No wonder you're so parched after that ham sandwich!
When you think of hydration, your mind might immediately go to what kinds of beverages you are (and aren’t) drinking. But did you know that the foods you eat can also have a major impact on your hydration status? While some foods contribute to our overall hydration, adding water themselves and/or electrolytes (which help the body regulate and circulate water), others can actually have a dehydrating effect, requiring us to play catch-up to make up for those losses. But what makes a food dehydrating, and what are some of the top culprits that can dehydrate you further? Read on to learn more.
Why Hydration Is Important
Our bodies are made mostly of water, at least 60 percent, and without this major macronutrient, we wouldn’t be able to function properly. Just some of the benefits water has on our health and bodily functions include:
Assisting brain cells in effective communication with each other
Helping the body to detoxify and rid itself of waste
Promoting saliva production, digestive regularity, healthy gut bacteria vitality, and preventing constipation
Regulating body temperature
Maintaining moist tissues throughout the body but especially the skin, eyes, nose, and mouth—preserving these protective barriers from outside stressors or irritants
Facilitating oxygen delivery to our cells
Aiding in nutrient metabolism and absorption
Promoting healthy liver and kidney function
Protecting the structures of the central nervous system, like the spinal cord
Knowing all this, you might imagine how dehydration can impact the body negatively on multiple fronts. It’s completely natural for your body to experience water losses throughout the day by way of our excretory systems, including going to the bathroom, sweating, and even breathing. The key to avoiding dehydration, preserving all these important functions of water, is to ensure that you’re consuming more fluids than you’re losing throughout the day (and choosing hydrating foods).
Interestingly enough, feeling thirst is actually the first clue that you’re slightly dehydrated. More serious symptoms of dehydration include dizziness, headache, migraine, insomnia, brain fog, fatigue, unusual mood swings, decreased immunity, gas, bloating, constipation, dark-colored urine, and less frequent urination. Extreme dehydration can result in dangerously low blood pressure levels, seizures, and even kidney failure.
Typically, however, dehydration of this level is only caused by extenuating circumstances like serious illness or unusually prolonged bouts of strenuous exercise without hydration.
Many Americans operate at low levels of dehydration in their day-to-day life. But this problem has an easy solution: prioritizing hydrating fluids and foods while avoiding or moderating their more dehydrating counterparts. Ideally, we should be drinking anywhere from eight to 12 cups of water per day (64 to 96 fluid ounces)—though every individual is different—and with this goal, you can rest assured that you’re on track to be well-hydrated.
What Can Make a Food (or Drink) Dehydrating?
There are some key nutrients and dietary components that contribute to dehydration, including the following:
You may not be shocked to find that this often-discussed mineral is a classic dehydrating nutrient, when consumed in excessive amounts. When we eat foods with large quantities of sodium (in the most common form of salt), this nutrient concentrates in the bloodstream. When there’s too much sodium in the blood, it affects its salinity and pH levels. The body wants to be in equilibrium, with similar salinity levels in both our cells and blood. So, it will pull water from our cells into the bloodstream to return the pH and salinity to normal, or at least lower, levels. Not only will this result in the increase in blood pressure sodium is so well-known for, but it can also cause dehydration as our cells are depleted of their water to correct for this imbalance.
Large Amounts of Protein
Though high-protein diets are all the rage these days, there are some downsides to these popular ways of eating. When consumed in very high amounts, protein can have a dehydrating effect. This important macronutrient breaks down into nitrogen in the body where more water is required to metabolize it when compared to other nutrients. Eating excessive amounts of protein can also be taxing on the kidneys, causing it to excrete more fluids (in the way of urine) as it rids the body of the excess nitrogen, producing a diuretic effect. Both of these processes can result in the nagging symptoms of dehydration.
A lesser known diuretic in the diet is added sugar. This is related to some of the same reasons as sodium and protein, above. When there’s an excessive amount of sugar in the bloodstream, osmosis (or movement of water) will occur, pulling water from the cells into the blood to bring more homeostatic sugar levels between the two structures, dehydrating us. The kidneys then work to filter that blood and excrete it, resulting in the diuretic effect found with this common sweetener.
Other Common Food Causes of Dehydration
There are a few other common dehydrating nutrients to be aware of. The mineral potassium can also serve as a diuretic in the body when consumed in super high amounts, as does the amino acid asparagine. Then, any food components that are known to cause diarrhea, like the artificial sweetener sorbitol for example, will also cause high water losses that can result in dehydration.
