Tea has a long history as a touted cure for all sorts of ailments, ever since it’s legendary discovery as an antidote to poisons. So perhaps it’s no surprise that today, tea is often marketed as an antidote to one of our most pervasive modern health issues. Today, we’ll dive into the facts about “weight loss” teas to separate the true benefits of tea from the sales spin.
Before we begin, it’s important to note the distinction between true teas, made from the Camellia sinensis plant, and herbal tisanes like the ones traditionally used in Chinese medicine. Despite the fact that both are brewed in hot water, herbal blends can contain leaves, roots, or mushrooms with very different properties from pure tea. Tea bags marketed for weight loss often include herbs with a laxative effect, which can produce short term results through the loss of water weight, but are not generally healthful or helpful in the long term for reducing levels of body fat. For herbal medicines to be effective, we recommend seeking out a licensed herbalist, who will prescribe a unique blend suited to your ailment.
When it comes to true teas, however, health benefits are less specific. Though closely tied to the practice of Chinese medicine, interest from noble scholars and the Emperor transformed the world of tea, bringing forth a focus on the range of flavors that could be produced from the humble tea plant. While tea never lost the reputation as a healthful beverage, it became appreciated as a part of everyday life, rather than a medicine.
Early European exporters seized on the opportunity to market health benefits, but they understood very little about the composition or production of tea. Because different styles were made in different regions, historical tea experts often assumed that green teas were made from a different species of plant than black teas. Today, of course, we know that all teas come from the same species of plant, and modern research has uncovered some of the mysteries behind tea’s reputed health benefits.
Why is Tea Healthy?
Many of the health benefits claimed in historical sources can be traced to the basic step of boiling water. Before modern plumbing and purification systems, drinking water was a dangerous business, but boiled water used to make tea was free of pathogens. Similarly, brewed tea contained enough vegetable matter that it formed an integral part of the Mongolian diet, and was reported by westerners to cure scurvy. The boost in energy and focus derived from the natural combination of caffeine and theanine was also recognized as a marketable health benefit among early European exporters.
Modern scientists have uncovered an additional source of health benefits: antioxidants. Found as polyphenols in all types of tea, antioxidants are well known for their role in detoxifying the body by neutralizing free radicals that can damage cells. The most studied antioxidant in tea is called EGCG, which exists primarily in green teas. During the oxidation process that creates other tea styles, this specific type of polyphenol is replaced with theaflavins and thearubigins, which are also antioxidants. Specific levels of these compounds vary from batch to batch depending on the variety of the plant, growing region, harvest season, and crafting style, but research suggests that all antioxidants found in tea have similar health benefits.
Notably, a large portion of the early research on antioxidant benefits from tea has been undertaken in Japan, where the teas produced and consumed are overwhelmingly green. Therefore, most modern research on the subject of tea’s health benefits have been focused on green tea, and the effects of EGCG specifically. Such studies have suggested myriad benefits that might contribute to weight loss, including improvements in metabolic health and increased fat oxidation (the process of breaking down fatty acids in the body). Few studies offer conclusive evidence or reliable results, but most agree that any benefits require daily consumption of multiple cups of tea.
Ultimately, tea’s greatest benefit in the fight against body fat is that it contains no calories, making it an attractive choice when compared to sodas, juices, or other sweetened drinks. In addition, caffeine is a mild appetite suppressant, while sweeteners generally have the opposite effect.
When is Tea Unhealthy?
Of course, not all teas are created equally, and many teas found on the mass market don’t live up to the health hype, for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, few mass-produced teas taste good. Tea plants grown quickly with chemical fertilizers develop fewer flavor compounds overall, and when those teas are crushed or powdered to fit into conveniently packaged tea bags, the increased surface area of the leaves allows for quick extraction of bitter tannins. It’s no surprise that in most of the western world, where such low-quality teas are standard, cream and sugar are considered necessary additions to any cup. However, these high-calorie extras undermine tea’s greatest contribution to weight loss - it’s lack of calories.
Sugar and other artificial additives also find their way into most bottled teas found on the shelves at supermarkets and cafes. On top of that, antioxidants begin to degrade as soon as the tea is brewed, leaving bottled teas at the very bottom of the health-benefits totem pole.
Another type of tea which does not contribute to weight loss is any tea sitting in the cupboard, un-brewed. Since all teas are made from the same species of plant, and have similar health benefits, there is no advantage to choosing a trendy style of tea over one that’s tried and true. If it’s a natural tea that you like to drink without additives, it’s likely a healthy choice.
Will Tea Help Weight Loss?
As much as we may wish, tea is not a miracle drug to burn belly fat and lose weight now, as many proselytisers would have you believe. But it can be a useful addition to long-term lifestyle changes. In particular, replacing sugary drinks like soda with natural teas can help cut daily calorie intake dramatically as part of any diet plan. As an added bonus, the wide world of tea offers an endless array of styles and flavors to choose from and explore. Start tasting, and before long you may find that health benefits are only a side effect of a true love for tea.
Has tea helped in your weight loss journey? Tell us about your experience in the comments below!
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