“In order to properly understand the big picture, everyone should fear becoming mentally clouded and obsessed with one small section of truth.” – Xun Zi
I attended a free talk at the CSA a few days ago. The presenter was discussing some of the public’s top misconceptions when it comes to health and nutrition. It wasn’t a huge turnout (only 8 of us) but given that it was in the middle of the day I suppose it wasn’t all that surprising. The benefit of having a smaller group is that attendees tend to speak up a little more, making for better questions and discussion.
Anyways, I can’t remember exactly what the “misconception” was, but the take home message was that it’s important to stay hydrated over the day and that water is your best choice for this. Good, solid advice for sure.
But the discussion didn’t end quite there.
Someone asked, “Does it matter which type of water I drink?”
Another piped in, “Yes, I was just about to ask the same thing myself.”
The woman sitting beside me quickly replied. “Oh yes. I prefer brand x, but brand y is good too. Don’t buy brand z though”.
“Brand z is really high in sodium.”
The presenter concurred. “Yes, you shouldn’t choose brand z. It is high in sodium.”
I was a little taken aback. We happen to have brand z at home and never had I once thought my water tasted salty.
But because I’m relatively new to Egypt, maybe I was unaware of one of the realities of bottled water over here? I’d never actually looked at the sodium content of brand z so I chose to keep my skepticism to myself.
On my way home however I decided to buy a bottle of brand x so I could compare it to my “salty” water.
It turns out they were right. Brand z had a whopping 16 mg of sodium per litre, whereas brand x had a much healthier amount of 14 mg per litre!
This sort of thing tends to happen in nutrition all the time. People get caught up on individual nutrient contents of foods and focus less on their overall eating patterns throughout the day or week. I’ve had more than one person tell me they don’t eat carrots because they’re high in sugar. Or others who say they avoid eating a lot of fruit because of the carbs.
Does brand z have more sodium than brand x? Sure. But it’s important to put this into context. Healthy individuals should be aiming for about 1500 mg/day of sodium in their diet. The maximum recommended amount is 2300 mg/day. Most people eating a Western diet are way over this amount and usually get around 3000-4000 mg/day.
Now, the Institute of Medicine says that to stay adequately hydrated adult males require 3.7 litres of fluid/day and that adult females require 2.7 L/day. Keep in mind these requirements are for fluid and not necessarily water, but water makes an excellent choice because it has no calories. (*Note the old adage of drinking 8 glasses of water/day doesn’t actually have any basis in science). Given that we’re likely to get some of our fluids from sources other than water, I think it’s fair to say the average person should be realistically aiming to drink around 2-2.5 litres of water per day (maybe more if you are active). So if I drink my 2.5 litres of water and choose to drink brand x over brand z, I’m saving myself exactly 5 mg of sodium. That’s 5 mg of sodium compared to the 1500 mg that I should be aiming for daily. You don’t have to be a mathematician to figure out that 5 mg in relation to 1500 mg isn’t much. In the science biz, that’s what we’d call “negligible.”
The funny thing is, more often than not, the person who advocates for one brand of water over another is also the same person who has no qualms about eating out at cafes and restaurants on a regular basis. Maybe they order a soup or salad? Maybe a sandwich? Maybe they even order the lowest sodium item on the menu. Whatever it is, I can pretty much guarantee that it will have 25 to 100-fold more sodium than what is contained in their bottle of water.
If you’re concerned about your sodium intake (and frankly most of us should be), it’s probably better to invest your time targeting lifestyle changes that will actually make a meaningful difference in the amount of sodium you consume. For example, if you decide to cook one meal at home from scratch rather than go out for dinner, you’d save yourself the same amount of sodium you’d get from drinking the “higher sodium water” for months.
In my opinion, it’s not worth the time or effort to focus on the minutiae of 5 mg of sodium. People can drive themselves crazy when they get obessed with counting every single gram (or milligram) of every nutrient that they eat. There may be a small percentage of people for whom this strategy works well for, but in my experience most people just can’t sustain it. I know for myself, I can’t. And besides, the bigger picture is more important anyways. Avoiding processed foods, limiting meals out and reducing the amount of salt you add to your recipes will have a greater impact on your sodium intake than what brand of bottled water you choose ever could.
What’s that old saying about seeing the forest for the trees?