Water Sucks
June 19, 2008 6:18 AM   Subscribe

It seems obvious, but what is the best liquid to drink to prevent dehydration in a desert environment?

My father is a stubborn old coot. He does not like water, never has, never will. He isn't about to change in his eighties either. Last summer we went on a vacation to Grand Canyon West. We did all the touristy stuff, walked the Skywalk, rafted the Colorado River, and hiked the canyon rim.

One of the days there, Dad showed all the outward signs of dehydration. Air temperature was well above 100 with single digit humidity, typical Arizona desert summer conditions. All he would drink was his favorite Diet Coke. We told him he was looking dehydrated and needed to guzzle water. He said Diet Coke is mostly water, it has no sugar, it would be perfectly fine for hydration.

To shorten the story, we eventually got him to drink water and everything turned out fine. But the question has remained. Intuitively, it would seem that Diet Coke or some other soda would not be the best solution for desert hydration. Why not, and what are the best fluids to drink when in that situation?
posted by netbros to Health & Fitness (24 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Diet Coke contains caffeine, which can contribute to dehydration. I'm not sure what amount of caffeine is necessary to cause this reaction, but it certainly makes caffeinated drinks a less efficient mechanism for hydration.
posted by Siobhan at 6:33 AM on June 19, 2008

Caffeine is a Diuretic which is certainly not what you want.
posted by mmascolino at 6:37 AM on June 19, 2008

One reason that Diet Coke isn't so good is because caffeine is generally considered a diuretic. Although, there has been some research lately that suggests it's not as bad as people think. Personally, I find that I do have to pee more frequently when I drink coffee than when I don't.

If you could get him to drink caffeine free Diet Coke instead, it would eliminate one factor that might make it less hydrating than water. But otherwise I don't really see the problem with it. The key is to make sure he's drinking enough of it. In that desert heat he'd probably have to drink 2 2-liter bottles a day to keep up his hydration levels.
posted by cabingirl at 6:37 AM on June 19, 2008

You father is basically correct. The only real issue with Diet Coke is likely to be the consumption of a ton of caffeine; I'd recommend going with the caffeine-free variety if large quantities are going to be drunk.

There is some debate about whether caffeine-containing beverages are significantly diuretic - the current consensus tends to lean towards diet cola drinks being pretty much as good as water for the purposes of hydration.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 6:38 AM on June 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Drinking in the desert needs to be part normal liquids and part salty liquids [or salty foods] because you sweat out all your salts which can make you just as sick as sweating out all your water. This is the trick behind weird energy/sports drinks like Gatorade. So, caffeine is not optimal but whatever, it's not horrible but he should also have gatorade or miso soup or a bunch of Saltines. Here's what Merck has to say about it.
posted by jessamyn at 6:40 AM on June 19, 2008

gatorade, hands down. some of my fellow runners say it's better at preventing dehydration than water because of salt in it but I'm not sure if that's actually true. all I do know is that it works about as well and is too sweet for my taste.
posted by krautland at 6:44 AM on June 19, 2008

If he doesn't like water, a sports drink like Gatorade might be a good solution (no pun intended). Dehydration involves not only a lack of water in the body but also depleted levels of electrolytes (sodium, potassium, calcium, phosphate, etc.). A good quality sports drink will replenish both water and electrolytes. A lot of sport drinks have sugar, of course, to improve the flavor, but I'm sure sugar-free and caffeine-free options are available.
posted by Kabanos at 6:56 AM on June 19, 2008

Propel. It's Gatorade's sugar-free line. YOu can get it in packets to add to regular water (so you only have to carry water, then add to suit). I gained 20 lb drinking a gallon of Gatorade when I tried to be a web developer ten+years ago, so I stick with the sugarfree stuff - no useless sugar.

