tea and health


The question is simple: Does drinking green tea directly create weight loss? The scientific answer is simple, too: No. There is no scientific evidence whatsoever, only hopeful hints. The medical answer is also a No, plus be careful – very careful – about what the “green tea” is and does to you. Green tea extract supplements (GTE), one of the aggressively marketed weight loss products, are listed as a significant health risk, not aid.

The counter view is that green tea is proven as a diet aid (sellers: “9 Stunning Herbal Weight Loss Teas”, “20 Teas That Melt Belly Fat”), core to healthy living (lifestyle advocates: “The Green Tea Lifestyle.” “Winter Wellness with Green Tea”) and a media magic potion hype (“Miracle Weight Loss Teas.”)

It’s a somewhat pointless debate. Here’s a more useful perspective. Shift the focus from the tea-weight loss link to the reverse. What lessons can we learn from the experience of people whose very livelihood depends on keeping their weight down, often at the daily level, while remaining strong and fit? Where does tea fit into their dietary regimes?

The picture that emerges from the wide literature on how jockeys, dancers, and athletes handle the challenge is fairly consistent. These are the Stay Thin Folks. To curb verbiage, this post refers to them as STFs.

  1. Tea is very much a design element for helping them get a breakfast start-off that combines good nutritional balance, an energy boost and a relaxed sense of mind.
  2. It is not seen as a factor that in any way directly causes weight loss. There is not one study that recommends even two cups at a time or multiple cups a day.
  3. A common theme is that tea stimulates the body’s mechanisms to start burning up some calories. Again, correlation not causation; the simple reality is that loss is a function of calories taken in minus calories out.
  4. It does not recommend herbal teas or GTEs. This is in direct contrast to many of the tea weight loss promises, which too often are little more than crash diets, most of which are not in fact tea but herbal mixes. There is one called ballerina’s tea that real dancers are warned against. It’s a straight laxative purge and “colon roto-rooter.” It’s not tea. Tea contains a small amount of caffeine.

A typical alert from the American Heart Association (2016) warns that natural cold remedies, supplements, herbal compounds and green tea pose a danger to heart patients, including weakening their heart muscles and increasing sodium and fluid retention. The interaction of herbal brews and medications is a regular topic: ibuprofen, valerian and even chamomile pose many hidden risks that fall outside the FDA’s regulatory oversight.

  1. Caffeine is a positive, not a negative. Caffeinated tea raises metabolic rate: “you turn on the fat-burning spigot a little bit more.” Most of the miracle products are herbs, undermining the very basis of the tea-weight loss link.
  2. Water is far more important than tea in ensuring constant rehydration through the day, in small and frequent. Sip, rather than gulp, your way to a lesser you.
  3. Green tea is preferred mainly for being pleasant and smooth to sip, but black tea, sugar and milk are often recommended – in small amounts of one cup – to balance energy and calming.
  4. An intriguing result of a few studies is that tea seems to help in dealing with a problem reported by jockeys; a slight depression and aggression that seems to reflect the body/mind’s reaction against strict and non-enjoyable diet constraints. Dietary changes often have negative downer effects on mood.

All this is very consistent with the inconclusive nature of almost all the scientific research. Where there is some evidence of a link between tea and weight loss, it’s impossible to sort out exactly much how the tea is the explanation, versus the associated shift in breakfast (very much the focus of the STF studies), or even addition of a beer for evening relaxation and sugar fix (again, a common STF tip).

A major implication for people in their everyday life is that while the scientific evidence does not support claims about its direct impacts on weight, in its basic form with no additives, “natural” flavors or herbal ingredients, it has no apparent negative side effects. It is by far the best beverage choice for weigh management: colas with sugar, high caffeine coffee, lead-laden iced tea and bottled drinks, and of course alcohol.

The nonsensical claims beyond this have no validity in either science, medicine or STF practice. Weight loss is an ideal selling point for really low end tea. One urban myth is that Korean green tea bags are a wonder diet aid, even though they taste worse than awful. Health stores have added white tea to their offers, on the basis of it’s being lower than green in caffeine (that is sort of true on average but many are higher than black teas.) Most of these – the term carries no legal weight – are greens that are not processed in the meticulous way that real whites are. They are mediocre tea and ineffectual diet aids.

tea and weightloss - inset


Here’s one of the standard garbage media pitches that the green tea weight loss hype leads to, from Redbook magazine in December, 2015, Mom Lost 100 Pounds in One Year Drinking Weight Loss Tea.

