11 Feb 2018

Why you should not drink water with your meals

Over the Christmas break we spent a few days in Alexandria, a quaint town just south of Washington DC. It was during the frigid week where temperatures plummeted well below freezing and bundling up into mummies was the only way we could spend some time outdoors.

Yet, what is the first thing we get served at in the restaurants we frequented?

Ice cold water…and almost overflowing with tightly packed ice cubes!

Are you kidding me?

What is this fetish with ice cold water during meals that, having grown up in sunny South Africa where the average temps would warrant ice cold drinks, were not even exposed to, served only upon request.

I asked for room temperature water, and was treated as if I asked for fresh goat’s milk.

I know it’s become a habit. “It is what we do” or “But I really like it” are standard responses I get. Well, our society’s record of vibrant health is not exactly noteworthy. Perhaps we need to revisit some habits, and ponder whether or not they are indeed conducive to our health and wellbeing.

Two things come to mind.

Firstly, let’s understand the workings of the body, and secondly, appreciate why we need to adapt to our seasons to help our bodies cope.

We absolutely need to stay hydrated, and fact is that many of us simply are not.

Gulping down gallons of ice cold water just before a meal is not the solution to fill your daily water intake 

Rather the contrary.

When we consume a meal, we need copious amounts of digestive enzymes and other secretions to help us digest our food – to break it down, extract nutrients and absorb them efficiently. Drinking large amounts at meal times dilutes these enzymes and effectively slows down digestion, making nutrient absorption more sluggish and stressing our GI tract in the process. Fermenting undigested carbs can cause bloating and gas, insufficient protein and fat digestion can further exacerbate these symptoms.

I like to draw from the innate wisdom of TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine), a health system that is thousands of years old and even sports amazing results in as complicated as affairs as cancer as proven once again at the annual conference for the Society for Integrative Oncology I attended last year.

An excess of water not only depletes digestive fire, but also negatively affects the role our pancreas and spleen play in digestion. It also affects our kidneys (important for filtering and eliminating toxins) and adrenals (regulates our stress hormones) and their ability to provide warmth and life energy. This is especially affected when we drink cold liquids, even eating cold foods.

During the winter season, our bodies need to work particularly hard to keep our internal temperature balanced. When we add the additional burden of ice cold through what we eat or drink, we are adding a stress factor to our internal mechanism that essentially weakens our body’s ability to function well.

A side kick to this is that in an attempt to regain balance we begin to crave more animal based proteins, and less vegetables and fruit, as they tend to be less filling to a cold body. See the vicious circle we can enter into here?

A few tips to remember:

  1. Ice cold water is a big No-No in winter, and in particular at meal times. Drinking during meals should be limited to “treat” drinks in small quantities to augment the food, not act as a way to catch up with hydration requirements or “wash down” food.
  2. If you are really thirsty from physical activity, by all means guzzle down water (again preferably not ice cold, or at least only in the heat of summer), but do so at least 30 minutes prior to a meal.
  3. Sip water or other non-sweetened drinks such as herbal or green teas throughout the day, smaller quantities at a time when not physically exerted are much easier on your body’s metabolism.
  4. Everyone is different! The ideal water intake per person varies widely and is dependent on numerous factors. We need to adapt, and listen to our bodies
    Water requirements are lessened by a sedentary lifestyle, eating lots of fruits and veggies, and in cold and damp climates.
    Water requirements are increased by physical exertion, salty foods and more meats and other animal protein, dry, hot and windy conditions and of course if fever or excess heat (such as menopausal symptoms) are present.
  5. Rather than follow a strict “drink x amount of glasses a day” rule, listen to your body and pay attention to the conditions mentioned above. Some days you will need less, others more. That is normal.

What I do…

I stay hydrated throughout the day! I always have a cup of green or herbal tea and a glass or glass bottle of water nearby, and sip throughout the day. I do not tally up (only did that when gearing up for the next chemotherapy treatment day), but I do make sure I drink consistently throughout the day.

What I never do…

Trying to guiltily catch up with my hydration at meal times. I never gulp down a glass of water during a meal or whilst eating at a restaurant. I am known to be quite determined when waiters, even in higher rated places, are overly keen to keep filling up glasses with chunky cold water (point here is during winter!) all the while noisily sploshing over the table in their effort to keep all glasses filled to the brim at all times.

Nothing against them personally. They are following orders.

But I want to enjoy my meal in peace, and happily digest it afterwards. After all, I am the one paying the bill and ensuring the restaurant has clientele. The restaurant that gets this is rewarded with my highest rating!

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