Michelle Obama Receives Blowback … Over Water

A seemingly innocuous initiative to get people to drink more of the stuff has stirred up some skepticism.

National Journal
Brian Resnick
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Brian Resnick
Sept. 12, 2013, 9:06 a.m.

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.

From Politico:

“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.

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