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Let me tell you about my two months of drinking weight loss teas: They came in a cute box with cute branding, they tasted like cardboard, and—oh yeah—they didn’t work. I was hoping they would work so that I’d be just like that “teatox” brand that caught my eye on social media: cute on the outside. But even though they didn’t work, I was still a little like that product on the inside: as dull as cardboard. I’m not being dramatic—well, maybe a little. But those two months during which I religiously brewed my wet paper-tasting tea twice a day, the hunger shrunk my emotional range to that of a sheet of cardboard.
Needless to say, I stopped drinking them. But it took me longer to stop wondering: is it my willpower that’s off, or is weight loss tea a scam?
You’ve definitely seen these weight loss teas (also called detox teas) or “teatoxes” on social media. Maybe not the pages of the brands selling them, but at the very least the teas since they’re hawked by numerous celebrities, each with millions of followers. Most of us know they’re ads but still can’t help but wonder if they work. So, here’s what you need to know about the teas—outside of my hunger-filled experience.
How do weight loss teas work?
Ultimately, weight loss teas mostly work—if they work—because they’re natural diuretics (meaning they make you pee more) or laxatives (meaning, well, you know). Thankfully, weight loss teas do use natural ingredients like senna, aloe, dandelion leaf, buckthorn, prunella, burdock, cascara, and rhubarb root. So even though they may give your sluggish bowels a kick, it likely won’t be the same effect or to the same degree as, say, popping laxative pills. (Please don’t ever do this unless there’s a genuine medical need.)
In some cases, weight loss teas work because they stand in for snacks. If you’re used to having a mid-afternoon snack but swap it out for one of these teas, you’re creating a calorie deficit. Although the human body is complicated and weight loss can be too, creating a calorie deficit (in which you burn more calories than you take in) generally leads to some weight loss.
But it’s also important to differentiate here between products marketed specifically as “weight loss teas” and teas that happen to have health benefits that may possibly include weight loss. Teas sold specifically for weight loss use these herbs that reduce body weight by pushing water or stool from your body. Some teas may actually help you shed some weight or look a little thinner, though that isn’t their purpose. We’ll get to those a little later on.
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Dangers of weight loss teas
How much can a cup of tea hurt you? Unfortunately, not inconsequentially if you’re drinking it religiously. Potential side effects of weight loss teas include damaged gastrointestinal function, dehydration, and electrolyte imbalances.
They may hurt your gastrointestinal function
Senna, one of the natural ingredients used in some of these teas, may help you feel lighter because it contains anthraquinone. There are multiple types of this compound, but they’re mostly known for their laxative effect (Chien, 2015). It has, however, been known for years that continuous use of these compounds derived specifically from senna can damage your digestion. Anthraquinone compounds from senna can damage myenteric neurons, cells on the myenteric plexus, which is the major nerve supply for your gastrointestinal tract (Smith, 1968). It’s this set of nerves that controls peristalsis, the wave-like motion that pushes mass through your GI tract. Over time, this muscle movement can weaken from the damage.
Sadly, addiction to laxatives isn’t uncommon. Researchers say there are four primary groups of people who abuse laxatives: people with eating disorders; people competing in certain sports with weight limitations; middle-aged people who took them when constipated but continue to use them unnecessarily; and people who use them to artificially create health conditions such as diarrhea (Roerig, 2010). Even if you just look at the first group, the Eating Disorder Coalition estimates there are 30 million Americans who have suffered or currently suffer from an eating disorder (Eating Disorder Coalition, 2016). Research shows that up to 6% of this group abuse laxatives, meaning the number could be as high as 1.8 million people (Roerig, 2010).
They may interfere with getting nutrients
We’re counting water here as a nutrient because, well, you need it. Laxatives, even in tea form, may cause diarrhea, which depletes the body of water unless you’re compensating by drinking enough extra. Diuretics may cause the same effect since they also make your body get rid of water. Unfortunately, this dehydration may cause your body to retain water in order to correct the fluid imbalance, potentially leading to bloating and edema. Laxative use has also been linked to malnutrition in older adults, and laxative use decreases blood levels of vitamin B12 faster than taking fiber to help with digestive health (Sturtzel, 2009; Sturtzel, 2010).
Laxatives can disturb electrolyte balance
Bloating and edema are just the beginning of the side effects from throwing off your water and electrolyte balance through laxative use. It’s common for people to experience shortness of breath, confusion, rapid or irregular heartbeat, fever, and rales, a rattling sound in the lungs, when the balance of these minerals is disturbed (Balcı, 2013). If your electrolytes are affected enough, the results may ripple out and have consequences for your renal and cardiovascular systems (Roerig, 2010). Although the effects of specific weight loss teas on fluid and electrolytes is unknown, you may be putting yourself at risk if you regularly consume teas with laxatives in them.
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Part of the risk involved with drinking teas like this is that they’re not regulated by the FDA. Each brand will differ, but some may include ingredients that haven’t been tested for safety or dosage. It’s hard to predict the side effects you may experience if the ingredients are not well studied. But this also carries through to the potential benefits. If there’s little research on the active ingredients of your detox tea, it’s hard to know whether they’re actually helping you achieve your goals or whether they’re even safe. Your money would be better spent elsewhere.
