How well do different drinks really hydrate you?

I’ve already written about how tricky measuring your hydration status can be. I thought I’d write a piece on how well different types of drinks are retained in the body as that’s a question we get a fair bit and it’s of some practical use. After all (theoretically at least), the longer you can keep the fluids you drink onboard, the greater the chance they have of being absorbed into the bloodstream and used effectively in the body.  There’s also the side benefit of less interruptions for bathroom breaks, which is useful during training and competing.

Whilst you’re inevitably going to pee out a good proportion of all the liquid that passes your lips, all drinks are definitely not treated equally by the body in this particular regard. Substances like caffeine and alcohol have the potential to increase urine output and reduce fluid retention, whilst calories and electrolytes in drinks can slow the emptying rate of the stomach and positively influence the absorption of fluid from the gut into the bloodstream.

Although most of the factors affecting how your body processes various drinks have been studied pretty extensively, until very recently no-one had actually put a range of different, commonly consumed beverages into a controlled ‘head to head’ situation to compare their potential to hydrate. Earlier this year, a respected group of UK scientists published a paper that compared the hydrating potential of the following drinks…

  • Water
  • Sparkling water
  • Beer (lager)
  • Orange Juice
  • Coffee
  • Tea
  • Skimmed and full fat milk
  • ORS
  • Sports drink
  • Cola and Diet cola

Scientists came up with the Beverage Hydration Index.

The study compared how well each of the drinks were retained in the 2-4 hours immediately after consumption. Volunteers downed 1 litre of fluid and then had their urine output monitored to indicate how much had been retained. Then, to create a straightforward comparison of the drinks, each beverage was given a BHI (Beverage Hydration Index) score. Still water was used as the reference point in the scale with a rating of ‘1’. So if a drink ended up with a BHI of 1.3 it would mean that 30% more of it was retained in the body 2 hours after consumption than when drinking the same amount of water and so on.

 

What the results showed

 

The Beverage Hydration Index

 

There were a few interesting conclusions that came out of the data…

  1. At the risk of starting with the seemingly obvious, there wasn’t a difference between the hydrating effect of still or sparkling water. I’m pointing this out simply because we do get asked that question quite often! (Though, why anyone would drink fizzy drinks during exercise is beyond me…)
  2. The top performers in terms of fluid retention were ORS (oral rehydration solution), milk and orange juice. These were the only drinks to perform significantly better than water, with ORS and milk approaching a 1.5 BHI score, meaning 50% more fluid was retained in the body 2 hours after consumption when compared with water alone. The likely reason for this is that they lowered urine output due to the significant amounts of calories and/or electrolytes they contain. That’s especially in the case of ORS, as it has over 1300mg sodium per litre as well as some glucose. Constituents like sugars, fats and electrolytes have long been known to increase the retention of fluids in the body, but this data highlights just how significantly that’s the case.
  3. On the flip side, drinks that you might have thought would perform a lot worse than water, such as coffee and lager, actually didn’t result in all that much more urine output than the equivalent volumes of water. Lager even out-performed coffee, perhaps due to its higher calorific content slowing the transit time through the stomach. It’s important to note that the amount of alcohol and caffeine taken in via beer and coffee during the study was actually pretty low and that increasing the intake of these substances might have led to a different conclusion over a longer period of time.
  4. One other possibly surprising finding was that standard sports drinks were not shown to be much better in terms of fluid retention than plain water. That said, the particular sports drink selected was relatively low in electrolytes - containing only around 450mg/l of sodium and 6% carbohydrate -  which is lower in sugar than orange juice and only contains about 1/3 of the electrolytes of ORS, both of which ended up with significantly higher BHI scores. That’s one reason we recommend our stronger 1500mg/l product for preloading before a big event, the extra sodium helps you retain more of the fluid you take in for longer.

 

Milk probably isn't the best choice before exercise.

 

Is there any practical advice I can take from the findings?

