Why Are Americans So Thirsty?
Diving into why water culture is vastly different in the United States versus the rest of the world.
Every 30 minutes, my phone pings me to take a sip of water. I don’t remember when or why I set this up. I’ve never suffered from dehydration beyond hungover, cotton-mouthed mornings and the time I thought I’d run 20 miles on a Saturday when I’d never run more than eight. But, like a good little boy, I take a sip. Every time.
From apps reminding you to take a sip of agua a few times an hour, to water bottles that track your hydration levels, and even social media accounts alerting you to “stay hydrated bitch,” it seems some of us are drunk off H2O and acutely aware of the exact amount.
I know I am. I’ve carried a water bottle with me every day since high school. It has accompanied me on every hike, to every business meeting, on every car ride. I’ve caressed it on tuk tuks in rural Cambodia. I’ve poured some out for thirsty-looking dogs. It sleeps next to me at night, where, almost certainly, I’ll roll over for a quick 4 am sip (without the aid of a phone app!) before dozing back off to dreams of water fountains and soda streams.
And if this sounds normal to you, welcome to the uniquely American club. Because, to many of my international counterparts, I’m absolutely batshit insane.
For the last decade, I’ve lived in the U.S., Europe, Asia, and then back to Europe again—and I’ve noticed that water just isn’t as integrated into the daily routine for many outside of the States. In America, I fondly remember my years surrounded by water. Sit down at a restaurant, here’s a pitcher. Walk through any building and there’s a water fountain, usually one in every hallway. If I need to fill up, there’s almost certainly a bottle filling station within close distance.
However in Asia, I could snag tea just about everywhere I went, but water would almost always cost something. In Germany, my current home, you’re lucky if a restaurant will serve tap water without charging—or at the very least complaining. Oh, and get used to filling up your water bottle in bathroom sinks.
I consulted other Americans abroad to see if they noticed this, too. One friend in London said, “I definitely drink more [water] than my Euro peers. I have a few friends here who both only drink tea and alcohol.” Another friend, a California-native based in Munich, lamented the fact that restaurants will go out of their way to not serve you tap water by saying it’s unsafe. “I just want to sit down, have a glass of water, and then order,” she says. And friends in Thailand and Cambodia, well, they swapped the water for beer—for the extra electrolytes.
So why are Americans seemingly so thirsty? And isn’t everyone else dehydrated?
To answer this, I also discussed water-drinking habits with some international friends. Those in Ireland said they mostly drank coffee, tea, and alcohol. In Mexico, bottled water was the norm. In Bangkok, a friend said they drink a lot of tea, “But we also eat a lot of soup. Maybe that’s why I don’t really drink water.”
“Carrying a water bottle has only recently become a fad here,” said Youn Sung, a sociologist in Seoul. “You’re served water on arrival when you go out to eat, but maybe you drink one glass. We usually drink alcohol. Always alcohol.” “Were you ever told to drink water as a kid?” I asked her. “Yes, but it is stressed less. It’s more of a summer thing to tell kids to drink water.”
Stressed less? I always thought drinking water was an integral part of a healthy lifestyle. In health class, I vividly remember learning the gold-standard, eight 8-ounce cups of water per day (that’s about 2 liters) will keep the doctor away—at least that’s how I cultishly repeated it. Techniker Krankenkasse, my German provider, detailed a different story.
“Drink 1.5 liters of fluid per day.” They recommended that if I’m struggling to consume enough water, I should follow this regimen: 1 to 2 cups of coffee or tea in the morning; 1 glass of juice, buttermilk, or whey mid-morning; 1 cup of soup broth, 1 glass of water, or a schorle (sparkling water mixed with fruit juice) midday; 1 cup of coffee and 1 glass of water in the afternoon; and 1 to 2 cups of fruit/herbal tea and 1 glass of water in the evening.
“Germans always ask for fizzy water. Italians want bottled water, usually to go with an espresso. And Americans want a pitcher of tap.”
My noggin counts three cups of water there, less than half my self-prescribed dosage. When I asked doctors about “the American thirst,” they all just pointed back to diet and lifestyle. Americans are one of the biggest consumers of soda and sugars in the world. According to the FDA, 90 percent of Americans consume far too much sodium, so much sodium it’s near the levels only elite athletes (and the elite sweat-ers) should consume.
