Lemon water has been popular with health nuts for millennia, but it’s made a resurgence recently in the health and fitness scene. What’s all the hype about? Health gurus claim that this simple, inexpensive drink offers a plethora of health benefits from promoting radiant skin and a healthy digestive tract to stimulating weight loss.
But does lemon water really pack all the health benefits people say it does, or is it just another health fad? Let’s take a look.
Nutrient Profile of Lemons
Most of the benefits attributed to lemon juice are related to its high vitamin C content. As you can see from the nutrition label below, a single lemon provides roughly a third of your daily vitamin C needs, making it one of the best sources out there! Because our bodies cannot make vitamin C, it is essential that we get it from our diet.
Outside of being an excellent source of vitamin C, this low-calorie fruit is also a smart pick because it is naturally free of sodium (salt), saturated fat, trans-fat, and added sugar. Excessive intake of these nutrients may contribute to chronic disease, so it is best to eat them in moderation.
According to the USDA’s National Nutrient Database, the juice of 1, 48 g lemon (roughly 3 tablespoons of lemon juice) is as follows:
- Calories 11
- Total Fat 0.1 g (0%*)
- Saturated Fat 0 g (0%*)
- Polyunsaturated Fat 0 g
- Monounsaturated Fat 0 g
- Trans Fat 0 g
- Cholesterol 0 mg (0%*)
- Sodium 0 mg (0%*)
- Potassium 58 mg (1%*)
- Total Carbohydrate 3 g (1%*)
- Dietary Fiber 0.1 g (0%*)
- Sugar 1.2 g
- Protein 0.2 g (0%*)
- Vitamin A 0%*
- Vitamin C 31%*
- Calcium 0%*
- Vitamin D 0%*
- Iron 0%*
- Folate 2.5%*
*% Daily Value based on 2000 calorie diet
Vitamin “Sea” & Scurvy
The history of lemons and lemon water dates back several centuries. Interestingly enough, lemons were used primarily for decoration purposes up until the 10th century. Somewhere between the 10th and 11th century, crusaders started to bring the lemon plant back to Europe where it eventually made the trans-Atlantic crossing to America in the latter half of the 1400s. Sailors coveted lemons, and other vitamin C rich foods because of their ability to prevent scurvy on long voyages.
Scurvy is a condition caused from vitamin C deficiency, characterized by general weakness, anemia, gum disease, and skin hemorrhages. It is estimated that nearly 2 million sailors died from scurvy between 1500 and 1800 before the link between vitamin C and scurvy was discovered.
Thankfully, now that citrus fruits and other vitamin C rich foods are widely available, scurvy is extremely rare in developed countries. Today, the top lemon producers of the world include: Spain, Italy, Greece, the United States, and Turkey.
The Science Behind Lemon Water
First, Vitamin C is needed for the formation of collagen, a protein that is present in our bones, teeth, cartilage, and skin. It is fundamental for maintaining and repairing our connective tissues. In addition to playing a role in wound healing and preventing infection, vitamin C may also protect against cartilage breakdown among individuals with osteoarthritis.
There is also a growing body of research suggesting that vitamin C supplementation may promote healthy skin and prevent wrinkles by protecting against UV damage. Scientists believe this benefit is compounded when it’s consumed in conjunction with a vitamin E supplement. However, additional studies are still needed to determine if consuming a diet high in vitamin C has similar anti-aging effects.
Next, while our bodies are very effective at absorbing the iron found in animal products (heme iron), this is not the case for the iron contained in plant- based foods (non-heme iron). Thankfully, adding vitamin C rich foods into your diet is known to enhance non-heme iron absorption when consumed at the same meal. This is especially important for those who consume a vegetarian or vegan diet, as these populations are at increased risk of developing iron deficiency anemia. Plant based sources of iron include: dark leafy greens, beans, tofu, dried fruit, nuts, and whole grains.