 

Whilst most of the findings of this study are essentially in line with ‘common knowledge’, the data does reinforce and quantify the anecdotal evidence in this area. It also helps to dispel some myths about certain drinks being ‘dehydrating’, at least when they’re consumed in moderation. For me the main take home points are…

  • Drinks with a large calorific content like milk (and by logical extension, recovery shakes) can probably help with re-hydration more than you might imagine, and can therefore be extremely useful after strenuous, sweaty exercise when consuming both calories and fluids to assist with recovery is beneficial. This doesn’t necessarily make them great pre-exercise choices though, as you may well not want something highly calorific before training or racing if you’re already getting enough energy from food.
  • Solutions very high in sodium, including our own 1000mg and 1500mg products, are also likely to be significantly better than plain water when it comes to retention. So, they’re more appropriate choices both before and after strenuous exercise, when sweat losses are very high and where pre or rehydrating can assist performance or recovery. This is often overlooked pre-race, when many endurance athletes suck down loads of additional water only to end up dropping most of it off in a portapotty before the race even gets underway.
  • Whilst some drinks commonly assumed to be ‘dehydrating’ like coffee and beer are clearly not the best choices for hydration purposes, they are actually not significantly less effective than water when consumed in moderate amounts. This should at least take the edge off some of the guilt associated with enjoying the odd beer after a race…

 

Beer is as dehydrating as you'd think, in moderation.

 

Is there anything the paper isn’t telling us though?

Something that the paper perhaps doesn’t shed much light on is the impact of consuming certain foods and drinks together might be on fluid retention and urine output. It’s rare that we take on fluids in isolation and on an empty stomach, as was the case in the study. It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to reach the conclusion that taking in some calories and/or salts in food alongside water is likely to result in increased retention of fluid when compared with drinking fluids alone. To be fair to the researchers, they were seeking to control as many variables as possible to look solely at the properties of each of the drinks, and introducing the interactions of food and fluid together would have made things extremely complicated.

Another question the research failed to address was the effect that drinking different types of red wine has on hydration status. A glaring omission. If any of the researchers involved are reading this, I’d be prepared to take part in any follow-up study to correct this... 


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Any thoughts?

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3 comments from fellow athletes

  • Andy Blow: June 12, 2016

    Hi Stuart, Thanks for your comment. It might be worth trying pre-loading with the 1500mg drinks rather than the 500mg to see if adding more sodium helps in this situation. You’re right that it could be the distance and fatigue causing the issues, but it’s an easy trial to experiment with something stronger in the bottle to begin with to see if that helps.
    I’d be surprised if it was the coffee causing the issue on it’s own, especially if you’re a regular coffee drinker anyway. That said you could try FireStar caffeine powders as an alternative if you’re looking for the caffeine without the coffee. http://www.firestarenergy.com/
    Let us know how you get on – you can use the contact form on the site if you want to get an email to us directly.
    Good luck.
    Andy

  • Sue Giles: June 07, 2016

    Interesting article. Andy. In the interests of scientific research, I am also prepared to take on the arduous and difficult task of testing red wine!

  • Stuart Nicol : June 07, 2016

    Hi I was wanting to pick your brains about a situation I encounter regular when I am doing the mountain bike marathon I normally get up at about 5 and have porridge with some cinnamon and honey and raisins or currants then I will have an espresso or two depending on time etc after this I will glug your 500mg on the way to the event which takes anything between 1.5 hrs to 2.5 hours as they are in different places,when I get to the event I will have some toast and jam and another coffee, during the event I will drink the 500mg in my bottles or I will have torq lemon and lime drink that I make up with scoops I also eat regular and then stop at the rest points to consume more food and fill up my bottles however despite all this I still get cramp towards the end and sometimes it forces me off the bike to stretch it out quite annoying really, there is also a matter of 2500 ft of climbing too as well as 50km off road so quite demanding.
    I believe it may well be the coffee that is causing it and if do what fo you suggest I should replace this with.
    Your products are great and I will continue to use them but feel I am missing something.
    I look forward to your response.

    Kind regards

    Stuart