This week, First Lady Michelle Obama is rolling out a new “Drink Up!” campaign that hopes to encourage people to drink more water. It sounds uncontroversial, and that’s probably the point. Public health experts, however, are skeptical that the campaign as it stands now will actually have any positive impact.
Obama will deliver a speech in Watertown, WI on Thursday to make the case for why drinking more water can help improve Americans’ health. “It’s really that simple,” she said in a White House statement in the lead-up to Thursday’s event. “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. So ‘drink up’ and see for yourself.”
But several public health experts told Politico that the broad “drink more water” directive may actually be pretty meaningless. There’s no conclusive scientific evidence that points to the ideal amount of water that people should be consuming, and researchers have largely concluded that the conventional wisdom about needing “eight glasses a day” isn’t actually true. Drinking more water doesn’t actually give you more energy, and it’s only very tenuously linked to weight loss.
One professor of nutrition told Politico that although the director of Obama’s Let’s Move campaign seems to be over-emphasizing the positive health effects of hydration, it is obviously true that plain water is a good drink of choice. “Drinking water is great and replacing all the junk we drink with water would be fantastic,” Barry Popkin, a nutrition expert at the University of North Carolina, noted.
Along those lines, some reporters have asked the White House to clarify whether “Drink Up” will encourage Americans to replace sugary drinks with water. Is this going to be a call to action to cut down on soda?
Not exactly, administration officials say. “We are being completely positive in our messaging,” explained Lawrence Soler, the president of the Partnership for a Healthier America. “Every participating company has agreed to only encourage people to drink water — not focus on what people shouldn’t drink, and not even talk about why they may feel their type of water is better than another. It’s just: drink more water.”
This type of aversion to criticizing big food and beverage companies isn’t new. Several years ago, Michelle Obama used to aggressively push her “Let’s Move!” initiative partly by blasting junk food makers for targeting children. But since then, her campaign has quietly backed away from more controversial fights that could get her in trouble with Big Food. Obama redirected her efforts to focus on personal responsibility and fitness, and hasn’t lent her public support to efforts to regulate the food industry.
Public health advocates have consistently pressured the government to crack down on sugary drinks and regulate the amount of sweeteners that are allowed to be put in sodas. Those efforts have been unsuccessful. In its report, Reuters noted that the food and beverage industries “have never lost a significant political battle in the United States despite mounting scientific evidence of the role of unhealthy food and children’s marketing in obesity.” The first lady’s “Let’s Move!” campaign isn’t willing to wade into those battles.
That may partly because of the financial pressures at play. A Reuters investigation last year found that 50 food and beverage companies have spent more that $175 million on lobbying efforts since President Barack Obama took office, more than doubling the amount they spent during the last three years of the Bush administration.
The Atlantic points out that big players in the beverage industry have a hand in the new “Drink Up” initiative. Companies like the American Beverage Corporation, Aquafina, Arrowhead, Britta, Dasani, Evian, International Bottled Water Association, Nestle Purelife, and Poland Springs have all financially contributed to the first lady’s new effort.
Those same companies are also behind much of the academic research that touts the positive health effects of drinking more water. Some nutrition experts point out that pushes to get people to hydrate more are simply thinly-veiled efforts to get people to buy more bottled water.
“The bottled water industry creates so much environmental waste that we should be very cautious about causing harm through non-evidenced public health policy,” Scottish researcher Margaret McCartney, who has debunked some of those studies’ claims, explained to Politico over email. “Tap water in a recycled bottle is just as good for us.”