I’ll be honest, I don’t love regular water. I’m not a hydro-hater, but I’d be much happier if I could crack open frosty pamplemousse La Croix all day instead of taking utility chugs from a Camelbak. After today, though, I’ve changed my mind. I love all liquid, so long as it doesn’t gloop out of the bottle and down my gullet, coating my mouth in mucus.
Why? I attempted to slurp nothing but thickened water and other drinks for an entire day. Now I want nothing more than to take a huge suck of pure H20 from my crappy metal water bottle.
This is thick water. Please don’t close the page.
Before getting into what thick water tastes like, you might be wondering what exactly it is and why it exists. Technically, thick water is intended to help people who have trouble swallowing — often called dysphagia. This might be due to the physical makeup of the esophagus, a neurological problem or simply getting old. Being unable to properly swallow liquids can lead to pneumonia, choking and several other very serious complications. In theory, then, thickening those liquids allows those people to better consume their favorite liquids without choking, so they can stay nice and hydrated. (Spoiler alert: It’s not true. I’ll get to that later.)
That got me thinking: Maybe, for runners like me, the ability to snack on fluids would be an exceptional undiscovered hydration life hack. Maybe it’s time to normalize thickened drinks for those who have trouble with the real thing.
There must be a few fitness geeks who prefer thick water over boring, regular water, I thought. But, as someone who’s generally pretty good at finding people who like weird things, I couldn’t find a single instance of a cis-abled person preferring thick water over normal water. So I decided it was up to me to make thick water a thing.
I wish I hadn’t.
To start the day, I mixed Clear DysphagiAide® Instant Beverage and Food Thickener Powder. As the packaging explains, this allows you to thicken literally any liquid such as soda, beer, wine, juice, milk and broth. The instructions guide you through the scoops you need for your desired thickness. The thick-liquid industry standards include these categories, from least thick to thickest thick: Nectar, Honey, and Puddin’.
I chose pudding-level thickness, and then some for my coffee. Why not?
Admittedly, as I shoveled spoonfuls of the chunky, lukewarm coffee into my dumb mouth, the thirst area of my brain switched off. It tasted nothing like coffee. It only tasted like thick.
I avoided drinks for the next several hours, knowing what consuming them would entail. But then I went for a long run in humid, 90-degree Chicago weather. Usually I come back from a run and just really cherish a big ol’ glass of ice-cold water. Not today. This time, I broke out the pre-thickened thick water, honey-thick AquaCareH2O® from Thick-It®.
It was bad. Worse than the coffee.
Despite being “flavorless to enjoy alone,” I did not enjoy it (though I was alone). I might as well have hoisted a 50-gallon barrel of clear lube above my face and poured it into my mouth.
I wanted the day to be over, and yet I was so thirsty. Every gulp of ooze that slopped down my throat left my mouth feeling simultaneously dry and greasy. I didn’t know it at the time, but the thick water left in the bottom of my cups turning to cement was an indication of what it would do in my stomach hours later.
I found a mystery bottle of Mio and squirted it into my tasteless goop. With ice and Mio, it wasn’t as bad. At the very least, it was easier to choke down enough to convince myself I was hydrating.
My quarantine vice of late is a daily, late-afternoon Diet Coke. I love my little Diet Coke treat; I look forward to it every day. Sometimes, I drink two. The caffeine and sugar give me a little boost and the carbonation in my throat feels refreshing and nice.
I did not enjoy this thick Diet Coke. Much like my coffee, it was chunky, lacking any carbonation, and it tasted like Jell-O made from cola-flavored Bottle Caps. This was the last straw. After eight hours of thick-liquid hydration, I was ready to throw in the goopy, slimy towel.
Needless to say, the whole thing backfired. Not only am I currently very dehydrated, I haven’t enjoyed the psychological payoff of truly quenching my thirst. I am in hell. But I’m lucky — I can go back to the normal stuff. Some folks can’t.
I can imagine what it’s like to depend on thickened water. Drinking it just flat-out isn’t a very good experience, which is why an increasing amount of experts who deal with dysphagia are pushing back against the assumption that thick water is, as my bottle proudly displays at the top, a “dysphagia nutrition solution.”
According to research, however, it’s not much of a solution. Patients with dysphagia are actually better off receiving their fluids from fluid-dense foods rather than thickened water. With that in mind, it’s no wonder a number of doctors who specialize in geriatrics and palliative care tried to start a viral “#ThickWaterChallenge” to bring attention to thick water being overprescribed.
Pointing to a survey in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association that found one in 12 nursing home residents in the U.S. was getting thickened liquids as a means to maintain hydration, the doctors behind the #ThickWaterChallenge hoped that if nurses and doctors actually tried thick water themselves, they’d be less likely to prescribe it.
Dr. Eric Widera, the doctor who created the challenge, says the overall benefits of thick water are “at best an educated guess.”
“When we talk to patients and family members about potential interventions for dysphagia, we must be honest with the fact that we don’t have very strong evidence that it will prolong their lives, although we may have some evidence that it will decrease aspirations,” he says. “We also can tell them that thickened liquids may increase their chances of becoming dehydrated, it may not quench their thirst and they may not like the taste.”
As the tide turns, perhaps fewer elderly care facilities will gullibly endorse and stock up on thick water, believing it’s a way to keep their patients hydrated without having to incur the cost and labor of intravenous hydration. If that’s the case, though, we must brace for Big Thick Water to make up for that loss of revenue and market themselves as a delicious, refreshing way to stay hydrated — the ultimate runner’s tool, like Shark Tank’s bullshit canned oxygen or energy gels.
I’m here to tell you that thick water is no shortcut to thick thighs and calves. No matter who you are, please don’t subject yourself to it. You deserve better.