Foods That Can Contribute to Dehydration
Despite that brief Magic School Bus science detour, all this information does translate into food. Here are some of the most common dehydrating foods available:
Whether it be potato chips, frozen packaged meals, fast food, or your favorite candy bar, ultra-processed foods can be some of the most dehydrating options available. Though delicious, these foods account for the majority of the sodium and added sugar intake across the U.S. (which is, in fact, what makes them so delicious), and, in some cases, protein intake as well. This holy trinity of dehydrating nutrients combine to make super-processed options the sly saboteurs of your hydration goals for the day.
Despite being tasty and convenient lunch options, there are quite a few red flags to note when it comes to deli meat and our health. Not only are processed meats like these considered to be carcinogenic, as warned by the World Health Organization (WHO), but they are typically also loaded with sodium (and sometimes seasoned with added sugars), priming them to be dehydrating for your body. Ham and bacon are ones to be especially cautious of. A great alternative if you can’t resist a turkey or roast beef sandwich is to roast those cuts of meat at home, slice, and enjoy with your fave sandwich fixings. You may also be able to ask for “natural” sliced chicken or turkey (which has no added flavoring or , or at the very least low-sodium options, at your local butcher or grocery store deli counter.
While we have deli foods on the brain, pickles are also a pretty dehydrating food. This is because they tend to be loaded with sodium. Thankfully, there are lower sodium varieties available that can help lessen that salty blow and help you achieve your hydration goals while still satisfying your cravings.
Soy sauce offers some of the most irresistible umami flavor, but unfortunately it doesn’t do much of anything for us when it comes to hydration, since it’s packed to the brim with sodium. While there are lower-sodium varieties available, even those contain way more sodium than ideal, making this salty condiment one to enjoy sparingly if you’re already dehydrated or really trying to step up your hydration game.
Whether they’re made with refined sugar or artificial sweeteners, desserts like cookies, cakes, ice creams, and more can contribute to dehydration. This is because added sugar will cause the body to excrete fluids while some sugar substitutes may actually result in diarrhea, which can really rob us of our precious water stores.
Asparagus (But Only in Copious Amounts)
Let’s start by saying asparagus is an extremely healthy veggie, and you don’t need to stress much about its effects on hydration. But technically speaking, it does contain high levels of asparagine, which is a diuretic. Not only does this spring-time veggie cause your pee to smell, but it signals your body to produce even more of it.
But still, asparagus is mostly water, so don’t worry too much about whether your favorite grilled veggie is going to spoil all the hard work you’ve put into your hydration that day or not. The dehydrating effects of this veggie are more a concern if you eat copious amounts (like five servings or more) or are in a position where you’re more prone to dehydration, like if you are actively ill.
As with asparagus, the beloved artichoke is full of health-promoting nutrients like fiber, vitamins, and minerals, and is an overall excellent veggie to eat. Also like asparagus, it is high in asparagine, and considered to be a diuretic food. However, few of us will ever eat enough artichoke on a given day to really mess with our hydration status.
Similarly to the other two veggies on this list, beets are chock-full of nutrition. However, one of the nutrients it’s highest in is potassium, known to aid in flushing fluids from the body (a good and necessary thing in proper amounts). This could very well explain why your favorite beet juice has you running to the bathroom more frequently than your other go-to drinks. So just remember, the more often you pee, the more likely you’ll need to sip to replenish those fluids.
How to Enjoy These Foods Without Getting Too Dehydrated
While this list of dehydration-promoting foods may contain some of your favorite treats, as well as nutrient-rich veggies, don’t fret—you can still get enough fluids every day without cutting out things like beets and turkey club sammies (and we’d never expect you to!).
Moderation here is key: One serving of pretzels or your favorite dessert isn’t going to derail all the effort you’ve put into drinking enough water that day. However, if many of these foods are a common go-tos for you, consider subbing in other snack options, post-dinner treats, or lunch foods throughout the week. Try salted nuts, fresh fruit, yogurt parfaits, or hummus crudites. Sneak in a grain bowl with veggies and topped with a hard boiled egg for lunch once a week to mix it up. Enjoy some simpler, homemade desserts to monitor the sugar content and add a boost of fiber and protein, like these almost-too-easy Dark Chocolate Banana Bites. Drink a cup of decaffeinated herbal tea after dinner for a sneaky hit of hydration.
If you’ve really enjoyed yourself at dim sum or your favorite fried chicken joint, it’s not only OK—you are allowed to enjoy yourself! No need to panic. You will probably be thirsty, and yes, therefore dehydrated, and it happens. The best way to offset a super-dehydrating meal is simply to spend the rest of your day or night prioritizing hydration by enjoying hydrating beverages like water (first and foremost!), decaffeinated teas, or other sugarless options, like flavored seltzer and infused waters. You can also pair your more dehydrating foods with hydrating ones, like watermelon, cucumber, or citrus fruits.
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