s no pretending they’re healthy.

Tea, green tea in particular, contains compounds called catechins which are highly anti-inflammatory. A quick PubMed search shows me that they’re being studied for cancer prevention, infectious diseases, infertility, and anti-aging.

In addition, black tea (like my favorite hot teas, Constant Comment and Earl Grey, as well as the quintessential iced tea here in the South) contains antioxidants called theaflavins and thearubigins and has exhibited strong anti-cancer effects in non-human trials.

Herbal teas can also have a variety of health benefits, depending on the ingredients they’re made with. I recently wrote an article for Healthline Nutrition about the benefits of sage tea.

My recommendation for a dreary day: a homemade London Fog, which is a strong-brewed cup of Earl Grey with milk or cream, along with a little bit of sweetener (I recommend stevia or monk fruit) and vanilla.

3. Kombucha

Kombucha has gotten really popular over the past several years. It is made from green or black tea, but I felt that it deserved its own category because it is fermented.

Fermented foods and drinks really don’t get enough love, but they are so great for you. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t incorporate enough fermented foods into my diet.

Kombucha is a great way to get them in though! Kombucha contains a very small amount of alcohol (a result of the fermentation) and sugar, which serves as the food source for the bacteria and mold that ferment the tea. This bacteria is known as a SCOBY: symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. Sounds appetizing, huh?

Luckily, the fermentation process also provides some natural carbonation. And many people actually really enjoy the taste of kombucha. There are PLENTY of options on the market in a million different flavors too, so you’re sure to find one that you like.

Kombucha is rich in probiotics, or healthy bacteria that can colonize in your gut. Little research has been done on the effects of kombucha in humans, but animal trials have found numerous anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits.

4. Full-fat and fermented dairy

Yes, unless you are lactose intolerant or have a milk allergy, FULL-FAT dairy is good for you.

An observational study in over 9,000 people found that full-fat dairy intake was associated with a 12% lower risk of metabolic syndrome (a precursor to type 2 diabetes and heart disease), while low-fat dairy intake didn’t decrease a person’s risk of developing metabolic syndrome at all.

Now we’ve discussed the drawbacks of observational studies before, so we have to approach these findings with some healthy skepticism. However, other studies have found similar results. Full-fat dairy appears to be healthier than low-fat dairy.

But let’s be real, we don’t need studies to confirm common sense: milk is naturally high in fat, and removing the fat (along with a good chunk of the nutrients) does not improve its health profile. In fact, low-fat milks are higher in sugar, which can cause an larger insulin response – potentially leading to weight gain!

Fermented dairy products like kefir (which is a drink you can now buy at most grocery stores) and Greek yogurt can also help improve your gut health because – like kombucha – they contain healthy bacteria. Be careful here: choose the full-fat version and avoid the sugary ones! Shockingly, most of the yogurt you can get at the grocery store is an absolute sugar-bomb (and better suited for the ice cream case than the yogurt section)!

If you’re trying to lose weight you may want to take it easy on the dairy, as it is very calorie-dense. Additionally, research points to a link between dairy intake and acne, so you may want to limit it if you’re trying to clear up your skin.

5. Plant milks

Soy, coconut, almond, macadamia, flax, oat… the plant milk options are becoming endless.

I personally like plant milks, except a lot of them are – again – loaded with sugar and less-than-ideal ingredients. I would also recommend everyone – low-carb, vegan, normal (;D), or none of the above – avoid soy milk because it is full of hormone-disrupting phytoestrogens.

My favorite is unsweetened almond milk. Macadamia nut milk is fantastic, but also really expensive! Luckily, these nut milks are also low in carbs and calories – making them the perfect substitute to a glass of milk for those of us who are trying to lose some weight.

Caveat: You may have recently read that almond milk production is killing bees. This is making me rethink my love affair with almond milk, because bees are awesome and important. I am still mulling this over and will definitely keep you updated. Luckily there are several “bee-friendly” brands on the rise!

6. Sparkling water

My last recommendation for a healthy drink other than water is, technically, still water. But it’s got BUBBLES! There are SO many sparkling waters on the market today, it’s really easy to find one that is either completely unsweetened or one that is sweetened with natural sweeteners rather than the artificial stuff.