Yet another benefit of vitamin C is its antioxidant properties. Antioxidants are compounds that neutralize free radicals, which are reactive oxygen molecules in the body. This action helps prevent damage to our cells and DNA, which may contribute to aging, inflammation, and various health conditions, including cancer and heart disease.
Yet another chronic disease that has been investigated with respect to vitamin C is hypertension (high blood pressure). Analysis of 29 randomized, controlled studies conducted by John Hopkins scientists show that consuming 500 mg of vitamin C from highly-concentrated supplements results in a moderate reduction in blood pressure (3.8 mm Hg in the general population and 5 mm Hg in those diagnosed with hypertension). This reduction may make you less susceptible to heart disease and stroke. In comparison, traditional blood pressure medications will drop blood pressure by about twice as much.
A few studies have also associated the antioxidant properties of vitamin C with protection from eye diseases, such as cataracts and macular degeneration, but research is not consistent. That being said, there is a strong link between fruit and vegetable consumption and decreased risk of these conditions.
Of course, while our diet is one of the factors we have greatest control over when it comes to preventing chronic disease, consuming a healthy diet or meeting your vitamin C needs does not guarantee immunity. There are many other variables that contribute to increased risk, including tobacco use, heavy alcohol consumption, physical inactivity, genetics, and various environmental and societal factors.
What about acute illness? Growing up, your mom may have encouraged you to drink a glass of vitamin C rich orange juice if you complained of a runny nose or sore throat. While loading up on foods high in vitamin C probably won’t prevent you from catching a cold in the first place, some studies have determined that taking highly-concentrated (>500 mg/day) vitamin C supplements PRIOR to getting a cold may decrease the duration of a cold by up to 1.5 days in certain individuals. Others may also experience a reduction in symptom severity.
Please note that despite the promising research above, additional studies are needed to confirm the efficacy and safety of mega-dose vitamin C supplementation. Because vitamin C is a water- soluble vitamin, your body is inefficient at storing large amounts at once. In fact, at doses greater than 1000 mg, your body may excrete more than half of the vitamin C in your urine.
Additionally, consumption of greater than 2000 mg per day may cause unfavorable symptoms, including diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, heartburn, and even headache and insomnia. For those with a history of kidney disease, taking more than 3000 mg of vitamin c per day may also increase the risk of kidney stones and gout. Similarly, this quantity can exacerbate high iron blood levels in those with hemochromatosis.
Remember to always consult your health practitioner before making any changes to your diet or before adding supplements to your regimen.
Vitamin C: How Much Do You Need?
Now that you know the importance of vitamin C in a healthy diet, lets discuss your daily needs. As mentioned previously, our bodies cannot synthesize vitamin C, so we must consume it through our diet. Additionally, because it is water soluble, it is not stored efficiently in our bodies and, thus, we must consume it on a daily basis.
The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of vitamin C is 75 mg for women and 90 mg for men. However, certain populations have elevated needs. For example, smokers require an additional 35 mg per day, while pregnant and lactating women require 85 mg and 105 mg , respectively. According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, consuming the RDA, or slightly above the RDA (Remember not to exceed 2000 mg!), is sufficient for obtaining disease prevention.
Sources of Vitamin C
Unless you have an overt deficiency, consuming a multivitamin or vitamin C supplement is not necessary. Increasing your intake of vitamin C rich foods and beverages, such as lemon or lemon water, is an effective way to meet your nutritional needs and possibly achieve some of the amazing benefits mentioned above.
To ensure you are meeting your vitamin C needs, try consuming a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Besides citrus fruits, cantaloupe, kiwi, mango, papaya, pineapple, and berries are fruits containing the greatest quantities of vitamin C. Likewise, the best vegetable sources include calciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, etc.), green and red peppers, leafy greens, potatoes (regular and sweet), tomatoes, and winter squash.
