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Warm Up! The Health Benefits (And Pitfalls) Of 5 Fall Drinks

First Posted: 10/24/2011 8:36 am   Updated: 02/ 6/2012 3:01 pm

As the temperatures drop, there's nothing like curling up with a warm beverage.

And fortunately, many of our favorite fall drinks also have nutritional benefits, with possible powers to ward off cancer, defeat free radicals and even help provide the day's value of protein, says American Dietetic spokesperson Debbi Beauvais, a registered dietitian based in Rochester, N.Y.

Just be mindful of what you drink -- some beverages are innocuous at the heart, but can become calorie bombs when you add cream, sugar and flavorings, she said.

"Sugar and fat are what makes foods flavorful," Beauvais told HuffPost. "You really have to be mindful of nutrition that goes with that," or a drink can go from calorie-free to a calorie-laden treat.

Check out health benefits -- and potential nutritional pitfalls -- of five common warm drinks.

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  • Green Tea

    <a href="http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/green-tea-000255.htm" target="_hplink">Green tea</a>, which is made of unfermented tea leaves, is healthy because it contains high amounts of antioxidants that are called polyphenols, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. Antioxidants are known to take up compounds called "<a href="http://www.rice.edu/~jenky/sports/antiox.html" target="_hplink">free radicals</a>" -- which the body produces naturally and acquires through the environment -- that can cause cell damage. Studies have shown that drinking <a href="http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/green-tea-000255.htm" target="_hplink">three cups of green tea a day</a> can decrease heart attack rate by 11 percent, and that it can also raise levels of "good" HDL cholesterol, UMMC reported. Other research has linked drinking green tea with lower levels of bladder, breast and colorectal cancer. HuffPost blogger and integrative medicine expert Dr. Andrew Weil <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/andrew-weil-md/a-life-with-tea_b_661017.html" target="_hplink">wrote in a blog </a>entry last year: "Studies either strongly suggest or confirm that the antioxidants in green tea can reduce LDL cholesterol, promote fat burning, reduce the risk of several forms of cancer and alleviate depression. But tea is much more than the healthful compounds in it. It is an experience, and for me, a personal story of discovery that continues to this day."

  • Black Tea

    Black tea -- which includes earl grey or English breakfast -- also has antioxidants that can protect the body from the effects of free radicals, Beauvais said. Unlike green tea leaves, black tea leaves are fermented or crushed. Some people might think that green tea is actually healthier than black tea, but WebMD reported that <a href="http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/antioxidants-in-green-and-black-tea" target="_hplink">both actually contain the same amuont of antioxidant polyphenols</a>. "We found that both [green and black] types of tea <a href="http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/antioxidants-in-green-and-black-tea" target="_hplink">blocked DNA damage</a> associated with tobacco and other toxic chemicals. In animal studies, tea-drinking rats have less cancer," tea expert John Weisburger, PhD, of the Institute for Cancer Prevention, told WebMD. BBC News also reported in 2006 that regularly drinking black tea could <a href="http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/5405686.stm" target="_hplink">lower levels of the stress hormon cortisol</a>. Beauvais added that tea itself has no calories, but when you start adding sugar, cream, half and half and honey to the beverage, that can easily ratchet up the calorie count.

  • Coffee

    Just like tea, coffee also contains cell-protective antioxidants, Beauvais said. Coffee has been mostly shown to decrease the risk of certain cancers -- drinking six cups of coffee a day has been shown to slash <a href="http://jnci.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2011/05/17/jnci.djr151" target="_hplink">prostate cancer risk</a> and drinking five or more cups of coffee a day has been shown to <a href="http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/42991809/ns/health-cancer/t/coffee-habit-may-protect-against-breast-cancer/#.TqHFX5uXuso" target="_hplink">reduce breast cancer risk</a>. But other research suggests that drinking at least two cups of coffee a day can increase <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19362749" target="_hplink">lung cancer risk</a>. Coffee is currently considered a "<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/06/02/cell-phones-cancer-carcinogen_n_870027.html#s285854&title=Coffee" target="_hplink">possible carcinogen</a>" by the World Health Organization, the same classification given to cell phones. Harvard University reported that <a href="http://www.health.harvard.edu/fhg/updates/update0406c.shtml" target="_hplink">caffeinated coffee</a> also has protective effects against diabetes and gallstones. But is there such thing as too much caffeine from coffee? There is, but you would have to drink an incredible amount of coffee to get the caffeine levels that are toxic, Beauvais said. In addition, the Mayo Clinic reports that <a href="http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/coffee-and-health/AN01354" target="_hplink">too much caffeine from coffee</a> can also cause problems with sleep and anxiety. And nutrition wise, Beauvais warns that adding cream, sugar and flavorings to coffee can quickly hike up the calorie count. Instead, she suggests putting skim milk or sugar-free syrups into the coffee for flavoring.

  • Apple Cider

    We should put apple cider somewhere on the same level as fruit juices -- better for you than sodas, and they also have nutritional benefits from the fruit, but they still contain a lot of sugar, Beauvais said. "Cider is made from the whole fruit of the apple," Beauvais told HuffPost, so "there's vitamin C in the apples, there's even a little bit of iron, potassium, without putting anything in there." Cider has more calories than tea or coffee (assuming you don't add creams or sugars to those beverages!), so it's important to monitor portion sizes, she said. The sugar in apple cider depends on the blend of apples used in the drink, so make sure to check the nutritional information before pouring yourself a glass, she added.

  • Hot Chocolate

    Hot chocolate doesn't have to be the calorie bomb and nutritional nightmare as it's sometimes made out to be, Beauvais said. If you make it at home, using skim milk is a good way to cut fat and calories from the drink. And the milk is also a good source of protein, she added. "If you make it at home, with your own chocolate syrup and skim milk, it's going to be lower in fat and calories," Beauvais said. Chocolate compounds called <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-robbins/chocolates-startling-heal_b_825978.html" target="_hplink">polyphenols </a>have also been shown in research to have some heart-healthy benefits (though, of course, it's important that chocolate only be eaten in moderation).

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