Michelle Obama’s New Hobbies: Hydration and Homeopathy

by Patrick Brennan

Michelle Obama has a new public-health campaign: “Drink Up,” a movement devoted to getting Americans to drink more water. “I’ve come to realize that if we were going to take just one step to make ourselves and our families healthier, probably the single best thing we could do is to simply drink more water,” the first lady explained. “It’s really that simple. 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.” She appeared at an event in Watertown, Wis. (. . .), today to help launch the initiative with the Partnership for a Healthier America, a nonprofit founded in conjunction with her “Let’s Move” campaign.

Regardless of the wisdom of public-health campaigns launched by the first lady in general, this one is silly in its own right: There isn’t good scientific evidence that people should drink more water. The first lady’s claim that one more glass of water per day will “make a real difference” for “your energy” and “how you feel” is homeopathy, not public health. (Who’s the party of science, again?)

People would surely be healthier if they replaced soda or sugary juice in their diet with water, but that’s not really what Michelle Obama’s campaign aims to do. As the CEO of the Partnership for a Healthier America explained to a reporter, It’s less a public-health campaign than a campaign to encourage drinking more water. To that end, we’re being completely positive. Only encouraging people to drink water; not being negative about other drinks.”

His claim that “Drink Up” isn’t a public-health campaign may seem risible on its face, but it is true in one important sense: The program certainly doesn’t address a real public-health problem.

The idea that most people need to drink more water and fluids, and doing so is a boon to your health, is popular but completely misguided. One expert, a medical professor at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in kidney medicine, put it this way to Politico: “There really isn’t data to support this. 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.” The idea people need to hydrate more is basically an urban legend, based on the fact that the Institute of Medicine, the federally affiliated authority on such matters, has a recommended “adequate intake” of water that sounds pretty high (around 100 fluid ounces a day). But an adequate intake, as they explain, is very different from a requirement or even a recommendation flouting which may have adverse effects. “On a day-to-day basis, fluid intake, driven by the combination of thirst and the consumption of beverages at meals, allows maintenance of hydration status and total body water at normal levels,” they explain. The Mayo Clinic puts it more succinctly: A popular rule of eight glasses a day “isn’t supported by hard evidence” and if you rarely feel thirsty and urinate normally, you don’t have anything to worry about. 

But despite the pseudoscientific basis here, the White House does list an impressive array of partners: “Aquafina, BEVERLY HILLS 9OH2O, DASANI, EVIAN Natural Spring Water, Hint, Voss, WAT-AAH!, and Nestlé Waters brands (North America’s Arrowhead, Deer Park, Ice Mountain, Nestlé Pure Life, Ozarka, Poland Spring, resource and Zephyrhills) will be promoting the Drink Up message on products, through public events, via digital, print, social and out of home media efforts and other publicity.” Meanwhile, “the American Beverage Association and International Bottled Water Association are promoting the effort.” Obviously any concerted effort to get people to drink more water will be a remarkably profitable campaign for bottled-water companies, while not in any way creating a political liability because, remember, this isn’t a negative public-health campaign, which might encourage people to buy less drinks from other American Beverage Association members.

I’m not necessarily in favor of that kind of negative, drink-less-soda endeavor either, but at least if we’re going to have first ladies trying to nudge Americans’ behavior, it might be nice to pick causes with scientific merit rather than those that lend themselves to great hashtags. Incidentally, First Lady Laura Bush’s work on reading and literacy fell into the former category — reading skills, pleasure reading, and family reading are actually really good for Americans. Drinking more water is not.

Hyping hydration is maybe also cooler than telling people to eat their vegetables, and Voss probably makes a more palatable partner than Monsanto. I would note, though, that people drinking more bottled water is obviously likely to create a great deal of waste and litter – Concord, Mass., the town next to the hamlet from which I hail, may be the home of the American Revolution, but it leans a bit left of late and happens to have banned sales of bottled water because, well, littered water bottles in the U.S. today actually might present more of a problem than everyday dehydration.