September 12, 2013
Yes, the headline on this article could have made a "Watergate" pun. But we're feeling restrained.
Michelle Obama on Thursday kicked off the latest in her series of healthy-living initiatives. It's real simple: She wants Americans to drink one more glass of water a day. That's it. Seems reasonable, right?
"Drink just one more glass of water a day and you can make a real difference for your health, your energy, and the way you feel," reads a statement from the first lady.
If that sounds a bit like an infomercial pitch—it might be. Several health experts and writers were saying Thursday that the claim isn't built on much hard science.
"There really isn't data to support this," said Dr. Stanley Goldfarb of the University of Pennsylvania. "I think, unfortunately, frankly, they're not basing this on really hard science. It's not a very scientific approach they've taken.… To make it a major public health effort, I think I would say it's bizarre."
Here's the problem, as The Atlantic's health editor James Hamblin (an M.D.) points out: There is no daily recommended intake for water. A study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds that while four cups of water is a moderate amount, "individual water intake needs vary wldely." And the Mayo Clinic's recommendation is more qualitative than quantitative: drink enough water so you don't feel thirsty and your pee doesn't fluoresce.
It could be that the first lady is shying away from a campaign that explicitly tells people to drink less sugary drinks and replace that Pepsi with a water (as it's been proven controversial to both insult an industry and tell people what not to do). But perhaps the initiative wouldn't provoke as much skepticism if the White House did a better job providing a compelling scientific reason as to why more water is better.
Hamblin relates this exchange between a reporter and White House chef and first lady collaborator Sam Kass.
One of my colleagues asked the question that was on my tongue: What are the health benefits you refer to?
Kass replied, "I think the science and evidence about hydration abounds. Starting with headaches, it leads to many more conditions. But this isn't a public health campaign. We think that being positive is most important, not getting into all the details about what a glass of water can do for you, is the message."
To be fair, Kass is a chef, not a scientist, and that was off the cuff. But if you're a national policy adviser on nutrition, and launching a campaign whose singular objective is to tell 314 million people to drink more water, your cuff should have some data that says more water is better.
September 12, 2013