The lady is 5’1”” and weighed 210 lbs at 18. “”Feeling miserable about my way I looked only made me want to eat more.” As a result of her unhappiness, she developed “bad eating habits: two pieces of buttered toast for breakfast, two chocolate bars for a snack, two grilled cheese sandwiches with chips for lunch, greasy pizza for dinner, and drink either sugary soda or five cups of tea with milk and sugar nearly every day. “I’d always dunk a couple of cookies in them too.”

“People told me green tea was a ‘superfood’” so she gave it a try – nine cups a day of green tea. She hated the bitter taste and had to force herself to drink it. She has lost 100 lbs.

Maybe reducing her calorie intake had a little to do with this. So, too, did the hourly tea routine in shaping her day and keeping her hydrated. The volume of liquid in itself reduces appetite. Nine cups of tea, however, adds known health risks of its own.

Her summary is one that nutritionists readily agree with: “For me, it [green tea] is not a fad. It’s a lifestyle.”

In praise of taste

Tea is not a medicine. The lifestyle perspective seems to be a useful way of factoring tea into your diet plans. The first need is to be realistic. Even the most promising scientific reports find only a small impact on weight, typically under five pounds and even these have not be confirmed by replicated studies.

The STF studies suggest and nutritionists confirm, with the Redbook article reinforcing, that tea is helpful as part of a disruption of your diet and daily rhythms. That always involves changing what you eat and adding exercise. Both of these require careful attention to liquid intake and hydration.

Tea is ideal in all these regards. There is one major positive that is totally and surprisingly missing in the science, advocacy and nutritional coverage: the taste factor. The science virtually never goes beyond describing the tea as just “tea” or “green tea” or its chemical composition – EECG levels, polyphenols, anti-oxidants, etc. Almost all is an extract or essence. There is never any discussion of leaf, source, brewing and flavor.

From a chemical viewpoint taste and flavor do not matter. From a lifestyle perspective, they are key. To be effective in disrupting a daily lifestyle, the experience should surely be an enjoyable one. The STF literature is very detailed in identifying menus and regimes that meet psychological as well as physical needs.

One of the most common assessments of green tea is that it tastes terrible and is bitter. That was the first response of the lady profiled in Redbook. Surely, it makes more sense to choose tea that is a pleasure, not an unpleasant endurance.

Here’s a suggestion of teas that are not bitter, are satisfying and smooth and something to look forward to. They will not directly produce weight loss but if that is your goal, follow the STF and nutritionist consensus of a little tea and plenty of water. Avoid tea bags and pick loose whole leaf. Keep well away from the mall palaces and shop online or at a specialty store. If you buy two ounces of any of the following, the typical purchase unit, you will have about 24 cups of tea for between $8 and $12. Here are the merits:

Enjoyable: smooth, not at all bitter. Enough flavor to be filling and lingering without the lightness that makes some of the best China greens watery and vegetal or the heaviness of  a black tea.

Caffeinated: stimulating and boosting fat-burning.

Mood-lifting: all the benefits of tea as a beverage regardless of weight and health issues.

Safe: no risks common among GTE, herbal teas and additives.

No Big Deal: a useful and simple lifestyle enabler, ritual, and contributory element of good eating and drinking that are a prerequisite for weight loss.

The list is one tea lover’s personal assessment of the pleasure/lifestyle combination that seems likely to be a plus in making tea part of a weight plan. There are plenty of other choices.

  1. China Jasmine Pearls: Superb. A green tea for green tea haters. Infused with fresh jasmine petals, in tight balls that expand to release a subtle, pleasant and fairly full flavor
  2. Japanese Sencha and Kukicha: Meet the taste preferences of most black tea drinkers. Hint of smoky/woody dry taste.
  3. China White Peony (Pai Mu Dan): Sweetish. Soft and mild white tea. Inexpensive for the quality. Goes down smoothly.
  4. China Huashan Mao Feng: Very, very slightly sweet and mild. Many grades. Perhaps the best of all the hundreds of China greens in terms of suiting the Western palate.
  5. Moroccan Mint: Fresh, piquant and stimulating.
  6. China Jasmine Green: A favorite mid-everything tea: mid-fullness, mid-aroma. Avoid cheap grades.
  7. Nepal Guranse: Representative of the rapidly improving Himalayan greens (Darjeeling and Nepal) and one of the best. Closer to the Japanese and Taiwan styles that suit black tea drinkers better than many China teas.
  8. China Chun Mee (Precious Eyebrow): Slightly more sharp and full than most greens.

Try these for their own sake or for weight loss. Through thick or thin, more or less, and slim to none.