My personal experience with water vs. Diet Coke in the desert (on road trips, doing little hour hikes all day) is that water (and thus, propel) is much more satisfying and doesn't make you pee as much. Also, too much Diet Coke (enough to keep hydrated in the desert) will make even a coffee junkie twitch and feel his hair grow.
posted by notsnot at 7:06 AM on June 19, 2008

An alternative to gatorade is diluted, non-sugar added, fruit juice... (I think 1 third to 2 thirds water) with the tiniest pinch of salt.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 7:08 AM on June 19, 2008

The research on caffeinated beverages suggests that people who drink them regularly get about 1/2 the hydration from them compared to a glass of water the same size.

The issue of salt and hydration is a complex one, the danger when you're hot and drinking a lot of water is that you will drink too much, leading to hyponatremia, and from there to coma or even death. Since sweat contains electrolytes, if you drink plain water you run a greater risk of upsetting your electrolyte balance. In addition, when your body is under stress from heat or exertion, and you are not trained for it, you may produce hormones (AVP, ADH), such as Anti-diuretic hormone, which cause you to stop peeing and retain water. However, heat adaptation makes sweat considerably more diffuse--you sweat more and yet your body conserves electrolyte. Adding to the confusion, gatorade and other "electrolyte drinks" do not contain enough electrolytes to substantially allay the risk of hyponatremia. They are too dilute for that, which is why many folks who exercise for long periods of time in the heat take what are in essence salt pills. Electrolyte drinks are more readily absorbed into your system than is plain water, especially if you're drinking a lot.

In general, dehydration is beginning to be seen as less of a problem in endurance activities than is hyponatremia, in part because it takes much longer for dehydration to kill you, and it's easier to correct. In addition, recent research has indicated that dehydration is not necessarily tied to decreased athletic performance. Kao, et al, studied runners in 12- and 24-hour races in China and found that those at the front of the pack had significantly greater percent decrease in body weight (a meaningful measure of dehydration) and yet posted the best distances. (Kao et al, Athletic Performance and Serial Weight Changes During 12- and 24-Hour Ultra-Marathons, Clin J Sport Med Volume 18, Number 2, March 2008). The most recent consensus statements on hydration from various sports medicine bodies have suggested that drinking when thirsty, and not to excess, is the safest way to maintain functioning in extreme conditions.
posted by OmieWise at 7:12 AM on June 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

Propel. It's Gatorade's sugar-free line.

Just to clarify, Propel is not sugar free. It contains sucrose syrup and 2g of sugar per serving. That's much less than in regular Gatorade, of course, but still not sugar-free. (I drink alot of it myself because I don't drink soda.)
posted by cabingirl at 7:40 AM on June 19, 2008

I've always been told that Gatorade is less-than optimal for rehydration, because they had to add so much extra sugar to make it palatable to a general audience. Mix it 50% gatorade, 50% water, and you'll be better off.
posted by chrisamiller at 7:59 AM on June 19, 2008

G2 is Gatorade's low-calorie line. That might be what the commenter was thinking of.
posted by box at 8:05 AM on June 19, 2008

what is the best liquid to drink to prevent dehydration in a desert environment?

Oral Rehydration Therapy. Your intestinal epithelium uses energy to actively transport water out of the intestine and into your bloodstream. However, if the ionic and osmolar composition of the gut contents is correct, the process can occur passively with no net expenditure of energy. It turns out that when that is the case the hydration is very fast as well.

There are various recipes for ORT. You can't alter them; the proportions of the ingredients have to remain the same.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:10 AM on June 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

I think Pedialyte would be worth checking out. That's my hangover medicine so I assume it would help you stay pretty hydrated.
posted by PFL at 8:27 AM on June 19, 2008

Nthing Gatorade. I was on a dig last summer with a real-life paleontologist who is out in the desert all the time, and he bought those tubs of Gatorade powder. Mix up a half-batch, and you get the taste and the salts without so much of the sugar. (And you can get amazing flavors like Lemon-Red.)
posted by phunniemee at 8:28 AM on June 19, 2008

I'm going to go against the grain here and say that Gatorade is not the best answer. Gatorade has a ton of sugar and can basically be thought of as drinking 50% water/50% soda in terms of nutritional content.

