Is Thirst Driving Obesity?

Health Writer

I recently wrote about FoodLustVersusFoodNeedand quoted a well-regarded dietary expert. Her perspective at the time suggested there wasn’t strong evidence regarding the role of thirst as a driver of excessive food consumption and obesity.

_A newly released study now suggests that water intake may indeed help maintain a healthier weight. _

The study, led by Tammy Chang, M.D., MPH, MS, an assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the U-M Medical School, looked at people with higher BMIs and their relationship with fluid intake and hydration levels.

Someone with a higher BMI should naturally need more water. Based on data that involved 9,528 adults from the NHANES, the research team found that roughly one third of the subjects were inadequately hydrated, even though they had higher BMI assessments. The researchers could not clearly identify whether obesity as a condition somehow contributed to behaviors that resulted in lower intake of water or whether inadequate intake of fluids somehow raised the risk of obesity.

Their findings did however highlight an “obesity-inadequate hydration link.” It is conceivable, though more research is needed, that certain individuals confuse thirst with hunger. That could explain why some people consume more calories than their activity requires, which results in weight gain and a higher risk of developing obesity. One way that someone diagnosed with obesity could satisfy their fluid needs and lower their overall calorie intake would be to:

  • Set a goal of drinking several glasses of water and unsweetened tea daily. Black coffee can also be used to meet daily hydration needs. Meeting thirst needs might help to naturally lower food intake.

  • Eat more fruits and vegetables that have varying levels of water and also tend to be lower in calories.

What health experts do not want to see is sodadiet sodajuice or flavored waters and energy drinks used regularly to meet thirst needs. Those types of beverages add to a person’s daily calorie load, do not provide satiation, and tend to spike blood sugar levels. When blood sugar plummets, the individual is usually prompted to grab another caloric drink or food. Drinking these caloric beverages can certainly contribute to weight gain and the risk of developing obesity.

A recent study suggests that swapping out one soda for a glass of water daily, “reduces calorie intake, obesity prevalence, and benefits overall health.”

Supplementing with hydrating foods

Dieticians and nutritionists often recommend consuming a glass of water or a clear broth before meals in order to help tame hunger pangs. Liquids can fill you up fast, so if you’re struggling with portion control, this is an easy technique to help manage food intake.

This, experts suggest, will also help to meet daily hydration needs. Fruits and vegetables including watermelon, cucumber, cantaloupe, grapefruit, strawberries, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, celery, iceberg lettuce, radishes and tomatoes should be included in your diet. Cucumbers have 97 percent water content. Iceberg lettuce is 96 percent water, while celery is 96 percent water. Radishes and tomatoes contain 95 percent water and red, yellow and green peppers contain between 92 and 93 percent water. Watermelon and spinach hover around 91 percent water content.

Fruits and vegetables help to fill you up while providing significant water hydration benefits.

What is clear from the study is that** hydration may deserve more attention and scrutiny when working with individuals who are trying to lose weight or maintain weight**. Hydration should become a cornerstone of weight management programs. Hydration needs and beverage types might also be a necessary topic of discussion for pediatricians and adult doctors, especially those who specialize in weight management. Surely many of us grab food when feeling that our “tank is empty,” when in fact, we actually need to quench our thirst.

Take a moment to review your daily hydration habits...

Use your smartphone, your calendar or a journal to keep track of how much water and how many fruits and vegetables you consume daily. Finally, get into the habit of always thinking “thirst first, then food” if you are feeling like you are running on empty.

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Amy Hendel, also known as The HealthGal, is a Physician Assistant, nutritionist and fitness expert. As a health media personality, she's been reporting and blogging on lifestyle issues and health news for over 20 years. Author of The 4 Habits of Healthy Families, her website offers daily health reports, links to her blogs, and a library of lifestyle video segments.