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8 Drinks and Your Health: Clearing Up Confusing Research


by Jill Weisenberger, M.S., R.D., C.D.E.

You’ve seen the headlines about drink studies: "Juice Makes Kids Fat!" "Diet Sodas Make You Fat!" "Coffee Can Kill!" "Coffee Makes You Live Longer!"

Some of it sounds logical, and some of it contradicts what you read just last week. Here's the bottom line on all those studies—what to think before you drink.

  1. Coffee
  2. Tea
  3. Red wine
  4. Diet soda
  5. Juice
  6. Sports drinks
  7. Water
  8. Milk substitutes

1. Coffee
Claim: It's good for you. No, it's bad for you.

Many studies have shown health benefits linked to coffee. Drinking at least two cups a day—regular or decaf—may decrease women’s risk of type 2 diabetes. There are also hints that coffee consumption helps prevent liver disease, Parkinson’s disease in men and cognitive decline in elderly men.

Yet the coffee debate continues to brew. Some studies link it to higher rates of heart disease, while others find no association. A small study in the September 2006 issue of Epidemiology found that coffee might trigger a first heart attack—particularly for those who drink one cup a day or less, have a sedentary lifestyle or have three or more risk factors for heart disease.

For now, I’d say to most people, enjoy your morning cup of coffee, but avoid the extra fat and calories from sugar, cream and syrups.

newsletter-graphic2. Tea
Claim: Green tea is healthy. But so is black.

No kind of tea—not even the much-lauded green—has been definitively proven to improve health. Nonetheless, both green and black tea may have health benefits.

Both likely improve bone-mineral density. Both are also good sources of antioxidants. Green tea has more antioxidants than black, probably because it’s less processed. But in a 2007 European Journal of Clinical Nutrition article, the authors concluded:

  • Drinking three or more cups of black tea daily reduces coronary heart-disease risk.
  • One to six cups of black tea daily increases the amount of antioxidants in the blood.

To get the most antioxidants, stick to home-brewed tea. Studies have shown that it retains more antioxidants than bottled.

3. Red Wine
Claim: It's good for your heart.

Moderate drinking may reduce your risk of developing coronary heart disease. And that’s not just red wine. All wine, beer and even hard liquor seem to count. But as with most things, the good comes with the bad.

Researchers suspect that certain effects on blood clotting and an increase in HDL (good) cholesterol levels play a role in the health benefits, as does the high antioxidant content of red wine and dark beer. Then again, the American Heart Association notes, it could be that people who drink moderately also eat differently and get more exercise!

But too much alcohol can actually harm your heart, says the American Heart Association. And the American Institute for Cancer Research says alcohol may increase your risk for certain cancers, including mouth, esophagus, breast and colorectal. Plus, alcohol has calories. Extra weight can lead to other health risks.

The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends not drinking alcohol or, if you do, limiting it to one drink for women or two drinks for men. That's the limit the American Heart Association gives too.

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4. Diet Soda
Claim: It causes weight gain.

A few years ago, believe it or not, researchers reported that people who drink diet sodas are more likely to become obese than people who drink regular ones. Some suggested these possible reasons:

  • Zero-calorie sweetened beverages could confuse the brain’s ability to sense when it's had calories, setting us up to overeat later.
  • The sweet taste might make us want more sweet things.

Besides that, colas of all types—even decaffeinated ones—are linked to lower bone mass.

In fact, we don’t know that the sodas are what cause either negative effect. As with moderate alcohol drinkers, soda drinkers may have different eating habits. For the time being, though, I recommend considering sodas a treat.

orange-juice-health5. Juice
Claim: It's not a substitute for fruit.

Some 100-percent fruit juices are nutritional powerhouse, but they can’t give you all the nutrients and disease fighters of the whole fruit. There’s little to no fiber in juice, and it doesn’t satisfy hunger the way food does.

If you’re watching your weight, drink no more than 4 to 8 ounces of 100 percent juice daily. Branch out to mango, peach, blueberry or pomegranate to add nutritional variety.

More information: "Juice and Your Children: Can They Drink too Much?"

6. Sports Drinks
Claim: We don't really need them.

Unless you’re exercising for more than an hour at a pretty good intensity or otherwise sweating a lot, it’s unlikely that you’ll need a sports drink.

Sports drinks were developed to replace the electrolytes like potassium and sodium lost in sweat. They’re a great choice during intense exercise. But they also have calories. For most of us, plain water—bottled or tap—is our best refreshment.

7. Water
Claim: We don't have to drink eight glasses any more.

That's true. Our water needs vary, the Institute of Medicine declared in 2004. Plus, we get water from milk, juice, coffee, tea, fruit and even cooked pasta and rice. Caffeinated drinks count too. Their dehydrating effects have been exaggerated, according to the IOM. Unless you’re sick or involved in heavy exercise, just follow your thirst.

8. Milk Substitutes
Claim: Rice milk and soymilk are as good for you as milk.

Rice milk has only about 1 gram of protein in a cup, says Ohio University registered dietitian Francie Astrom. You’ll get 8 grams in cow’s milk and 7 in soymilk.

Cow’s milk is also a good source of calcium, vitamins D and B-12 and another B vitamin, riboflavin. Make sure your milk substitute is fortified with all these nutrients or that you’re getting them elsewhere.

If you’re using a calcium-fortified beverage, shake the carton well before pouring, or you’ll likely miss out on the calcium that’s settled on the bottom, warns Astrom.

More information: "The Soy Controversy: Is Soy Dangerous?"

JILL WEISENBERGER, M.S., R.D., C.D.E., is a registered dietitian with National Clinical Research-Norfolk, in Virginia, and a consultant to the food industry with Jill Weisenberger Health Communications LLC.

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Last updated and/or approved: July 2011.
Original article appeared in May/June 2008 former print magazine. Bio current as of that issue. This general health-care information is not meant as individual advice. Please see our disclaimer.
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