The Gaian Guide to Liquids (Part I)

I read a couple of articles recently that compelled me to write this reflection.

First, there was a New York Times article about how the milk industry is trying to get young people to drink more milk by engaging Gen Z influencers. The industry, under the catchy moniker of “Milk Processor Education Program” (or, MilkPEP, which I admit is a bit better), is trying real hard to make milk cool. They sponsored video game conventions, Shark-Tank like entrepreneur efforts (around milk products of course), and recruited young women runners to promote milk as a healthy ‘sports drink,’ putting their images up on billboards in Times Square and elsewhere. Ironically the article goes on to describe how one of their ambassadors actually feels that milk is “unhealthy.” Essentially, as the article explores, young people aren’t drinking as much milk as the previous generation—leading to shrinking consumption numbers and industry profits. That, to me was exciting news, as milk is both unhealthy, unsustainable, and cruel even if it is touted as otherwise.1 But the article went on to describe how instead Gen Y is drinking oat milk, almond milk, and other ultraprocessed beverages.2

Are you really going to need milk to run a marathon? Nope. And it’s definitely NOT a sports drink, even if the industry claims it is. (From MilkPEP Press Release)

Second, and as disturbing: another New York Times article, this time on #WaterTok. Now I’ve never been on TikTok so I’m sure I’m missing some of the nuances but the article describes how people are influencing others to drink flavored waters, to the point where water flavor companies run out of certain flavors once influentials praise their products. I guess you could argue that that’s better than soft drinks, but many of these are flavored with artificial flavors and colors and with artificial sweeteners, which the WHO just reiterated could pose health risks and publicly warned that you shouldn’t use them. The article even ends with an obesity medicine physician from Harvard saying, “I have some pause with regards to calling this ‘water,’ because it isn’t just water. Water is the base. But water is the base for soda, too.”

Along with all the chemicals, the big issue here—one I’ve studied ever since joining Worldwatch in 2001—is the danger of drinking your calories. The body simply does not recognize calories in liquid as readily as when bound together with fiber and other macronutrients. So one doesn’t feel full, and since we’re over-nutrified as it is and living primarily on unhealthy ultraprocessed foods (with it making up 73% of the U.S. food supply), that’s a really dangerous combination.3

The best flavored water is a yard-grown tisane. (Image from congerdesign via Pixabay)

Drink Orders?

Many religions have restrictions on what types of liquids one can drink. Muslims ban alcohol to the degree where it shouldn’t be even used in cooking, and some even question if it’s a sin to work in a restaurant that serves it. Mormons, too, ban alcohol and coffee and tea (and many interpret this to be all caffeinated beverages). Indeed, I remember a Mormon friend in college who really grappled with the caffeine prohibition as it bumped up against his need to stay up to study! Christianity, on the other hand, feels like a beverage free-for-all, even encouraging adherents a drop of transmogrified wine each week, as the blood of Christ, though the Bible does condemn drunkenness more than 70 times.

The Gaian Way may be too much of a fledgling to start proposing dietary restrictions, but the science is very strong in concluding that sugar-sweetened (and that includes milk, juices, sodas, etc.) and artificially sweetened-beverages should not be part of your diet. Or if they are, they should be incredibly rare treats. Essentially, you should eat your calories, not drink them. And don’t try to trick your body with unprocessable fake sugars.

I could add a paragraph here detailing the huge data that show the truth in this, but instead I’ll lean on an anecdote. When my dad died suddenly in 2005 from a diabetes-induced heart attack, I was devastated and I immediately and permanently gave up soda—a significant vice at the time (averaging about a can a day). Without any other lifestyle changes I lost over 10 pounds (going from 175 to 165)—with no hunger, no trying, and once the addictive cravings and feeling of loss for my friend, the soda, went away, no difficulty. (The loss was offset by the joy of knowing that I was no longer supporting a horrific industry that is sickening millions of people around the world with their addictive product, polluting oceans, and, with their immense political power, still coming off as a good guy, unlike the comparable industries like tobacco.)

