In 2005, in the days before I’d discovered veganism, I was an overweight university student eating typical processed foods and regularly putting on weight. Like so many, I had heard about various weight loss curatives and was desperate to try most of them. I wasn’t yet concerned about leading a healthy lifestyle; I just wanted to fit into smaller clothes. During this time, I first heard about green tea and its potential weight loss benefits. I went to the local shop and bought a cheap box of ‘green tea and lemon’ and started drinking it every day. After a month with no change to my physique, I stopped drinking tea until I married into a Chinese family and through my in-laws learned that not all teas are created equal—and that regardless of weight loss, the benefits of green tea, and tea in general, are far-reaching.
Green tea is made from the same plant as black, white and oolong teas (the camellia sinesis plant) and it is only through processing that ‘color’ is determined. Green tea is made by withering mature leaves, steaming or panfrying them and then eventually drying them, while oolong tea is made from withered mature leaves that are then bruised, partially fermented, panfried and dried, and black tea is made by withering, rolling, fully fermenting, frying and drying the mature leaves. When discussing the benefits of green tea, white tea should be an integral part of the conversation as white (made by steaming and drying young leaves harvested in early spring through handpicking) is the least ‘processed’ and contains even more of the beneficial antioxidants that give green tea its good name, making it is a less caffeinated, albeit more expensive, health curative than green tea. Growing and processing methods wildly affect caffeine content in tea, but typically white tea contains the least with an average of 30-55mg per 8oz cup, green tea averaging 35-70mg, oolong 50-75mg and black 60-90mg; this all compared to coffee with a staggering 150-200mg.
The antioxidants found in green and white teas that give them their health tonic status are known as catechins, an antioxidant in the flavonoid chemical family. Green tea also contains helpful B vitamins, folate, magnesium, manganese, and potassium. Even the ‘processing’ you do at home is important. The longer you brew your tea, the more you increase the catechin potency in your cup. Of the numerous benefits of catechins, some studies suggest the due to their antiviral and antibacterial properties, green tea can help destroy bacteria and viruses that cause throat infections and some dental conditions, making green tea an excellent hydration choice when unwell. These bioactive catechins have also been found to protect neurons in the brain, thus potentially reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases; though no human studies have confirmed this. It has also been suggested that due to the benefits of catechins, green tea is effective at battling cancer, though again no study has yet found conclusive evidence.
With regards to the weight loss properties of green tea, evidence is also often contradictory. One study in the US recently found that with no other changes to lifestyle, drinking three cups of green tea a day improved metabolic rate by increasing liver efficiency, helping men burn an extra 200 calories a day. It further found that green tea improved glucose and insulin sensitivity and lowered blood sugar levels. It is for this reason that various studies confirm that green tea drinkers have anywhere from 17-42% lower risk of developing Type II diabetes. While green tea is clearly beneficial, it is important to recognize that another study found that green tea did nothing to improve weight loss or metabolic conditions for sedentary individuals. However, green tea before moderate to intense exercise can increase fat oxidation (fat burning!) by up to 17%. So it seems that while green tea might not necessarily help couch potatoes lose weight, it has significant potential for those willing to put in some cardio time.
If you’re a diehard black tea drinker, remember that it is not the tea itself that sometimes gives black tea a bad name, but what you’re adding to it. Calories in sugar and milk (even vegan milks!) can add up quickly, and sugar itself isn’t particularly nourishing for your body. Nonetheless, black tea isn’t without merit. Black tea contains compounds called theaflavins and thearubigens that also have anti-oxidative effects on the body. One Japanese study found that the anti-oxidative effects of black and green teas are nearly equal, just that the mechanism is different. Furthermore, a study from the Netherlands actually concluded that the flavonoids in black tea reduced LDL (bad) cholesterol, and that men who drank four cups of black tea a day had a significantly lower risk of stroke than men who drank only two cups a day! Many additional studies have also suggested that black tea is beneficial to cardiovascular health. So it seems that the color of your tea may actually matter less than some marketers would like us to believe.
Insofar as teas not being created equal; as with most things in life, you usually get what you pay for. If you’re truly looking for a blend to help alleviate specific conditions, the best thing you can do is see your local Chinese herbalist. If you’re like me and you just want to enjoy a good cup of green tea, try a variety of both loose leaf and boxed teas. Some of my favorites include loose leaf blends of green and peppermint teas, as well as boxes of Yogi Tea such as Green Energy and Green Balance (both of which correspond to Ayurvedic medicine if you’re interested in traditional Indian remedies). The biggest piece of advice? Buy organic. Tea plants readily absorb fluoride from pesticides, as well as contain harmful chemical residues that cannot be washed off at home (as the first time tea touches water it is for brewing and drinking). Beyond benefits to your own health, drinking organic tea is better for wildlife and human life. Organic fields have five times as many wild plants and over 50% as many animal species. According to the Soil Association, conventional farming chemicals regularly kill non-target plants, animals and insects, disturbing local ecosystems and posing environmental risks such as water contamination. Beyond eco-awareness, tea fields are often worked by untrained wage workers, even children, who are put at risk of infection, burns and even cancer by not being provided with effective safety gear when spraying these harmful chemicals.
The bottom line is that while green tea may not miraculously cure cancer or cause one to shed a stone with no other lifestyle changes, the benefits of green tea (and even tea in general) still make it a viable part of a healthy lifestyle, and like many healthy things, you might soon find your body craving your daily cup (or cups!) of green goodness.
© Julie Bolitho. “Why Drink Green Tea,” Article. Vegan Life magazine. Prime Impact Media: February 2015.