Dear Mark: To Tea or Not to Tea?

Dear Mark,

Do the benefits of tea outweigh its negatives (caffeine, teeth staining, etc.)? Is tea a worthy substitute to a glass of water? If so, how many times a week should one drink tea?

Given our big fall theme the last week or so, I thought this was an especially timely question. The truth is it’s nice to kick back at night with something warm (even in California) once Autumn hits. Call it nostalgia if you will.

The Primal Blueprint is all about loading up on antioxidants. Though I wouldn’t ever suggest that tea should (or could) stand in for veggies and certain fruits like berries, I believe in using other sources to boost my overall antioxidant intake. Wise supplementation is obviously a part of this, as is tea and red wine among other things.

It’s true that tea does carry a few negative factors as our reader mentions. One quick point: since black tea is the worst culprit for teeth staining, you can always go for another variety like white tea. As far as the caffeine goes, I think this is more of a reason to pause. Caffeine, as we mentioned in our Caffeine Talk post, can decrease blood flow to the heart during exercise and can increase blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes. Additionally, if you’re more caffeine sensitive, it can cause heartburn and even increase your risk for non-fatal cardiac events.

I don’t mention these points to be a killjoy – especially for you tea lovers out there. I use tea myself and recommend it as a great addition to a good Primal Blueprint diet. The fact is tea has only 1/4-1/2 of the typical content of brewed coffee. Besides, even if you don’t want the caffeine, there are other “tea” related possibilities. (I’ll get to that in just a minute.)

But now to the upsides, and there are many. Tea offers anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidative properties, which relate to any number of minor and major health issues. The overall picture of research seems to suggest that tea can offer protective factors against cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, arthritis, and (less definitively) many cancers. There’s even some indication that tea intake can lower the body’s absorption of carbohydrates and that tea can play a positive role in the body’s response to bacterial infection.

How much do you need to make a difference? I’d argue that any increase in antioxidant power in your diet is a positive thing. It’s not an all or nothing proposition. In terms of protective factors for diseases (as seen in particular studies), the amounts vary. In a Swedish study showing tea’s protective impact against ovarian cancer, 1 cup a day (black tea) lowered the women’s risk by some 24%. Two cups a day decreased risk by 60%. (It’s important to note that these kinds of dramatic results were not replicated in other prominent studies.) Some research related to tea’s allegedly protective effect in cardiovascular health cites 3 cups a day. Quite a few studies cite 2-3 cups as making the most significant difference but note that 1 cup a day often shows measurable impact.

A few words about choosing teas…

All true “teas” are from the same plant. (Herbal teas aren’t really tea. While they may offer certain particular, often marginal “medicinal” benefit, they generally don’t contain the same antioxidant load of tea.) The differences in black, green, and white tea (the true tea varieties) are a product of processing rather than source. The less processed the leaves are, the more of their polyphenols are retained. White is the least processed of the three main varieties, and black is the most processed. Green and something called oolong (between green and black essentially) are in the middle. Incidentally, not only does white tea retain the most polyphenols, it also has the least caffeine. Nonetheless, if you grew up on black tea and can’t get yourself to drink anything else (and you’re not caffeine sensitive), don’t sweat it. Tea as a whole offers solid antioxidant value whichever variety you choose.

As for “red tea” or Rooibus (not really a tea, but we’ll grant it admittance here), it hasn’t been studied as much as the true teas. Nonetheless, it does seem to display antioxidant properties. If you prefer it to tea, I say go for it especially because it doesn’t have any caffeine.

And let me address the inevitable question about bags versus loose. The trouble with bagged tea isn’t necessarily the bag itself. (Although a lot of people argue that the bag design doesn’t allow the tea to steep properly.) Bagged tea is generally the “dregs” of tea separation and processing. (And usually old, to boot.) Though the powdery remains will offer some antioxidant benefit, it won’t be nearly that of fresh, loose tea. To use loose tea, you’ll likely want to invest in either a press or some kind of an infuser. Alternatively, if you’d rather give up tea than give up the convenience of the bag, look for tea leaves in individual “sachets.” (They’re more common now just about everywhere.)


Yes, you’ll likely pay more for loose, fresh tea than for the jumbo box of Lipton at Costco. I always say it’s about nutritional bang for your buck, and that mantra holds here as well. HOWEVER! (Worth the capitalization.) This doesn’t mean you have to go to a fancy specialty shop and break the bank. Though the service and variety in these places are excellent, I’m sure, the important thing you’re looking for is freshness. (As with anything else in the nutritional realm, freshness equals optimum antioxidant value.) Most specialty shops will likely offer that, but I’d argue that a good ethnic market likely provides the same fresh product for a fraction of the cost. If you live in an area that doesn’t offer this type of market, consider going online for fresh tea rather than using the typical grocery store fare. (There’s no telling how old it is.) Good readers -we’d love to read your suggestions for Internet/mail order sources! I’ve heard good things about Upton Tea Imports and Adagio Teas, but I’m sure there are many good online purveyors out there.

Finally, the one “tea” I’d forgo (and forget) is chai. I mean specifically the doctored up chai tea drinks you see in the West at coffee houses. They’re loaded with sweeteners – some hovering at or above 40 grams of sugar per serving! My advice: stick to the simple thing. (How often that’s true in life and nutrition, eh?)

Thanks again for your questions and comments, and keep ‘em coming!

mat.teo, naama, slambo_42, avlxyz, Allie’s.Dad Flickr Photos (CC)

Further Reading:

Tea Time

How to Eat More Chocolate and Drink More Wine Every Day

Is All Chocolate Created Equal?

Top 10 Natural Ways to Reduce Inflammation

The Entire “Dear Mark” Series

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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