Safer, effective alternatives to weight loss teas
Although there are natural teas that have been proven to have some weight or fat loss effect, it’s important to note that these effects are minor. Eating right and not too much, moving your body, getting adequate sleep, and controlling stress are all important parts of losing weight and maintaining a healthy weight. And although our bodies are complex, losing weight mostly comes down to being in a caloric deficit. These teas, though backed by some clinical research, won’t have any effect if you’re eating too much for your daily energy needs.
If you’re looking for a more natural weight loss tea, green tea should probably be the first to get thrown in your grocery cart. Green tea is one of the best teas to naturally encourage your body to burn fat because it boasts two different compounds that may aid weight loss: caffeine and epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). But, and we cannot underscore this enough, the weight loss effects are modest. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has looked into green tea and green tea supplements and concluded they “might help you lose a small amount of weight” (NIH, 2019).
EGCG is a type of catechins, which are a group of compounds rich with powerful antioxidant properties. Caffeine may promote weight loss, help lower BMI, and reduce body fat, a 2018 meta-analysis of 13 randomized controlled trials involving over 600 participants found (Tabrizi, 2018). Research on EGCG alone is mixed, but long-term observational research has noted that drinking about 2 cups of green tea each day is associated with lower body weight and body fat (Lamprecht, 2015). But weight and fat loss are increased when EGCG is taken along with caffeine, making green tea a good natural option to add to your diet (Cisneros, 2017).
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If you don’t mind the slightly bitter flavor, opt for matcha instead of regular green tea. The EGCG concentration available of this alternative made from powdered tea leaves is 137 times greater than regular green tea you brew and at least three times higher than the largest concentration of green tea EGCG noted in past research (Weiss, 2003).
People who drink tea with caffeine have plenty of alternatives to detox teas. You can add oolong tea and Puerh tea to that list if you feel like brewing something less common. Both of these Chinese teas may help prevent weight gain and potentially aid weight loss. Past studies have shown that oolong tea may boost metabolism, increase daily energy expenditure (the calories burned each day) (Rumpler, 2001), and decrease body mass. In women, drinking this tea may also specifically reduce belly fat (He, 2009). Puerh tea extract has also been shown to aid weight loss and lower BMI (Yang, 2014).
If you’re looking for the stomach-flattening effect of weight loss tea but aren’t so concerned with the number on the scale, you may want to reach for peppermint tea. Herbal teas like peppermint don’t have caffeine, so you won’t get the same fat-burning effects of drinking tea with the stimulant. Most clinical trials use extracts from this plant, which provides a stronger dose than what you would get through tea. But there is evidence that peppermint extract may reduce gastrointestinal symptoms such as bloating and gas in people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) (Cash, 2016). The effects may carry over to the tea, but it’s unknown.
If you’re watching your caffeine, try reaching for rooibos tea. This red tea that originates in South Africa is not only rich in health-boosting compounds called polyphenols but may also encourage the breakdown of fat while blocking the formation of new fat cells (Sanderson, 2014). There are, however, anecdotal reports that this tea is stimulating despite its lack of caffeine, so it may be best to try in the morning.
The bottom line? Those weight loss teas cost a lot, and you’re risking digestive issues even though the weight loss is anything but guaranteed. Your best bet is likely a healthy meal plan, adequate exercise, and a tea you can already find in the grocery store.
- Chien, S.-C., Wu, Y.-C., Chen, Z.-W., & Yang, W.-C. (2015). Naturally Occurring Anthraquinones: Chemistry and Therapeutic Potential in Autoimmune Diabetes. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2015, 1–13. doi: 10.1155/2015/357357. Retrieved from https://www.hindawi.com/journals/ecam/2015/357357/
- Cisneros, L. C. V., Lopez-Uriarte, P., Lopez-Espinoza, A., Meza, M. N., Espinoza-Gallardo, A. C., & Aburto, M. B. G. (2017). Effects of green tea and its epigallocatechin (EGCG) content on body weight and fat mass in humans: a systematic review. Nutricion Hospitalaria, 34(3), 731–737. doi: 10.20960/nh.753. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28627214
- Facts About Eating Disorders: What The Research Shows. (2016). Retrieved on Jan 10, 2020 from http://eatingdisorderscoalition.org.s208556.gridserver.com/couch/uploads/file/fact-sheet_2016.pdf
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- Office of Dietary Supplements – Dietary Supplements for Weight Loss. (2019, June 20). Retrieved on Feb 14, 2020 from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/WeightLoss-Consumer/
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- Sturtzel, B., Dietrich, A., Wagner, K.-H., Gisinger, C., & Elmadfa, I. (2010). The status of vitamins B6, B12, folate, and of homocysteine in geriatric home residents receiving laxatives or dietary fiber. The Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging, 14(3), 219–223. doi: 10.1007/s12603-010-0053-6. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20191257
- Tabrizi, R., Saneei, P., Lankarani, K. B., Akbari, M., Kolahdooz, F., Esmaillzadeh, A., et al. (2018). The effects of caffeine intake on weight loss: a systematic review and dos-response meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 59(16), 2688–2696. doi: 10.1080/10408398.2018.1507996. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30335479
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- Yang, T. Y., Chou, J. I., Ueng, K. C., Chou, M. Y., Yang, J. J., Lin-Shiau, S. Y., et al. (2014). Weight Reduction Effect of Puerh Tea in Male Patients with Metabolic Syndrome. Phytotherapy Research, 28(7), 1096–1101. doi: 10.1002/ptr.5111. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24399768
Dr. Tzvi Doron is Board Certified in Family Medicine by the American Board of Family Medicine and is Ro's Chief Clinical Officer.