The Important Reason Why Some People Shouldn't Drink Tea When Eating

It's all about iron.

Let's be frank, tea is the liquid form of a hug. A big cup helps you wake up, makes you feel warm and fuzzy, and never lets you down (provided that you haven't run out of tea bags).

Tea also has a huge range of health benefits thanks to its polyphenols and other components, which may reduce the risk of developing chronic diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular diseases, arthritis and diabetes.

However, some people may want to go easy on drinking tea during and directly after meals for a simple reason: tea can inhibit iron absorption.

"Iron is an important mineral that helps to transport oxygen around our blood. Too little can lead to iron deficiency, which results in fatigue and decreased immunity," Nicole Dynan, accredited practising dietitian and accredited sports dietitian, told The Huffington Post Australia.

"The best food sources of iron include red meat, dried beans and lentils, green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds, and wholegrain breads and cereals."

Sources of iron

  • The best sources of iron are meat, particularly red meat (e.g. kangaroo, lamb and beef);
  • Good sources of iron include legumes, beans and dried fruit. Tofu is also a great source of iron;
  • Okay sources of iron are green leafy veggies (spinach, kale, brussels sprouts, silverbeet, etc.), nuts, seeds, tahini, dried fruit and eggs.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

Iron is particularly important for teenage girls and women, Dynan explained, as they lose iron through menstruation.

"As a result, women needs more iron than men -- around 18 milligrams per day compared to men who require around eight milligrams per day," Dynan said.

"Unfortunately, we know from recent results of the Australian Health Survey that few women are getting enough. An estimated one in four women are missing out. So it's key for women to focus on including more iron-rich foods each day."

Wondering how tea affects iron in the body? It's all about absorption.

"There are a few things that enhance iron absorption, and also some that inhibit iron absorption," Dynan explained.


Vitamin C-rich foods like citrus fruit and capsicum are known for their ability to boost absorption of non-heme (plant sources) iron.

"Polyphenols found in tea are known to inhibit iron absorption. This includes black tea, herbal tea, even cocoa, espresso and coffee. Drinking these with meals decreases non-heme iron absorption from meals, in men and women with varying iron status.

"Black tea has more of an effect than herbal tea, and the stronger the tea, the greater the inhibition, due to higher polyphenols."

However, this process may not affect everyone, particularly meat eaters, as the presence of sufficient amounts of iron absorption enhancers (meat, fish and poultry) overcomes inhibition of iron absorption, even from large amounts of tea.

Essentially, the following groups of people should be careful of drinking tea at meals -- namely menstruating women, vegans and vegetarians.

"For the general population, there's no need to avoid drinking tea. The evidence is around iron absorption, so it's not a risk for suddenly contracting iron deficiency," Dynan told HuffPost Australia.

Tea is great, but be wary of timing if you're in one of the key groups.
Tea is great, but be wary of timing if you're in one of the key groups.
Sally Anscombe

"However, if you don't eat much red meat (the most readily available source of iron), or follow a vegetarian diet, it's best to drink tea separately from meals to avoid the inhibitory effect tea has on iron absorption.

"Also look to include things that enhance absorption, such as vitamin C-rich foods."

Need some ideas? Try a black bean Mexican bowl with capsicum, mango and tomato salsa. Or a tofu stir fry with brown rice and lots of veggies. Or a big bean and veggie salad with tahini dressing.

Citrus, berries, capsicum, tomatoes, kiwi fruit and dark leafy greens are great sources of vitamin C.
Citrus, berries, capsicum, tomatoes, kiwi fruit and dark leafy greens are great sources of vitamin C.
warrengoldswain via Getty Images


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