The Invention of Hydration

Moving, choppy water in different shades of blue, showing both above the water and below the water.

Decoder Ring is one of my favourite podcasts. The two Decorder Ring episodes to most thoroughly blow my mind so far are The Alberta Rat Wars (which I’m not going to talk about here but I promise you, it’s fascinating) and The History of Hydration. According to Willa Paskin (and according to many other sources I found) hydration as a concept was quite literally invented in order to sell hydration products. 

Willa says, ”the amount of water that we think we need and the urgency with which we think we need it has changed dramatically over the last 50 years.” We can trace that back to a kidney specialist in Florida, Dr Robert Cade. He decided that university football players wilting on the field were sweating out too much water and salts while burning too many calories. He problem-solved by giving them a mix of water, sugar, salt and lemon juice (to make it taste better), and named the drink Gatorade after the University of Florida’s mascot, the Gator. According to legend, drinking Gatorade led to the all freshman team’s victory over an older, bigger team, as well as the Gators winning the Orange Bowl for the first time in 1967. Dr Cade signed a deal with a company called Stokely Van-Camp to bring Gatorade to market. NFL players began drinking Gatorade. Over the years, the Gatorade Sports Science Institute sponsored scientific studies into the effects of hydration. 

Scientists funded by the Gatorade Sports Science Institute decided that even two percent dehydration was bad for performance, but since you might not even notice two percent dehydration, the only way to avoid it is to drink even when you’re not thirsty. This was the beginning of the widespread belief that our thirst is an unreliable guide to whether we actually need to drink. (Anyone else heard that “by the time you feel thirsty, you’re already dehydrated”?) In the 1970s, Gatorade and other sports drinks became wildly popular. So did Perrier, and with it, notions about health purity, self improvement and “clean living” started to become linked with consumption of the right kind and the right amount of water. By the late 1990s, bottled water was a growing market but many people still thought paying for water was ridiculous. 

AND THEN. In 1989 the invention of the cheap, disposable lightweight plastic water bottle brought the price of bottled water to less than a dollar, thereby making it convenient for consumers. New bottled water companies popped up, Pepsi and Coca Cola began selling municipal tap water in plastic bottles and in the 1990s, bottled water was the all natural, zero calorie, hottest thing. 

Since then, water sales have increased, reusable water bottles have grown into a huge market on their own, wellness has become an industry itself, and hydration is said to help with digestion, glowing skin, clear thinking, mood, focus, and weight loss. We can buy artisanal water, mineral water, distilled-filtered-alkaline water. For decades now, the bottled water industry and the wellness industry have been marketing a solution to a problem that probably doesn’t really exist. 

“Just drink when you’re thirsty” isn’t helpful advice for everyone, as a lot of people are legitimately disconnected from their thirst—and their hunger, and other signals from their bodies, for reasons that are complicated and beyond the scope of this post. But it seems to me that “You’re probably dehydrated unless you’re drinking as much as [insert actress/model here] and btw dehydration leads to premature aging!!” is also not helpful messaging. Or, is helpful only to bottled water companies, or to reusable water bottle companies, or to wellness influencers. 

Here’s why I’m writing about this here: I’ve participated. I steer away from a lot of wellness industry messaging for many reasons, but I uncritically absorbed the “more water is better” message. I have told patients for years that they should probably drink extra water after their treatment. 

I don’t do that anymore. But If you’re thirsty after your treatment, absolutely, you should drink some water. 

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