In addition to variety, the quantity of fruits and vegetables you eat is also important. Women should aim to consume 2-2.5 cups of vegetables and 1.5-2 cups of fruit per day, while men need 2.5 cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruit daily according to USDA guidelines. Remember that vitamin C is water soluble, so avoid overcooking, using high cooking temperatures, or using large amounts of water during preparation, as this can lead to unwanted nutrient loss.
Lemon Water & Hydration
While lemon appears to be the star ingredient in lemon water, let’s not forget about the essential role that water plays in our health.
Considering that 60% of our bodies are made up of water, it’s no surprise that hydration and health go hand in hand. Water is a key constituent of every cell, tissue, and organ in our body and is necessary to keep them functioning properly.
Good hydration also aids our body in eliminating toxins and waste in our urine, feces, and sweat. Drinking liquids aids our body in digesting and absorbing nutrients and combats constipation by softening our stool. Additionally, drinking plenty of fluids may protect you from kidney stones and urinary tract infections (UTIs) by lowering the concentration of your urine and flushing out bacteria in your urinary tract. Finally, water also plays an important role in regulating body temperature via sweat.
In addition to urine, feces, and sweat, water is also a major component of our blood and synovial fluid (the fluid the lubricates our joints). Consequently, good hydration is important for maintaining healthy joints and regulating blood pressure.
Next, you are probably aware that poorly hydrated skin becomes dry, tight, and flaky and is more prone to wrinkling. However, against contrary belief, it’s still unclear if oral hydration plays a big role in keeping your skin moist. This is because the water you drink travels to every other organ in the body before it reaches your skin. Most dermatologists agree that applying a product containing hyaluronic acid after bathing, followed by a moisturizer, is the most effective way to lock in skin moisture. Of course, there are many case studies of people, including chronic acne sufferers, achieving more radiant skin by increasing their fluid intake.
Finally, you have have also heard that adding lemon juice to water can aid with weight loss. This idea likely originated from a 2008 study that concluded that mice consuming a high-fat diet gained less weight and less body fat when they were supplemented with antioxidants found in lemon peel, known as polyphenols. The authors speculated that polyphenols may prevent weight and fat gain by triggering the liver to release enzymes that impair dietary fat absorption.
While this study is intriguing, it has several shortcomings. First, it was conducted on mice, so the results are not necessarily transferable to humans. Second, this study specifically examines the effects of polyphenols found in lemon peel, not lemon juice. Lemon juice contains much smaller quantities of polyphenols than lemon peel. However, even if you were to incorporate lemon zest in your water, it would be nearly impossible to consume the high quantities of polyphenols provided to the mice.
On the other hand, there is slightly more evidence to suggest that drinking water (with or without lemon) prior to meals might be beneficial for weight loss. Two Virginia Tech studies found that dieters who drank 2 cups of water before meals lost more weight and had more success in maintaining their weight loss than dieters who did not drink any water before meals. One possible theory is that water helps fill you up, thus, leading you to eat less.
Lemon water may also contribute to weight loss if it is used in place of other higher calorie beverages. While milk and unsweetened milk alternatives are healthful options, sugar sweetened beverages, such as soda, sweet tea, lemonade, and fruit cocktail, are high in calories and added sugar while offering little nutritional benefit.
Also, even though 100% fruit juice is chocked full of minerals and vitamins, it doesn’t contain the fiber found in whole fruit, making it much less filling. Additionally, although the natural sugars found in fruit are typically not a concern, fruit juice is very concentrated, so it can be easy to overdue it. Therefore, it is recommended that you limit your juice consumption to 4 ounces per day and reach for whole fruit instead.
Overall, drinking lemon water is an effective way to reduce your intake of added sugar and empty calories. Other healthy picks include regular water, sparkling water, and unsweetened tea and coffee. You can also try infusing your water with strawberries and mint or other delicious fruit and herb combos!
As you can see, good oral hydration plays many important roles in keeping your body healthy. For those who struggle to drink enough fluids throughout the day, adding lemon to water is a great way to add variety and flavor to their drinking routine and possibly promote weight loss when consumed before meals or used as a substitute for sugar sweetened beverages.
