How Many Drops to Drink?

On April 28. 1789, Fletcher Christian and fellow mutineers seized the H.M.S. Bounty and took off for Tubuai, leaving behind their captain, William Bligh, and eighteen loyal crewmen in an unpromising situation and a 23-foot launch.

The launch was loaded with 150 pounds of bread, 16 chunks of salt pork, six quarts of rum, six bottles of wine, and 28 gallons of water. Bligh divided it all down to the last dribble and fraction of an ounce, using a scale made from coconut shells—and then divided it based on his best guess as to the number of days it would take (48) to reach the closest land, the Dutch-owned island of Timor in the Indian Ocean, 3600 miles away.

On an ounce of bread a day, the odd scrap of pork, and an occasional mouthful of seagull, they could have made it. On a quarter pint of water a day, they were doomed. The weather saved them. It rained almost the whole time they were at sea. They reached Timor on June 14th, with all nineteen soggy, but alive.

Bligh’s unhappy party had been most at risk from dehydration. The human body continually needs refilling to maintain its internal liquid status quo.  We leak. Water is lost with every breath we take, as well as through tears, sweat, urine, and feces. And we can’t afford to lose much of it. Once 15% of the body’s water is gone, we’re in major trouble. Blood, depleted of water, becomes sludgy and hard to pump. This, along with electrolyte imbalances, leads to heart and kidney failure. Too dry and we’re dead as doornails.

But how much water do we really need? Answers vary, depending on environment and level of activity—that is, are you lolling in the shade in a hammock or jogging across the Mojave Desert in the hot sun? According to the Mayo Clinic, the average person in a temperate climate, doing nothing too energetically extreme, needs about 3 liters (13 cups) of water a day (men) or 2.2 liters (9 cups) (women). By water, however, the Clinic doesn’t necessarily mean plain water. It means “beverages.” Milk, juice, and iced tea—being mostly water—all count as water, as do beer, wine, and coffee, though the Clinic party-pooperishly points out that none of these last three should make up the bulk of one’s daily fluid intake.

Furthermore, not all water intake comes from beverages. About 20% of our daily water comes from food—particularly from fruits and vegetables. Strawberries, watermelon, lettuce, broccoli, spinach, and tomatoes are all over 90% water by weight. Even the stodgy potato is 79% plain H2O.

Photo of tomatoes.

Photograph by Jens Cramer

In other words, we don’t need to continually gulp water (a.k.a. “hydrate”) all the time. All in all, it looks like the current craze for water guzzling is just that—a craze—and even the time-honored dictum that good health demands the consumption of eight eight-ounce glasses of water a day now looks like bunkum. In fact, according to kidney specialist Heinz Valtin, water in quantity can be downright hazardous to our health. In excess, it can even kill us: Valtin cites the danger of hyponatremia, which occurs when we drink more water than our kidneys can dispose of. In such cases, blood literally becomes waterlogged; the body’s cells, osmotically challenged, puff up like miniature water balloons; and the end result can be seizures, coma, and death.

Historically, attitudes toward water drinking have been, at best, unenthusiastic. The ancient Greeks thought water was bad for the disposition: water-drinkers, they said, were surly, curmudgeonly, and over-earnest. (Look at Demosthenes, a prime example, who spent all his time writing and never laughed at anybody’s jokes.) The Greek beverage of choice was wine, which—unlike water—made people convivial, creative, passionate, and fun at parties. The Greek poet Cratinus (in a play tellingly titled “The Wine Flask”) stated that “A water-drinker never gives birth to anything ingenious” and the Roman poet Horace claimed that no poem composed by a water-drinker could ever achieve posterity.

Early American colonists, faced with the prospect of drinking water and nothing but water, sent doleful letters home. The best that could be said of water, wrote one unhappy 17th-century drinker, was that it was better than bad beer. Victorian travelers, reduced to imbibing water, felt ill-used; and Emily Post, writing for harried hostesses at the turn of the 20th century, warned that “A water glass standing alone at each place makes for a meager and untrimmed looking table.”  (She recommended at least two wine glasses per diner, to be filled with sherry, claret, or—at the very least—ginger ale.)

This was advice to be spurned at one’s social peril. “It was a brilliant affair; water flowed like champagne,” a 19th-century senator wrote bitterly after attending a White House party hosted by temperance advocate Rutherford B. Hayes.

On the opposite side of the fence, water proponents include Benjamin Franklin—ever a rebel—who was known as the “water American” by his London print-shop companions (all “great guzzlers of beer”), and Henry David Thoreau who, leading the simple life at Walden Pond, insisted that water was the only drink for a wise man.

On water, however, sensible advice indicates that there’s no need to worry about drinking all day long. Most of us, most of the time, are fine. Drink when you’re thirsty is the sensible rule of thumb.

And when you’re thirsty, water is a wonderful thing. In Natalie Babbitt’s classic children’s book The Search for Delicious, the main character—a 12-year-old named Gaylen—is sent to canvas the country for the proper definition of “delicious.” The General of the Armies opts for beer, the Queen for Christmas pudding, the King for apples, and the Prime Minister for fried fish. But all of us can appreciate the winner.

Which is: “Delicious is a drink of cool water when you’re very, very thirsty.”

I’ll go for that. 

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.


References

  • Ballantyne, Coco. Strange but True: Drinking Too Much Water Can Kill You. Scientific American, June 2007.
  • Barr, Andrew. Drink: A Social History of America. Carroll & Graf, 1999.
  • Valtin, Heinz. “Drink at least eight glasses of water a day. Really? Is there scientific evidence for ‘8×8’?” American Journal of Physiology, November 2002, pp. 993-1004.

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