By Claire Benoist, Healthy Aggies Nutrition Peer Counselor
Spend any amount of time scrolling through nutrition videos online and you’ll probably stumble across at least a few that rave about the many health benefits of drinking lemon water in the morning. Lemon water seems to be the magic ingredient for everything from detox to weight loss. But are these claims based on facts or fiction? Let’s explore a few of the most common claims on lemon water.
The vitamin C content
Yes, lemons do contain vitamin C. About 83mg to be exact. But that’s in the entire lemon (including the peel). The more commonly consumed part of the lemon contains about 18mg of vitamin C. Keep in mind that the recommendation of daily vitamin C intake for adults is 75-130mg. So, contrary to what we’ve been led to believe, lemons aren’t the holy grail of vitamin C sources. This common misbelief is likely due to the fact that lemons and other citrus fruits were used to treat scurvy (vitamin C deficiency disease) in sailors a few hundred years ago. However, we now know that there are many foods higher in vitamin C than lemons. Bell peppers (130mg/ ½ cup), strawberries (89mg/cup), kale (80mg/cup), kiwis (71mg/kiwi), and broccoli (50mg/ ½ cup) are just a few examples. Not trying to rain on lemon’s parade completely here, it’s a fine source of vitamin C. All I’m trying to say is, you’ve got options!
The weight loss benefits
I’d like to start this section by saying that I don’t personally believe weight loss should be a selling point of foods. Flavor? Yes. Health benefits? Absolutely. Weight loss power? No. Nevertheless, let’s explore this common claim. This belief seems to be mostly based on the fact that lemons contain pectin, a soluble fiber. If you remember from our article on beans, soluble fiber forms a gel during digestion which, among other things, helps slow down digestion, making you feel fuller longer after a meal. However, the pectin in lemons is mainly found in the skin (peel) of the lemon. I don’t know about you but I don’t typically eat lemons whole. Lemons also contain certain antioxidants that have been shown to reduce weight gain in overfed mice. However, they have not yet been studied in humans, so we don’t truly know their effects in our bodies yet. One way that lemon water might help with weight loss is if it replaces a high sugar drink like soda or store-bought juice. However, this has more to do with the fact that you’re reducing your sugar intake and less to do with the actual lemons.
Lemon as a detoxing agent
There is no such thing as needing to detox your body. Your body has its own mechanisms for “detoxing” through the formation of urine, feces and sweat. Consuming enough water and fiber is all you need to do to support those mechanisms. Some will claim that it’s lemon’s pH levels that contribute to its detoxifying power. However, let’s remember that all the food you consume goes through the stomach (pH ~1-2), which will acidify all the food that it receives in order to break it down and kill any pathogens that may have been ingested. The acidic mush that results from this trip through the stomach is then released into the small intestines where it is met with bile salts that will neutralize it. So, the acidity level of lemon, or any food, is not going to be part of its health benefits. The acidity of lemons can also be harsh on your pearly whites, so make sure to rinse your mouth with plain water after you drink lemon water and wait at least an hour before brushing your teeth to prevent damage to your enamel.
Lemon water keeps you hydrated
If lemon water helps you drink more water, then yes, lemon water can help keep you hydrated. But it’s not the lemon that keeps you hydrated, it’s the water. So, if you don’t like it, don’t sweat it, there are plenty of other ways to increase your water consumption if that’s your goal. For inspiration, check out our 5 ways to remember to drink water tips and tricks!
The very cool chemical you’re probably not getting in lemon water
In addition to containing the bulk of the vitamin C found in lemons and other citrus fruits, the peel also contains a chemical known as limonene. Limonene serves as a natural predator deterrent when the fruit is still on the tree, but once it’s in our bodies, it is thought to have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-stress, and maybe even disease-preventing properties. It’s important to keep in mind that most studies so far have been done on animals. So even though so far the research points towards positive results, more research needs to be done to confirm these health benefits in humans. Limonene is commonly used in insect repellants and some pesticides as well as perfumes, essential oils, soaps, and air fresheners because of its pleasant aroma.
The bottom line
Lemons aren’t the magic fairy dust of health that influencers and celebrities are making them out to be. Lemon water can, however, still be a great addition to your daily routine if you enjoy it. If plain water isn’t your thing, adding lemon to your water can make staying hydrated more delicious and enjoyable. Among other things, proper hydration helps support a healthy digestive system which allows us to absorb the nutrients we need and get rid of the waste we don’t need. Also keep in mind that some of the nutrients available in lemons are found in the peel so don’t be scared to get adventurous and add some citrus zest into your baking and things like stirfrys or marinades. As a last thought, if nothing else, developing the habit to drink a set amount of water first thing in the morning (with or without lemon) can help increase your overall water consumption and support your daily hydration goals.