Water is probably best, but your father would be fine with caffeine free diet soda, provided he's drinking enough of it. If you're worried about electrolytes, there are plenty of ways to replace these (fruits, salted nuts, etc.) that are far better for you than the 15-20g of high fructose corn syrup that are in every 8 oz of Gatorade.

I haven't looked into Propel/G2, these may be better options.
posted by christonabike at 9:25 AM on June 19, 2008

I gained 20 lb drinking a gallon of Gatorade when I tried to be a web developer ten+years ago, so I stick with the sugarfree stuff - no useless sugar

The bottled Gatorade stuff is junk. HFCS up the yin-yang.

are far better for you than the 15-20g of high fructose corn syrup that are in every 8 oz of Gatorade.

the important thing is to buy the DRY POWDER gatorade -- big ass cans are available at CostCo -- and mix your own. Mix it as weak as you can stand it. That's what the pros do; at least when I'm sweating outside I feel that gives me the best hydration available.
posted by tachikaze at 9:54 AM on June 19, 2008

(I've the 'recommended' mix ratio printed on the can results in two much sugar in the mix for good hydration -- the chemistry requires the sugar water to fight its way into the system)
posted by tachikaze at 9:56 AM on June 19, 2008

Nimbu pani is the Indian way to rehydrate. Squeeze a couple limes into a big glass of ice water, add a small pinch of salt, stir, drink. It doesn't taste salty (the salt just cuts the bitter). No sugar, some salt, tastes great.
posted by QIbHom at 12:54 PM on June 19, 2008

There is such a thing as Caffeine-Free Diet Coke. Has a bronze-colored label.
posted by neuron at 1:04 PM on June 19, 2008

Thanks everyone for your responses.
posted by netbros at 5:11 PM on June 19, 2008

I'd like to recommend a product called Nuun. It's an electrolyte replacement that comes in a tablet form. Put it in fluid and it fizzes and slowly dissolves, like an Alka Seltzer. Flavors include cola, which your dad may appreciate. It kinda tastes like a watered down coke, but maybe if you added two tablets (where I usually use one), it would be more palatable. Anyway, full disclosure: this company is a sponsor of my bike-racing team, but I'd buy this stuff anyway, so am happy to shill for it.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 8:45 PM on June 19, 2008

listen to the doctor. ikkyu2 is correct.

also: from an athlete's perspective, Gatorade is tremendously acidic and can cause stomach cramps / nausea even at recommended concentrations, where it is also deadly sweet (which during exercise tends to give you "muckmouth" or cottonmouth, which is quite frankly disgusting). So a lot of people tend to mix it like 50% or more dilute, and since it already doesn't contain enough non-sodium electrolyte, you're back to where you started with throwing your ratios off. The electrolyte balance in it is definitely not optimal to start with anyhow.

Best analogy I've ever heard for rehydration is to think of electrolyte as detergent for your guts. Soap gets things clean because (in ultra basic kindergarten layman's terms) it "makes water wetter" by decreasing the surface tension and allowing it to penetrate grease/dirt, dissolve it and remove it. The same idea applies with electrolyte. Your system can absorb electrolyte solutions much faster than plain water because it is better able to soak in the "wetter" electrolyte solution.

Simply drinking plain water on a hot day (I've done this in bike races to my detriment) will lead to a situation where you're literally bloated/sloshing with water, feel crampy/sluggish because your gut is full, and yet you're still really thirsty. It's because your body just can't absorb plain water quickly enough.

There are many, many sports electrolyte mixes out there that do the job better than Gatorade, but for cost efficiency and proper rehydration ratios, stick to oral rehydration recipes like ikkyu2 linked.
posted by lonefrontranger at 10:40 PM on July 24, 2008

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