As a general rule of thumb, you can estimate your daily fluid needs in ounces by dividing your body weight (in pounds) in half. For individuals who are active, the American College of Sports Medicines recommends an additional 12 ounces of water per day for every 30 minutes of physical activity completed. You will also have higher fluid needs if you live in a hot or humid climate, you are vomiting or have diarrhea, or you are pregnant or breastfeeding. To get a better estimate of your fluid needs, try out this calculator.
Of course, no calculation is perfect. At the end of the day, the best tool to determine if you are drinking enough is to observe your urine. Urine that is a pale straw color or transparent yellow is an indication of good hydration. On the other hand, clear urine is an indication that you are drinking too much fluid, while dark yellow urine is a sign that you are on your way to being dehydration and you should drink fluids immediately. Amber or honey colored urine means that you are already dehydrated.
There are several ways to make lemon water if you want to reap the many benefits listed above. How you make it is totally up to you and depends on what you have available and whether or not you want to drink it warm or cold. To make lemon water try the following:
- Wash and slice up 3 lemons and add them to a pitcher of water. Refrigerate overnight prior to drinking.
- Squeeze one lemon into a cup of warm, but not boiling, water and enjoy.
- Try a lemon juicer to juice lemons more efficiently.
Selecting lemons is easy when you know what to look for. Choose lemons that are fully yellow. Lemons that are partially green are not ripe yet and won’t be as juicy. Avoid lemons that are hard or have a thicker rind.
Healthy Honey Lemon Sorbet
- 2 cups water
- 1.5 cups fresh squeezed lemon juice
- 1/4 cup honey
- the zest from 2 lemon
- Combine the water, honey and lemon zest in a small saucepan over medium heat. Warm until the honey is dissolved, stirring constantly.
- Remove the pot from heat before the liquid gets hot and add the lemon juice. Stir to combine.
- Refrigerate until cold in sealed container.
- Pour the lemon mixer right into a metal loaf pan and freeze it for 2-4 hours. Every half hour scrape down the sides of the container with a spoon to aerate the mixture.
Lemon Chicken Soup
- 4-5 cloves of garlic pressed
- 1 onion
- 3 cups of low sodium chicken stock
- 4 cups of water
- 1 cup of lemon juice
- 3 tablespoons of chopped parsley
- 2 boneless skinless chicken breasts cut into piece
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil
- Heat the olive oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. Chop the onion and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Press garlic into onions and stir.
- Add the cut chicken to the onions and garlic. Cook for 3-5 minutes or until chicken starts to brown stirring constantly.
- Add the broth, water, and lemon juice. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and let cook for about 30 minutes.
- Finish with salt, pepper, and chopped parsley.
- Serve hot.
In general, lemon water is safe for most people including pregnant women because it has very few negative side effects. That means you can enjoy the benefits of lemon water with confidence! However, before you get out your lemon juicer, know that it does have the following drawbacks:
- High acid content may damage teeth if drinking an excess amount of lemon water
- Citrus fruits, including lemon, may aggravate acid reflux
- Those with cold sores in the mouth may find drinking lemon water painful
If you want to protect the enamel on your teeth, you might want to try sipping lemon water through a straw. For those suffering from acid reflux or cold sores, you may wish to avoid lemon water if it makes your symptoms worst.
Incorporating lemon water into your diet is a simple, safe, and inexpensive way to help you reach your daily hydration and vitamin c needs and possibly achieve some of the many benefits listed above. That being said, while lemon water does have some wonderful perks, it is not a cure all and it is not a substitute for living a healthy lifestyle. If you want to optimize your health and protect against chronic disease, follow a well- balanced diet that incorporates a large variety of foods from all food groups, eat sweets and processed foods in moderation, drink plenty of fluids, get enough sleep and exercise, and avoid excessive alcohol consumption and tobacco use.