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New Orleans nutrition experts evaluate popular health drinks

Spoiler: Stick to water

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Chlorophyll. Stevia. Ginseng. When considering ingredients of so-called health drinks, a simple stroll down a grocery store aisle offers a dizzying bevy of options.

 Brightly colored liquids in eye-catching packaging promise everything from bursts of energy to near-perfect gut health — a benefit that promises a trimmed-down waistline to boot.

 It seems each year brings a new fad, and for good reason: Americans keep buying in. According to First Beverage Group, an organization that advises and invests in beverage companies, the growth of smaller "better-for-you" brands means the non-alcoholic beverage market is projected to grow from roughly $160 billion in 2008 to almost $190 billion by 2020.

 But just how healthy are these "health" drink options? According to New Orleans-based health experts, the answer varies.

 Simone Walker, clinical nutrition manager at West Jefferson Medical Center, says she always prefers her patients drink water instead.

 "Often you're drinking flavored water anyway," Walker says. "Just have the regular water and save yourself some calories without having the extra sugar."

 Walker says sports drinks are some of the biggest culprits when it comes to added sugars, and the extra dyes and chemicals don't do the body any good. She only recommends sports drinks after a workout of more than an hour, or after an intense day in the heat.

 Too much dietary sugar will cause weight gain, but Walker says there are other dangers that consumers may not think about when reaching for a Gatorade or vitamin water.

 "The excess of sugar intake increases inflammation in the body and leads to other diseases like diabetes, heart disease and cancer," Walker says. "Any disease you think of forms from inflammation being built up in the body over time."

 Health experts agree that some drinks are fine to consume in moderation — even if heavy exercise isn't involved.

 Molly Kimball, a registered dietitian with Ochsner Fitness Center and founder of the Eat Fit NOLA program, says she's a big fan of kombucha and fresh-pressed juices — particularly if they're packed with healthy greens.

 Kimball says coconut water, too, can be fine to drink for some added taste and extra electrolytes, as long as it doesn't have too many added flavors. She says the biggest mistake consumers make is picking brands or particular products that sneak in added flavoring, which often hides even more sugar.

 "Make sure you're looking for that sometimes hard-to-miss label that says 'unsweetened,'" Kimball says. "It's otherwise easy to have as much as a day's worth of sugar in a cup."

 Regardless of whether health- conscious consumers are sipping something flavored or just plain water, nutritionists agree: It's imperative to keep hydrated, especially in hot weather.

 Kimball says dehydration often causes an array of health problems. Muscle cramping can be a sign, and even grogginess or lack of mental clarity can mean you need a few more glasses of water or other hydrating liquid throughout the day.

 "When people come to me, one of the first things I ask about is their fluid intake," Kimball says. "That's going to be the biggest thing that's linked to our energy levels."

 According to Kimball, any number of drinks can be healthy and also count toward that ideal amount of fluid intake, including fizzy waters and herbal tea.

 Walker's advice is simpler: just have a glass of water, maybe with lemon for flavoring.

 "Replacing your water intake with the drinks that claim to be healthy is just not the best thing for you," she says.

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