That’s not to say there can’t be exceptions: a special Mother’s Day breakfast if you always grew up making orange juice for your mom. Or a special cup of hot cocoa each winter holiday with your Grandma. The key is making these into special occasions to bring the frequency of them way down.

But what about daily luxuries? Coffee and tea especially? And a drop of milk to soften the taste? (Though not a little coffee in your milk, aka a latte.) Too many of us are addicted to these to realistically recommend an all-out prohibition, but I do think lowering one’s daily intake as much as possible4 and shifting a percentage to tisanes (herbal teas) from, ideally, your own yard, or purchased as bulk herbs (to avoid all the tea bag packaging) is a very sustainable way to healthily flavor your water (cold or hot). #HerbalTok (Does that exist yet?)

What about sparkling water? If you value that, use a home carbonator rather than buying highly resource intensive metal cans or glass or plastic bottles of carbonated water. (Image from Ri_Ya via Pixabay)

In summary, I recommend throwing out the soft drinks, the sports drinks, the milk (grain, nut, or cow based), the juices, as much as possible, saving them for very special, very rare occasions, and instead drinking more water and herbal teas. That keeps our calories and ecological impact as low as it goes while keeping a bit of the joy in drinking flavored beverages.

But wait, I barely mentioned alcohol. Why not? Two reasons: First: it’s complex and requires its own Part Two. Second: I’d like some input on that. How much should Gaians drink alcohol: Should we be like Muslims or Christians? Or somewhere in between? Should alcohol only be consumed on certain days of the year? Special occasions like other caloried-drinks? Please add your comment below and I will incorporate your ideas into the next reflection.


1) There are, of course, exceptions to all broad statements. Surely, having a goat that you graze on your neighbors’ yards would not only be healthy and sustainable, but a good life for the goat. But for the vast majority of milk-producing animals, milk production is cruel, unhealthy, and unsustainable. That’s not to say one has to forego all milk—but choosing to use less, and choosing the most sustainable option can help to both degrow the market and keep the remaining production more sustainable.

2) Same goes with plant milks. As came up in a comment thread here, I’m sure if you make them yourself, they can be healthy. But I do wonder why you wouldn’t simply eat oatmeal or almonds. In the case of needing to substitute cow milk for cooking, then nut milks can make sense.

3) Bonus study (as discussed in this NPR story): in 2019, a group of 20 volunteers spent 4 weeks at the National Institute of Health, eating an ultraprocessed diet for two weeks and then a minimally processed one for two weeks (or the opposite order). Having access to the ultraprocessed diet, participants ended up eating 500 calories/day more and gained two pounds on average (and body fat as well). Basically: eat minimally processed foods, which absolutely includes what you consume in liquid form.

4) Try halving your intake. If that’s easy, halve again. Too hard, add one back in. I typically drink three cups of coffee a day, two caffeinated, one decaffeinated. I will now aim for two.

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4 Responses

  1. Bart Everson

    For what it’s worth, I’ve come to embrace a seasonal approach. I drink coffee in the cold months, tea in the hot months. (Strictly loose-leaf tea these days.) Regarding alcohol, observance of the spring equinox led me to embrace sobriety, or at least longer “sobriety binges.” I’ve come to restrict my drinking to three months in summer and two months in winter. Still adjusting this.

    • Erik Assadourian

      Interesting! What about punctuated drinking? Celebrating the wheel of the year with alcohol and limiting it the rest of the time? Though that brings the potential window down from 150 days to 8! Maybe adding in other special occasions as well? And just out of curiosity, do you drink hot tea or cold in the hot months?

      • Bart Everson

        Drinking on occasions is certainly very different than just plain habitual drinking. I should note that I’ve participated in many Earth-based rituals marking the Wheel and it’s very common to share a little wine or similar as part of the ceremony. It’s generally regarded as important to offer a non-alcoholic alternative. Finally, I started out drinking cold tea (chilled but no ice, thanks) in the hot months but eventually discovered that I generally prefer hot tea.

  2. Paula Herrington

    In many places, you can find fairly local wineries. Where I live there are also “local” (within the state) produced spirits. If you’re going to partake, try to purchase local is my humble opinion.

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