“Water is the only drink for a wise man.” — Henry David Thoreau
We have all heard the suggestion: when trying to lose weight, drink water before a meal. But that’s simply a myth, isn’t it? How much difference can a little water make?
Quite a bit, as it turns out. Scientists at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg decided to see if this old wives’ tale actually held any water (pun very much intended). They found there was a definite connection between drinking water prior to meals and losing weight.
The participants, 48 sedentary adults between the ages of 55 and 75, were split into two groups over the period of the 12-week study. Those in the first group were instructed to drink two eight-ounce glasses of water before breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day. The volunteers in the second group were given no directions about what to drink. Prior to the study, all of the subjects had been eating a typical American diet with a daily intake of 1,800 — 2,200 calories. The researchers restricted the participating women to 1,200 calories a day and the men to 1,500 calories a day.
Less than three months later, the results were in. The subjects who drank water before their meals had lost an average of 15.5 pounds each, while those in the other group showed an average loss of 11 pounds per person.
In a follow-up with the volunteers a year after the initial research, the participants could easily have reported drifting back to old habits and regaining the weight. But those drinking water before eating kept the weight off and actually lost another one and a half pounds on average. The people in the other group gained back the weight they had lost during the study. Perhaps because it was such a painless, easy way to lose extra weight, the participants in the water-drinking group reported sticking with this new habit.
Previous research performed in 2008 by the same team at Virginia Tech focused on overweight subjects who consumed water before breakfast. A similar result was reached, although the scientists did not track weight loss at that time, but calorie consumption. In that study, the participants who drank water before eating breakfast ate 13 percent fewer calories at that meal.
No one is sure exactly why drinking water before meals works, but one theory is that it helps fill your stomach and therefore makes you consume less food. Another possibility is that it takes the place of high-calorie drinks like soda. American adults drink an average of 28 ounces of sugar-laden beverages each day, adding an extra 291 empty calories to their diets and their waistlines.
And soda, while a very common beverage of choice, is just the tip of the iceberg of the sugary drinks issue. In 2003, the average person consumed 523 more calories on a daily basis than the average person consumed in 1970, and beverages accounted for half of those added calories. Drink portion sizes have increased from an average of 13 ounces to 20 ounces. There has been an explosion of high-calorie sweet drinks, especially coffee drinks such as our daily lattes, cappuccinos, frappuccinos, and so on (all common breakfast drinks, as well as high calorie, sugared fruit drinks and juices). And don’t forget all the sports drinks and flavored vitamin waters that seem so innocent but really add plenty of calories and not much else.
So sticking with water is definitely a better choice and drinking a glass or two before meals can aid in cutting back on calories. That said, drinking water, or any other liquid in excess while eating food, will dilute your stomach’s juices. Not only does that interfere with digestion, it also immediately triggers the stomach to produce more stomach acid and is a primary factor in the onset of acid reflux disease. A little bit of water, wine, tea, whatever with your meal does not present a problem. Once you go beyond 8 ounces, however, problems start to develop. The more you drink, the greater the problems. Or to put it another way, a three egg omelet immediately preceded by two glasses of water is a prescription for disaster. In addition, the regular consumption of large quantities of liquids with meals, by diluting stomach acids, can provide the H. pylori bacteria the opportunity to survive long enough in the gastrointestinal tract to establish itself in the mucosal lining normally protected by the stomach acid, opening the door to eventually developing an ulcer.
Look, drinking lots of water is a good thing. But instead of drinking two glasses just before breakfast, you should drink your water at least 20 minutes before breakfast — and another two glasses well before lunch, and the same for dinner, and finally, two more in the early evening. For more on drinking water, check out Don’t Stop Drinking Water.