There are only so many times you can say, “Just water for me, thanks,” when the waiter asks before you start to get bored. Water is a healthy and safe bet, sure — it always tastes the same (good) and you need it for hydration (better). But a zillion other healthy drinks give you the health boosts of water, plus some.
"Water is essential for hydration, but what it doesn’t contain are essential electrolytes that are the fundamental backbones of hydration," Gabrielle Mancella, a registered dietitian at Orlando Health, tells Bustle. "In order to remain hydrated, which essentially means that our water intake and outtake are balanced and we are not excreting or retaining too much fluid, we need to ensure that we are consuming electrolytes," which are found in — you guessed it! — other healthy beverages.
Liz Weinandy, a registered dietician from The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, agrees, tells Bustle that "Water is really the 'gold standard' when it comes to hydrating our bodies," but that we can get hydration and other benefits from herbal teas or foods with a high water content.
So what do you do when you want more bev options but want to keep it on the healthy-ish side? Here are seven of the healthiest beverages you can wash down a meal with, that aren't water.
Milk has always been there for you, hasn’t it? Touted as an excellent source of calcium and vitamin D since you were a child, it may seem like less of a grown-up drink than other options, but milk is a great source of protein and other essential micronutrients.
"Milk is also high in nutritional value for those who tolerate it, since it is a good source of protein, an excellent source of calcium and contains other vitamins and minerals like vitamin B2 and iodine," Weinandy tells Bustle. For those who can't handle or don't drink dairy milk, soy milk was found to be the most nutritious milk alternative in one 2018 study.
2. Green Tea
You've been hearing about the benefits of green tea for years, but maybe it's time to put your money where your mouth is. (Or vice versa?) Anyway, you don't need me to tell you that green tea is good for you.
"Beverages with high nutritional value include many teas, especially green and black tea, and coffee," Weinandy tells Bustle. "Teas and coffee are very high in phytochemicals, which are compounds found naturally in foods that are can help our bodies function better." These phytochemicals are also associated with a lower risk for heart disease and certain cancers. Not too shabby for the humble green tea!
If you're jonesing for a caffeine buzz, green tea will do the trick, with just enough caffeine to give you that energy boost but not so much that you crash later. And you'll also get a nice side of antioxidants with each cup.
3. Coconut Water
You may have heard this healthy drink referred to as nature's Gatorade, and for good reason. Mancella recommends coconut water because it has "naturally occurring electrolytes," which are the nutrients that help your body process the hydration water is giving you.
"Though [coconut water] does contain naturally occurring sugars, opting for a plain version with no additional fruit juices (often times from concentrate) is the best route to go," Mancella says. Coconut has half the sugar as typical fruit juices, according to Mayo Clinic, and contains high levels of both potassium and sodium — both key electrolytes, but in moderation.
4. Nutrient-Dense Fruit Juices
Both Mancella and Weinandy tell Bustle that fruit juice probably isn't going to be healthier than water. Even though they may contain electrolytes or vitamins, typical fruit juice has more sugar than you think, and drinking your fruit instead of eating it deprives you of all the great fiber fruit gives you.
"Juices are generally frowned upon except in small amounts, like a small glass a day at the most, because the whole fruit is always better than the juice," Weinandy says.
If you are hankering for a fruit juice or smoothie, though, opting for varieties that get you the nutrients you need isn't a bad idea. If you feel a cold coming on, a glass of orange juice can help you get immune system-supporting vitamin C. Beet juice has been linked to lower blood pressure in people with hypertension, and since it's kind of a weird one to find in a grocery store, making it at home is one way to control the amount of sugar you drink. And while cranberry juice has long been debunked as a urinary tract infection home remedy, it's also not terribly high in sugar.
5. Hot Chocolate
Yes, cocoa has a place on this list. How could that possibly be? Well, if it weren’t for your least favorite monthly friend, it might not have made it. But if you're dealing with menstrual cramps, one of the best natural ways to ease the pain is through drinking beverages with high magnesium content. (Coconut water also lives on this list, by the way, but hot chocolate is more of a treat.)
Instead of using a powdered mix, with lots of added sugars and preservatives, try making it at home by melting a few squares of dark chocolate in boiling milk (or your favorite non-dairy alternative). Dark chocolate has lots of flavenols that are linked to improved heart health, according to Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and if you sprinkle a little cinnamon on top, you'll be giving yourself an added dose of anti-inflammatory antioxidants.
Hot chocolate definitely isn't a "healthy" substitute for water, but if you're looking to drink something warm and nourishing, it can have certain benefits.
6. Ginger Tea
Like her majesty green tea before it, ginger tea is a great way to flavor water with added boosts. Ginger is an excellent natural remedy for all tummy troubles. It has been promoted as a way to sooth an upset stomach, relieve motion sickness and pregnancy related nausea, and ease digestion.
If this sounds like something you might enjoy, brew a cup of fresh ginger tea yourself by steeping one or two thin slices of fresh gingerroot in a cup of hot water. Spoon in a little honey if the resulting brew turns out to be on the spicy side.
7. Agua Fresca
Agua fresca — "fresh water," in Spanish — is a classic drink in Mexico that's basically water with fruits or vegetables blended in it. Think of it as a smoothie version of a La Croix, minus the bubbles.
"This is a fantastic way to make a refreshing beverage without additional added sweeteners, artificial colors, or preservatives," Mancella says. She recommends cucumber agua fresca (there's that spa water again!) as a way to get more nutrients and flavor into a cup of H2O. "Cucumbers are high in potassium, which is an electrolyte that helps to regulate our blood pressure. This is likely the lowest sugar option and can even be combined with honeydew melon for a flavor twist. Honeydew melon is about 90% water and contains electrolytes, such as potassium, magnesium, sodium and calcium."
Other ideas for tasty aguas frescas are watermelon, strawberrries, or pineapple, or really any other fruit that suits your fancy. You can also blend it with herbs like basil or mint for a vegetal twist.
Water is always going to be the king of healthy beverages, but if you're looking for something with a little more flavor, the options on this list are healthy-ish substitutes. No one drink is going to ruin the nutritional profile of your day, and it's definitely not worth stressing out over, but if you want to keep your hydration nutrient dense, these healthy drinks can't be beat.
Ocampo, D. B., Paipilla, A., Marín, E., Vargas-Molina, S., Petro, J., & Pérez-Idárraga, A. (2018). Dietary Nitrate from Beetroot Juice for Hypertension: A Systematic Review. Biomolecules, 8(4), 134. doi: 10.3390/biom8040134
Vanga, S. K., & Raghavan, V. (2017). How well do plant based alternatives fare nutritionally compared to cow’s milk? Journal of Food Science and Technology, 55(1), 10–20. doi: 10.1007/s13197-017-2915-y
Liz Weinandy, RD, MPH, LD, a registered dietician from The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center
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