Stop counting cups: Theres an ocean of difference in our water-drinking needs

A new study of thousands of people reveals a wide range in the amount of water people consume around the globe and over their lifespans, definitively spilling the oft-repeated idea that eight, 8-ounce glasses meet the human body’s daily needs.

“The science has never supported the old eight glasses thing as an appropriate guideline, if only because it confused total water turnover with water from beverages and a lot of your water comes from the food you eat,” says Dale Schoeller, a University of Wisconsin-Madison emeritus professor of nutritional sciences who has been studying water and metabolism for decades. “But this work is the best we’ve done so far to measure how much water people actually consume on a daily basis — the turnover of water into and out of the body — and the major factors that drive water turnover.”

That’s not to say the new results settle on a new guideline. The study, published today in the journal Science, measured the water turnover of more than 5,600 people from 26 countries, ages ranging from 8 days to 96 years old, and found daily averages on a range between 1 liter per day and 6 liters per day.

“There are outliers, too, that are turning over as much as 10 liters a day,” says Schoeller, a co-author of the study. “The variation means pointing to one average doesn’t tell you much. The database we’ve put together shows us the big things that correlate with differences in water turnover.”

Previous studies of water turnover relied largely on volunteers to recall and self-report their water and food consumption, or were focused observations — of, say, a small group of young, male soldiers working outdoors in desert conditions — of questionable use as representative of most people.

The new research objectively measured the time it took water to move through the bodies of study participants by following the turnover of “labeled water.” Study subjects drank a measured amount of water containing trackable hydrogen and oxygen isotopes. Isotopes are atoms of a single element that have slightly different atomic weights, making them distinguishable from other atoms of the same element in a sample.

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