Jennifer Aniston drinks it hot, Gisele Bündchen drinks it lukewarm. Naomi Campbell drinks it with probiotics, and Joe Rogan occasionally drinks it with Himalayan salt and cayenne pepper. Beyonce invested in a line of it in 2022, thus becoming, according to a statement from the company’s CEO, “a part of the Lemon Perfect family”.
For years, lemon water (water with juice from a lemon squeezed into it) has been a staple of the celebrity morning routine, an appealingly approachable symbol of aspirational wellness. Its supposed benefits are myriad, according to dubiously sourced online articles and AI-narrated TikToks: it is detoxifying! It improves your skin! It balances your body’s pH and promotes weight loss! The touted advantages of this simple elixir are so comprehensive that it boggles the mind to imagine that any human on Earth is ever experiencing anything less than peak physical health, save perhaps those with citrus allergies.
Is any of it true, though?
What are the benefits of lemon water, really?
“[Lemon water] is not going to do any harm,” says Dr Debbie Fetter, an assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition at the University of California, Davis. “Is it a miracle beverage? Probably not.”
Fetter says that one of the main health benefits of lemon water is that it can promote better hydration. We tend to wake up in the morning dehydrated, she explains, and it’s a good idea to rehydrate as soon as possible after rousing from our parched slumber. If adding a squeeze of lemon to water makes one more likely to do that – as Fetter said, “some people especially do not like the taste of plain water” – then that’s great. But it’s not significantly more hydrating than downing a regular glass of water. She added that whether you drink it hot, cold, or lukewarm doesn’t make a difference, and neither lemon water nor any other food can change your body’s pH.
Lemon water is a perfect example of how a wellness trend can take a single scrap of nutritional information and stretch its conclusions beyond the point of recognition. Yes, lemons are rich in vitamin C, which can act as an antioxidant and keep the cells in our bodies healthy. But the amount of vitamin C you’re getting from a glass of lemon water is not enough to radically transform your skin, body composition or general well-being. The recommended daily intake of vitamin C, according to the National Institute of Health, is 90mg for men, and 75mg for women, and one lemon’s worth of lemon juice yields about 18.6mg of vitamin C – not wholly insignificant, but not enough on its own to meet your daily needs.
Still, Fetter says that lemon water “can contribute to improving your overall intake of these nutrients and getting more antioxidants”, which in turn can help maximize your overall nutrition. That’s if – IF! – it is combined with “a healthful eating pattern focusing on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, dairy if you eat dairy, choosing water as your default beverage and limiting alcohol”. In other words, if you’re already eating a nutrient-dense, balanced diet, lemon water can be a citrusy sprinkle on top.
Dr Kera Nyemb-Diop, a nutrition expert, food researcher and nutrition coach, says that while the benefits of lemon water are generally overhyped, there’s no reason to dismiss the practice altogether.
“I have African heritage and Caribbean heritage, and I always think of the cultural context,” she says. Lemon water, she says, is one example of many preventative habits that people in marginalized communities, who have less access to healthcare, may practice in order to try to stay healthy. “These beliefs, even if they are not supported by science, I don’t think we need to put them in the trash,” she says.
Are there downsides to drinking a lot of lemon water?
Because of lemon’s acidity, Fetter says there is a chance that those with weaker tooth enamel might experience some erosion of that enamel over time, and recommended that people not brush their teeth directly after drinking lemon water, orange juice or other highly acidic beverages.
Besides that, the main downsides are a little more abstract. Nyemb-Diop points out that lemon water has come to represent a corrosive diet culture that demonizes certain foods while elevating others. “One of the foundational messages of diet culture is that your body is a problem that needs fixing,” she says. “And when you look at lemon water, there is the idea that your body needs to be detoxified and cleaned.” She added that detoxifying beverages aren’t necessary, since organs like our kidneys already do the job of filtering toxins out of our blood.
Why are celebrities always talking about lemon water, then?
In an exhaustive, unscientific survey that I conducted of – no offense to them – non-celebrities (two group chats and a dinner party), no one polled regularly drank lemon water, though one person offered that their great step aunt, a sturdy German woman, swore by it in her day. Another called lemon water “the rich man’s OJ”, a title that feels energetically correct if not economically accurate, since a pound of lemons costs roughly $2.
That lemon water has become a status habit is somewhat surprising given that it’s relatively inexpensive. Maybe that has to do with the fact that it’s often served at spas, golf courses or in the lobbies of expensive law firms. Or maybe it evokes a serenity that most people simply don’t feel in their day-to-day lives.
“When I think of lemon water, I think of this peaceful morning where you’re slowly rolling into the kitchen and slicing up some fresh lemons and taking some time to squeeze the juice into the water,” says Fetter, laughing. “Which is not the reality of a lot of people – especially working people and people who have kids, and are caretakers and all these other responsibilities.”
Nyemb-Diop says this association between lemon water and a certain kind of rarefied existence is also a telltale sign of diet culture. “The goal of that culture is to elevate certain bodies and put them in situations of power. These celebrities are all about that. That’s how they make money.”
In this way, having lemon water in the morning can become more than a way to hydrate or get a bit of vitamin C. It can be a way for a regular person to align their lives with this image of celebrity wellness. “Food now, it’s not just eating to sustain or to move on with your life. It’s a show,” says Nyemb-Diop, pointing to the popularity of “What I Eat in a Day” videos on platforms like TikTok. “Food is not just calories and vitamins,” she says. “It’s identity. It’s emotional.”
If lemon water won’t fix me, what will?
Both Fetter and Nyemb-Diop emphasized that while drinking lemon water every morning probably will not do any harm and can be an enjoyable way to stay hydrated, it’s important to be skeptical of any single food or ingredient that claims to be the key to wellbeing.
“We want that magic pill,” says Fetter. “We tend to focus on, ‘What is the one thing that’s going to change my life? The one thing I need to do to be healthy?’ And unfortunately there’s not one thing that we do to be healthy. It’s all about a lifestyle and creating a pattern for yourself.”
Is Lemon Perfect any good?