There’s also the machine of the American health industrial complex. We’re told to drink eight cups of water per day—a myth that stems from a 1945 U.S. Food and Nutrition Board report, which recommended 2.5 liters of daily water intake, with the addendum, “most of this quantity is contained in prepared foods.” In just the last six months, I’ve seen seemingly endless articles glamorizing benefits of drinking more water: weight loss, mood elevation, skin clarity, headache cure, and even claims that more water can “lead to better and longer orgasms.” Combine this with the host of technologies programming you track your daily intake, and water consumption seems like just another strategy to have you living a longer, healthier life.
This is made even more apparent when you go abroad, where it’s obvious almost immediately that Americans have a weird relationship with water.
“Americans, specifically, ask if we have free tap water,” says Declan Gracey, the GM at Finnegan’s Harp, a popular dining destination for river cruise passengers touring Nuremberg, Germany. “Germans always ask for fizzy water. Italians want bottled water, usually to go with an espresso. And Americans want a pitcher of tap.” A similar sentiment was shared by Josep Sastre, general manager of Petunia Ibiza in Spain. “Dutch and Germans tend to drink sparkling water and Spanish guests bottled still water. They’ll also ask for ice only when outside, but not inside where we have air conditioning.” And Americans? Tap is the first request, always with ice.
This desire for restaurants to provide free tap water is almost certainly ingrained in the American psyche. I asked one of the front-of-house heads at a trendy, upscale restaurant in Detroit about their water service, who said that tap water is always automatically provided and servers are constantly roaming around giving refills. He estimates the average person drinks two or three glasses every meal.
This level of consumption would be unheard of outside of the U.S., especially of tap water, something derided by a Parisian friend. At the end of the day, most people outside of the U.S. aren’t mechanically guzzling water to appease their MyFitnessPal ratings or, worse, downing it just because it’s there. Many are actually drinking it for pleasure.
In Europe, at least, the standard seems to be drink water when you’re thirsty…and enjoy it. This is something I didn’t fully understand until walking through a grocery store and ogling at the bottles from the Swiss Alps, Austrian Alps, and the Black Forest. The intrigue took another turn when I met up with Austrian master chef Martin Sieberer. He presented me with a welcome package: a jar of his homemade blueberry jam and two bottles of water from an alpine spring in the mountains around Öztal. Why the water? “It’s the best in the world,” smiled the chef. “It’s rejuvenating.”
For Europeans, at least, this type of water is a treat—like a fine wine. But in the U.S., it seems like we’re happy to drown in all the water we can.
This adoration for the local springs is common. I spoke with cheesemaker, chef, and hotelier Hermann Huber. When I asked what makes his award-winning cheese so special, his answer was simple: “The cows eat a specific grass and drink specific water, which creates the milk” high in the mountains in Galtür. Huber’s so particular about the milks his cows produce that he requires they drink from cliffside creeks at an elevation of roughly 6,500 feet.
Such careful procuration of water on the continent has a deep history, dating back to Roman times where emperors and elites vacationed in the now UNESCO-certified spa towns like Baden-Baden, Spa, and the City of Bath. Each town earned their inscription thanks to their ability to “harness the natural mineral water resources.” Still today, millions of tourists flock to these towns to sample the water. Last year I took a trip to Bad Homburg, famous for its “drinking cures” and guzzled glasses from spring to spring.
For Europeans, at least, this type of water is a treat—like a fine wine. But in the U.S., it seems like we’re happy to drown in all the water we can. We’re among the biggest consumers of bottled water—alongside Mexico, Italy, and Spain. We’re at the top of general water intake on a per capita basis, when you factor in the agriculture industry, bathing, laundering, dishwashing, teeth-brushing-with-the-sink-on. We treat it no different from any other commodity. I spoke with one German friend, who recalled in horror the first time she saw fire hydrants being treated like sprinklers in NYC. “That is all drinkable water,” she shrieked. “Why would you waste it like that?”
It’s a valid point. On one hand, it’s our life-supply and on the other, we’re happy to cool off in it for a second before tossing it in the sewer. We endlessly refill glasses of water on a table until you can’t drink anymore and toss whatever’s remaining down the drain.
Indeed, when I asked Gracey from Finnegan’s Harp in Germany about whether all that tap water they’re pouring Americans actually gets drunk, his response was quick: “No, I think they just like to look at it on the table. Most don’t even finish.”
We just want it there in case we get a little thirsty—or until the next ping.