By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
If you’re looking for a way to break your soda habit or drink less juice with breakfast, one option you’ve probably considered is tea.
I love tea—especially green tea. In addition to tasting great, it’s loaded with inflammation-fighting antioxidants, which help promote healthy aging in just about every way you can imagine.
So why the worry?
Even though tea is undeniably good for us, I see a lot of people make mistakes with how they drink it—mistakes that often wind up negating all of tea’s great health benefits or, worse, that actually make tea an unhealthy option.
I don’t want you to fall into that trap. Here’s what you need to know to make sure you’re consuming tea the right way…
Spilling the Tea: The Good and the Bad
Second to water, tea is the most widely consumed drink in the world. In its purest form, tea also has quite a few health benefits, the most important of which are its powerful anti-inflammatory properties.
This inflammation-fighting power has always been important to me as a cardiologist because inflammation lies at the root of heart disease. (Don’t fall for the cholesterol myth—inflammation in the arterial walls is what drives atherosclerosis and your risk for heart attack and stroke.) I’ve long recommended tea to my patients as a way to help them reduce their cardiovascular risk and feel better in general.
The problem, though, is that way too many people add sugar to to their tea. At a minimum, this can reduce or neutralize tea’s beneficial effects, and at worst, it can actually create additional inflammation in the body.
Sugar is toxic to long-term health because it spikes your insulin level, and those spikes contribute to inflammation. Now, a little sugar here and there won’t kill you. But when the spikes occur often—usually multiple times in a day, if you eat a Standard American Diet—the inflammation they cause gradually starts to eat away at the lining of your arteries. This triggers plaque buildup and raises your risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke.
Another downside to sugar is that it’s linked with weight gain. Combined with high insulin levels, this can put you on the fast track to insulin resistance and diabetes, further increasing cardiovascular risk.
The takeaway here is that less is more when it comes to sugar in tea. None is best! Also, some kinds of tea are best avoided altogether.
Sweet tea lovers, I’m afraid I’m talking to you here. Especially in restaurants, just say no and stick with water instead.
I’ll use McDonald’s as an example (though I certainly hope you’re not a regular customer there). Per the nutrition facts listed on McDonald’s website, a large sweet tea contains 38 grams of sugar. That’s less than you’d get in a same-size soda, but it’s still a lot of sugar. In fact, current government recommendations suggest that you get no more than 10 percent of your calories from sugar—200, based on a 2,000-calorie diet. Since a large sweet tea claims to have 160 calories, you’re over halfway to your limit in just one beverage!
(Add a sandwich with your drink and it’s easy to see why inflammation-related health problems are such a huge problem.)
Keeping Your Tea Healthy and Tasty
Needless to say, if you want to maximize the health benefits of your tea, make it without sugar.
However, if you absolutely have to add a little sweetness, be smart about it and go the natural route. Try adding some shredded raw or dried apples, coconut, raisins, or dates. Spices, such as cinnamon, cloves, or nutmeg, are good options, too, because they contain trace amounts of natural sugar—plus their potent flavors can be a nice complement to tea.
Another favorite natural sweetener is raw honey. Just be careful with how much you use (no more than a teaspoon), since honey is still mostly sugar. If you have diabetes, your best bet will be Stevia, because it won’t affect your glucose level like the other options I’ve mentioned.
During this time of year, nestle up by the fire and try Spiced Winter Tea, a healthy, flavorful favorite. Ingredients for 6 servings include:
- 6 cups water
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 4 whole cloves
- 5 tea bags of green, black, or ginger tea
- ¼ c. freshly squeezed orange juice
- ¼ c. fresh lemon juice
- Raw honey
Bring the water, cinnamon, and cloves to a boil in a large saucepan over high heat. Remove from heat, then add tea bags. Cover and let steep 10 minutes, discard tea bags. Add orange and lemon juices. Using slotted spoon, remove the spices before serving hot with honey. This recipe can be prepared a day in advance as long as it is refrigerated and then reheated before consumption.
The Healthiest Tea for Your Heart
As I mentioned earlier, my top choice year-round—and especially for heart health—is green tea. It has more health benefits than almost any other fare.
Specific to the heart, green tea contains theobromine, which relaxes the blood vessel walls and improves circulation. More importantly, green tea is rich in antioxidant flavonoids like epigallocatechin 3-gallate (EGCG), which helps protect the body against free radical damage and arterial disease.
Recently Japanese researchers looked at how EGCG affected the progression of heart failure in mice. At the start of the study, all of the mice were deficient in a key antioxidant enzyme. At the study’s conclusion, the mice who received EGCG had a lower mortality rate, less inflammation, and better cardiac function.
If green tea isn’t to your taste, give olive leaf tea a try. While slightly bitter, olive leaf tea has been widely consumed in the Middle East for heart and immune health, and it has no caffeine. An easy, standard olive leaf tea recipe that I recommend for frequent use is:
- 1 T. dried leaves
- 1 c. water
Steep for 15 minutes, then serve hot or cold.
Just remember: If you’re going to add some sweet to any of these treats, avoid sugar to keep your heart happy.
- McDonald’s. Sweet Tea Nutrition Facts. Accessed December 5, 2017.
- Oyama J. et al. EGCG, a green tea catechin, attenuates the progression of heart failure induced by the heart/muscle-specific deletion of MnSOD in mice. J Cardiol. 2017 Feb;69(2):417-427.
- Sinatra, ST. Antioxidants and Free Radicals. HeartMD Institute. Accessed November 22, 2017.
- Sinatra, ST. STOP Inflammation In Its Tracks – Here’s How. HeartMD Institute. Accessed November 22, 2017.
- Sinatra, ST. Sweeten Foods Naturally With These Sugar Substitutes. HeartMD Institute. Accessed November 22, 2017.
- U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Cut Down on Added Sugars. Health. Accessed November 22, 2017.
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