Comfort food delivers just what it describes: a taste that pacifies the mind and body. This week, when I asked my patients what 'comfort food' means to them, I heard responses like brownies, ice cream, meatloaf, and mashed potatoes. For me … it's tea.
Don't get me wrong—I'm not one for passing up a bubbly molten lava cake, but when it comes to choosing a trusted companion, it's a soothing steamy mug of tea that greets me on a chilly morning, acts as a speed bump to unnecessary snacking in the late afternoon, and lets me know that dinner is done in the evening. My personal favorites include Tazo's Passion with a sprig of fresh mint and drizzle of agave, or a basic Earl Gray with some warmed milk and honey. Perhaps the toughest part about drinking tea is deciding which one to select while strolling down the ever-expanding tea aisle in the supermarket—and being prepared to lay down some cash for the fancier brands.
You'll find teas that profess to calm your mood, lull you to sleep, ease constipation, boost energy, improve immunity, and help you speak with an English accent (just kidding about that one). Although these health claims are not clearly labeled on the box, their benefits are implied in their names, like Smooth Move, Sleepytime, or Tummy Tamer. The options for tea-lovers seem limitless, and these tasty brews bring lots of good reasons to get into hot water with their surprising health benefits.
• Boost bone strength. Researchers have reported that drinking tea may protect your bones and prevent against osteoporosis, a crippling bone disease. In one study, tea drinkers had higher bone densities and less bone loss than those who filled their mugs with other beverages.
• Favorable flavonoids. Some studies show that tea provides even more antioxidants than fruits and vegetables. Powerful compounds called flavonoids protect against damage caused by free radicals, helping cut the risk of cancer. Regular consumption of tea, particularly green tea, has been shown to lower the risk of colon, throat, and stomach cancers.
• Heart helpers. The antioxidants in tea may help keep arteries more flexible and relaxed, lowering blood pressure and supporting cardiovascular health. Tea also has a calming effect, which helps combat stress.
• Happily hydrate. Whether chilled or hot, tea is an excellent source of hydration. The choice of an iced tea sweetened with a splash of fruit juice instead of a sugary beverage could bring big benefits, rather than empty calories.Toss some cut up fruit into a pitcher of unsweetened iced tea and keep it in the fridge for a refreshing pick-me-up after a workout.
• Curb colds. Tea may also boost immunity and help fight colds and viruses. A stuffy nose can be unlocked by breathing in the warm vapors that arise from a sweltering cup of tea. Warm liquids, in general, help assuage congestion.
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• Cut cravings. A mug of tea sipped slowly while making dinner or while typing away to meet a tight deadline could save you from unnecessary noshes and calories that you may not have counted.
It is with certain-tea—sorry, couldn't help it!—that tea has its benefits, but not all teas are harmless. Proceed with caution around those that add vitamins, minerals, and herbs that could interfere with other medications or supplements you're already taking. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued warnings about "dieter's teas," which contain laxatives like senna, aloe, and buckthorn, perhaps leading to looser pants because of loose stools. The FDA also recommends proceeding with caution if you're considering supplemented tea like Comfrey (could cause liver damage), Woodruff (acts as an anticoagulant), Ephedra (could affect heart rhythm), Lobelia (may cause breathing problems), and even chamomile (may cause allergic reactions.) And don't assume that herbal tea doesn't contain caffeine. If caffeine keeps you up at night, make sure your box of tea explicitly says "caffeine-free" or "decaffeinated."
The benefits of tea have been enjoyed for centuries, so perhaps the next time you walk into Starbucks ... give teas a chance.
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Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RD, CDN, has been owner of BTD Nutrition Consultants, LLC, for more than three decades and she is the author of Read It Before You Eat It. As a renowned motivational speaker, author, media personality, and award-winning dietitian, Taub-Dix has found a way to communicate how to make sense of science. Her website is BetterThanDieting.com.