I definitely recommend sparkling water if you’re trying to kick a soda habit too. Gotta get those bubbles somehow!

Key message

Plain water is great, and by far the healthiest drink you can choose. BUT there are plenty of other healthy drink options too!

Be sure to avoid added sugars and artificial sweeteners, as they can do more harm than good. In the case of dairy, you don’t have to fear the full-fat versions either.

What’s your favorite healthy drink? (Mine’s coffee… no question.) Do you have any other suggestions for healthy drinks besides water?

nutrition

6 reasons to ditch diet soda in 2020 (and 1 tasty alternative!)

Me and Diet Coke go way back.

Probably high school? There was a time when I was younger that I drank regular Coke and LOVED Fruitopia (does anyone remember Fruitopia??), but at some point I switched over to Diet Coke “for my figure” and it quickly became a fixture in my life.

I remember in college walking half a mile each way from my apartment to the c-store on campus, just to grab a 20-ounce Diet Coke. Granted, the walking wasn’t so bad, but the fact that I would do it just for a Diet Coke… yikes.

Unfortunately, I’ve never been one of those people who could just have one every once in a while. I crave it too badly, and I can only control my cravings if I’ve absolutely cold-turkey stopped drinking it.

I’m about a week strong right now, and one of my goals for 2020 is to break the addiction once and for all. Because it’s looking like diet sodas – even though they’re calorie-free – are not that great for you. Here are a few reasons why:

1. Diet sodas are linked to an increased risk of certain diseases

Several studies show that drinking diet sodas is associated with an increased risk of certain conditions, such as kidney failure, type 2 diabetes, and heart attack or stroke.

To be clear though, the research is NOT definitive on this. Many of these long-term studies measure food and beverage intake based on food frequency questionnaires, which are surveys that assess how much a person eats per week or per month of different foods. For example, it make ask how many eggs you eat or how many cups of soda you drink in one week.

As you can imagine, these questionnaires are notoriously unreliable, as people can and do lie about what they eat (especially to researchers). Not to mention, it’s hard to remember and estimate how much of a certain food you eat within a specified time period.

In addition, it’s hard to tell if these study participants drank diet soda from the very start or may have switched to diet soda at some point in their lives prior to the study.

SO, there’s a correlation there. This does not mean that diet soda causes these diseases, but I did want to share the research with you guys.

2. They may actually promote weight gain

Diet sodas don’t really help you lose weight either.

Some studies show that people who drink diet soda are more likely to be overweight or obese. However, this might be because overweight or obese people are more likely to drink diet soda in an attempt to lose weight.

Of course, when you replace sugar-sweetened beverages with diet soda then you will lose weight. The question is, does this last?

One 9-year-long study found a strong dose-response relationship between diet soda and weight gain. Translated: the more diet soda these study participants drank, the more weight they gained.

Additionally, some studies show that long-term use of artificial sweeteners may actually cause you to eat more calories. There are a variety of reasons for this. Such as…

3. They cause an insulin response

Although non-caloric sweeteners – like those in diet sodas – don’t affect your blood sugar, they can actually cause an insulin response.

Insulin is the hormone that your body releases after it senses sugar, in order to help shuttle any excess sugar from your blood stream and maintain your blood sugar levels. In the presence of excess sugar, insulin takes what can’t immediately be used for energy and signals your body to store it as fat.

One interesting study found that diet soda and artificially-sweetened water both increased insulin levels. It’s hypothesized that the sweet taste primes your body to release insulin because it expects sugar.

So, what is the significance of this?

Many people who are overweight or obese have some degree of insulin resistance. Their body is kind of numb to insulin, so it doesn’t work as well as it should. In these instances, your body will actually secrete even more insulin to get the job done.

This is the start of a vicious cycle. Chronically high insulin levels translate to more stored body fat, then more hunger to make sure that your blood sugar levels stay regular because your body can’t access that stored fat, then your body secretes too much insulin in response to the food you just ate so some of that sugar will be stored as body fat, and then you get hungry again… and so on and so on.

