Myths and facts to quench your curiosity Water Works

March 01, 1994|By Bob Condor | Bob Condor,Chicago Tribune Sun staff writer Wayne Hardin contributed to this article.

Hollywood loves water. There's the shower scene in "Psycho." Dustin Hoffman lounging in the pool in "The Graduate." Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr rolling around the beach in "From Here to Eternity." Charlton Heston parting the Red Sea.

Fun stuff, water, until you actually drink it. Then it's strictly a snore. Water is the "forgotten nutrient," lost in a sea of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals.

"Water has no calories, no carbohydrates, no fats," says Elisabeth Keep, coordinator of nutrition programs at the Center for Health and Fitness of the Bennett Institute at Children's Hospital. "Water is a nutrient in that it's needed to move nutrients into the cells."

Even though Ms. Keep says water is the best thirst quencher, most people see it as basically boring.

"Water is the most neglected nutrients in our diets but one of the most vital," says Kelly Barton, a registered dietitian specializing in sports and cardiovascular nutrition at the University of Maryland Medical Center.

It is involved in nearly every physiological process. It moves nutrients, hormones and antibodies through the bloodstream and lymphatic system. It rids the body of waste products. It is essential to cooling your body's core temperature. We can't live much longer than three to five days without water.

The body of a typical adult contains 60 percent to 70 percent water. Babies are closer to 90 percent.

"Our bodies are pretty much an internal sea," Ms. Barton says.

"Many people forget water is actually a beverage," says Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington. "But is there anybody who drinks six to eight glasses of water every day? People do seem to drink that amount of fluids in a day."

Just who started this eight-glasses-a-day dictum is unclear. But among those quizzed, Paul Thomas of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington had the best explanation.

His organization's Food and Nutrition Board publishes the country's official Required Daily Allowances. The first RDAs edition in 1943 had no mention of water. Two years later, the second edition changed that.

"A suitable allowance of water for adults is 2.5 liters [83 ounces] ,, daily in most instances," the book states. "An ordinary standard for diverse people is 1 milliliter for each calorie of food. Most of this quantity is contained in prepared foods."

Somehow, the final sentence was lost in the translation. Most doctors and nutritionists say we don't need to drink eight glasses of water if we eat the proper foods.

Fruits and vegetables, known in some circles as "live" foods, contain structured or intracellular water that is more biologically active than even distilled or spring water. Replenishing your body's water with these foods is better than chugging from your water bottle all day.

Nonetheless, a good number of nutritionists and diet authors have recommended we drink roughly a half-gallon of water each day.

UM's Ms. Barton is a believer in actually drinking those extra fluids.

"Most people need 10 1/2 to 12 1/2 cups of water a day, figuring 8 ounces to a cup," she says. "You normally get 4 cups from food. That still leaves 7 to 8 cups."

Most nutritionists say coffee and sodas aren't good substitutes for water. These caffeinated drinks act as diuretics, drawing water from your system at advanced rates. Alcohol has the same effect.

Our internal thirst mechanism, the hypothalamus, regulates body temperature. It deteriorates with age, making it important for elderly people to drink more water. The hypothalamus is not that efficient in any case. When you become thirsty, it is usually after you need the water.

Is it OK to draw from the tap or should you buy bottled water?

Baltimore supplies drinking water to 1.6 million people in the city and surrounding counties, says Vanessa Pyatt, spokeswoman for the city Department of Public Works, who adds that Baltimore's water quality consistently has been highly rated over the years, testing far better than EPA standard requirements.

"The city municipal water supply is a good source of drinking water," says Ms. Pyatt. "The water not only looks good, it tastes good. Our water is put through a series of tests ranging from once every two hours to once a year. The technology is very sophisticated. We test for 84 different contaminants."

Some municipalities, including Baltimore, will perform free lead tests of your water, but you might have to be put on a waiting list.

You also can call the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene at (410) 225-5853, 225-5042 or 225-6150 for a list of local water quality labs certified to test for lead and other contaminants. In some cases, a caller can be helped over the phone with a question or the list can be mailed out, says Deanna Murphy-Baxam, water quality laboratory certification officer.

Lead monitoring in the Baltimore area is relatively inexpensive ($25 to $70), but tests for other contaminants can run higher.

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