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Hot drinks that keep you healthy

Coffee, tea, and even hot cocoa can pack a nutritional punch

Published: December 2013

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When you’re feeling tired, cold, or under the weather, there’s nothing better than climbing into bed with a mug of something hot. In addition to being comforting, hot drinks replace fluids lost from fever and help loosen mucus. But they also have properties that may actually protect your health all year long. Which one should you sip? Consider these benefits and caveats.

Tea

Benefits

Tea’s antioxidants and other compounds may protect against cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, and memory decline. And researchers at Penn State found that people who drank multiple cups of hot tea a day had a body mass index 3 points lower, on average, than non-tea drinkers. To get the most antioxidants, let the tea steep for at least 3 minutes.

Tips

Adding any type of milk to your tea may actually block the absorption of some of the antioxidants.

Herbal infusions

Benefits

Herbal teas aren’t really tea; they’re caffeine-free infusions of flowers, roots, barks, and berries. Although the evidence is slim, some people use slippery elm tea for coughs and sore throats because it is viscous and coats the throat. Chamomile tea has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties, according to Case Western Reserve University researchers. (Inflammation is a factor in many diseases, from eczema to certain cancers.)

Tips

Common herbal teas are fine for sore throats or stomach woes. But before trying to use them for more serious medical conditions, consult a doctor.

Coffee

Benefits

Java’s caffeine can make you feel more alert, boost your mental and physical performance, and elevate your mood. Both regular and decaf are rich in polyphenols, those antioxidants that may help regulate blood sugar, prevent blood clots, and neutralize DNA-damaging free radicals.

Tips

Eight ounces of coffee pically has about 100 milligrams of caffeine. Limit yourself to 400 milligrams a day. Depending on your sensitivity to caffeine, more than that may make you feel jittery, interfere with your sleep, or cause heart-rhythm or blood-pressure problems. (Read our reviews of coffee and coffee makers).

Hot cocoa

Benefits

Cocoa contains flavanols, antioxidants that may lower blood pressure, reduce stroke risk, and protect against diabetes by improving insulin sensitivity. Drinking two cups a day may also boost cognitive function in people with impaired blood flow to the brain, Harvard researchers recently reported in the journal Neurology.

Tips

Indulging in a cup of hot cocoa too often could expand your waistline. Sugar is first on the ingredients list of individually packaged mixes, such as Swiss Miss. Each serving has 8 grams of sugar, or about 2 teaspoons, and 90 calories.

Hot toddy

Benefits

This cold-weather drink of warm bourbon or rum, plus antioxidant-rich honey, lemon, and cloves, can’t prevent a cold or the flu. But it might help soothe a sore or scratchy throat or make you feel more comfortable, says Robert Rowney, D.O., director of the Cleveland Clinic’s mood disorders unit.

Caveats

Don’t mix alcohol with cold and flu drugs. Remember that the healthy limit for alcohol consumption is one drink a day for women and two for men. And a hot toddy counts!  

Should you sip meds?

“Sip while hot,” say the package directions on at least 74 multisymptom cold and flu products. Those powders, which you dissolve in hot water and drink like tea, contain some combination of a pain reliever (acetaminophen), a decongestant, an antihistamine, and a cough suppressant. But our medical advisers don’t recommend multisymptom products. You might not need all those drugs, and some have side effects. Nor is there evidence that meds in hot liquid get into your system quicker—and therefore help you feel better faster. Instead, take a single ingredient drug to target each symptom you have along with a hot beverage of your choice if you want those soothing benefits.

Editor's Note:
This article appeared in the January 2014 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.
   

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