If your goal is to lose weight, you really want to lower your insulin levels so you’re not stuck in “fat storage” mode. So, it’s looking like diet sodas are not very helpful in that regard.

4. The artificial sweeteners may disrupt your gut bacteria

If you’re a pretty healthy person, your trillions of gut bacteria are all working together to keep you that way. Not only does gut health affect digestion, it also affects immunity, energy production and metabolism, and even brain function. Keeping your gut bacteria healthy is SO important for your health.

Artificial sweeteners, however, can disrupt the healthy balance of bacteria in your gut, potentially wreaking havoc on your health.

According to current research, the use of artificial sweeteners promotes changes in the gut which lead to impaired glucose (sugar) tolerance, insulin resistance, and – you guessed it – weight gain.

5. The phosphorus may weaken your bones

Dark sodas like Diet Coke contain a lot of phosphorus.

At my full-time job (in a dialysis unit), phosphorus is a HUGE deal. In people with kidney disease who can’t excrete excess phosphorus in their urine, it builds up in the blood – signaling the body to pull calcium from the bones… which then has to land somewhere. In essence, it softens their bones and hardens their blood vessels. NOT GOOD!

Although it’s a natural mineral and we do need it, phosphorus is a ubiquitous food additive and it’s in so many foods that now most people are getting way too much of it.

Adults in the U.S. consume about twice as much phosphorus as they need, much of it coming from food additives that are nearly 100% bioavailable (read: absorbed by the body), compared to natural phosphorus which is typically only 30-60% bioavailable.

And unfortunately, it’s starting to look like even people with healthy kidneys may have weaker bones because of this phosphorus overload.

Here are two easy ways to consume fewer phosphorus additives: ditch dark sodas, and eat less processed food.

6. They’re addictive

Diet sodas are addictive. Maybe not for everyone, in the same way that not everyone who smokes a cigarette becomes addicted. And definitely not as addictive as – let’s say – meth, but they are addictive nonetheless.

Regular use of artificial sweeteners may actually condition your body to want more sweetness, causing food cravings and potentially strengthening your sweet tooth.

Anecdotally, I can confirm this. When I drink diet soda, my sugar cravings are nearly unmanageable, but when avoid it, my sweet tooth is much easier to manage.

In addition, the caffeine found in many diet sodas is a known addictive substance. Although I can manage without Diet Coke, I certainly can’t manage without my coffee. But that’s another story for another day.

So what should you drink?

If you can drink a diet soda every once in while without craving them and slowly sneaking more and more and more into your daily life, more power to you. Keep doing what you’re doing, as long as it’s working for you.

Additionally, if you need to lose weight and you drink regular soda, switching to diet soda will help you drop some weight (at least, at first).

However, if you’re like me, and drinking any diet soda at all becomes a slippery slope to drinking way too much, you should consider cutting it from your diet.

However, I don’t recommend replacing it with regular sugar-sweetened soda. Sugar has plenty of problems on its own.

My go-to’s are coffee, unsweet tea, and good ol’ water. But if you’re looking for something a little different…

Spritz Tea: a tasty new alternative

Last November I had the chance to try a new drink called Spritz Tea before it launched. It is a sparkling tea (yes, tea!) made with really great ingredients, so you know I am all about it.

It comes in two flavors – hibiscus and green tea (they’re both delicious). AND it’s lightly carbonated and sweetened with natural, plant-based sweeteners – making it an perfect alternative if you’re trying to drop your diet soda habit, like me.

It’s got the bubbles, the refreshing flavors, and the hint of sweetness to satisfy a diet soda craving without the phosphorus additives or artificial sweeteners.

Along with making a really tasty beverage, the Spritz team donates 1% of their profit to nonprofits and business initiatives for women.

If you happen to be in the Columbus, Ohio area, you can purchase Spritz Tea at some local retailers. The rest of us though, we’ll have to order online (for now)!

I’m also teaming up with Spritz for a fun New Year’s giveaway! Find all the details on my Facebook. If your New Year’s resolution is to ditch diet soda, Spritz Tea can make achieving that goal A LOT easier!