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To quench your thirst, plain old water is best

It's a question I'm often asked by calorie-conscious clients in my private practice: What can I drink besides plain, boring water?

Of course, there are plenty of options to quench your thirst besides tap water. Soft drinks, diet soft drinks, fruit juice, flavoured waters, vitamin-enriched waters, milk, soy beverages, even coffee and tea contribute to your daily water requirements.

But while all of these beverages hydrate your body, they're not created equal when it comes to weight control or health. It's as important to consider what you sip each day as it is what you chew.

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Your body can't live without water. It delivers oxygen and nutrients to cells, flushes toxins from organs, regulates body temperature, keeps your skin moist and cushions your joints. Drinking enough water can even keep your appetite in check.

So what should you drink that won't sabotage your health? I'm afraid plain water is your best hydration choice: It's calorie-free and void of additives.

If you want flavour, add sliced citrus fruit, crushed mint leaves or a splash of pomegranate or cranberry juice. Or make ice cubes from 100 per cent fruit juice and add two to a glass of water.

Sparkling water, such as club soda or mineral water, is another option for folks who find flat water boring. Despite the myth that carbonated water robs calcium from your bones, there's not a shred of evidence to support this.

If mineral water is your main source of water, be mindful of sodium. Naturally occurring, sodium is listed on the label in parts per million, equivalent to milligrams of sodium per litre.

San Pellegrino is virtually sodium-free with 43 milligrams per litre, or 10 milligrams per 250 millilitres. Apollinaris delivers 102 milligrams of sodium per 250 ml (410 mg/l), so go easy on how many glasses you gulp each day. (Adults aged 19 to 50 need 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day; older adults require 1,200 to 1,300,)When deciding what else to drink, you also need to consider calories, refined sugar, artificial sweeteners, chemical additives and caffeine.

Experts recommend that your beverage intake not exceed 14 per cent of your daily calories. That's because sipping too many calories can lead to weight gain.

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Unlike when they've eaten a larger meal or snack, people don't compensate by eating less later when they've consumed a high-calorie drink. The body doesn't register liquid calories as carefully as it does calories from solid food.

If you're consuming 2,000 calories a day, you shouldn't drink more than 280 of those calories (say, 500 ml/16 ounces of 1 per cent milk and 175ml/six ounces of Gatorade).

If you're following a 1,500-calorie-a-day weight-loss plan, liquid calories should not exceed 210 - the equivalent of a Starbucks Grande non-fat latte and 175ml/six ounces of orange juice.

Here's how other beverages stack up when it comes to health. (You might find that plain old water isn't so boring after all.)

Soft drinks

The term "soft drink" refers to any beverage with added sugar or other sweetener and includes pop, fruit punch, lemonade, sweetened iced tea, sweetened powdered drinks such as Kool-Aid and sports and energy drinks.

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Most of us know these sugary concoctions - typically containing eight teaspoons worth per 375ml (12-ounce) serving - aren't good for us. A steady intake is linked not only to weight gain, but to a higher risk of Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Cola-type beverages (diet or non-diet) are made with phosphoric acid, an additive that can deplete calcium from bones if consumed in excess.

Sports drinks such as Gatorade and PowerAde are intended to be used when exercising. They provide water, carbohydrate and electrolytes. For sedentary folks, they're just another source of refined sugar and sodium.

Energy drinks have enough caffeine to raise your blood pressure, and those sweetened with sugar contain seven teaspoons worth per 250-ml/eight-ounce serving.

Avoid soft drinks. Consider them a treat to be consumed only once in a while. If you drink them more often, compensate for the calories elsewhere in your diet.

Diet drinks

Switching to sugar-free drinks would seem to solve the problem of calories and weight gain. One concern, however, is that artificial sweeteners separate sweetness from energy.

Normally, our brain responds to sweetness with signals to consume more calories, register they've been consumed, and then stop eating. But by providing a sweet taste without calories, artificial sweeteners could confuse these signals and impair the body's ability to gauge how many calories are being taken in. In other words, if you learn to associate sweet tastes with few calories, even a high-calorie dessert may fail to fill you up.

Studies support this notion. When rats were fed food sweetened with saccharin, they took in more calories and gained more weight than rats fed sugar-sweetened food. An eight-year study of nearly 3,700 adults showed that those who drank three or more artificially sweetened beverages a day were more likely to have gained weight than those who didn't drink them.

If you drink artificially sweetened beverages at all, limit yourself to one a day.

Vitamin-enriched water

Most of these beverages are soft drinks in disguise.

Glaucéau VitaminWater delivers 120 calories worth of table sugar (7.5 teaspoons) per 591-ml (40-ounce) bottle. Aquafina Plus+ Vitamins contains 6.25 teaspoons of sugar (100 calories) per 591-ml bottle.

If you're concerned about your nutrient intake, you're better off chasing a multivitamin supplement with a glass of water.

Milk and soy beverages

Skim and 1 per cent milk, as well as unflavoured soy milk, supply protein, calcium, magnesium and vitamin D. These are healthy beverages, but be mindful that they contain roughly 100 calories per 250 ml.

100 per cent fruit juice

Juice contains vitamins, but it's higher in calories than you might think. A 12-ounce (375 ml) serving of orange juice has 167 calories and 30 grams of sugar. Limit yourself to one four-to-six-ounce serving per day. Eat whole fruit more often than you drink juice.

Coffee and tea

They're calorie-free as long as you don't load up on sugar and cream. And they may have health benefits, thanks to their antioxidant content. For most people, it's safe to drink up to five servings a day. However, women who are pregnant and people with high blood pressure or osteoporosis should limit their caffeine intake.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based dietitian at the Medcan Clinic, is on CTV's Canada AM every Wednesday. Her website is .

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