5 Healthy Hot Drinks for Chilly Days

High in nutrition and flavor, these drinks are definitely hot stuff and what you should be hydrating with all winter long.

Photo: GettyImages

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Whether you like it or loathe it, sweater weather has now taken its hold. This means your appetite for cold brew coffee and iced tea has likely waned. But it’s important to keep drinking your fluids to maintain hydration, especially if you’re keeping up with a rigorous fitness routine.

One of the best ways to drink up on chilly days and evenings is to gravitate toward hot drinks that can help you feel all cozy inside. But the key is to steer clear of the plethora of ultra-sugary, calorie-rich drinks out there. (Here’s looking at you, 500-calorie Starbucks mocha Frappuccino.) While a caramel macchiato is a delicious addition to your day, that’s not enough reason to overlook its sugar tsunami. 

Instead, you want to brew and whisk up steamy drinks that actually hydrate you and give your diet a nutritional boost — minus the onslaught of sugar and creamy fat. Luckily, the following options will help turn up your internal thermostat when Jack Frost has unleashed his vengeance without also sending your healthy dietary patterns into hibernation.

Defrost this winter with any of these comforting yet healthy warm drinks. 

1. Healthier Hot Chocolate

Hot Chocolate
(Photo: GettyImages)

Not including hot chocolate in a roundup of winter drinks would be a serious oversight. Simply put, there are few better ways to take the edge off the winter chill than snuggling up with a toasty mug of hot chocolate. And, when made right, comfort and health can coexist in this classic winter brew. That is, as long as you don’t rely on the overly processed, heavily sweetened cocoa mixes sold in packets or served to customers at most coffee shops.

The key is to make your own using less sugar and more cacao powder – often labeled “raw,” “natural” or “unsweetened.” This form of cacao contains much higher levels of antioxidants than dutch-processed cocoa (notice the differences in how the powders are frequently spelled) where treatment with alkali has laid waste to most of the naturally occurring antioxidant compounds.

Researchers at Cornell University determined that a cup of hot water mixed with 2 tablespoons natural cacao powder had a greater concentration of antioxidants than a bag of green tea steeped in hot water or a glass of Merlot red wine. And other research shows that cacao can contain an even higher antioxidant capacity than fruit powders, including acai and blueberry. This is an important perk considering we have evidence that flavonoid antioxidants in cacao can have a blood-pressure lowering impact and improve brain functioning via increased cerebral brain flow. What’s more, cacao powder is a source of magnesium (a nutrient few people get enough of), iron and fiber … who knew? 

For an easy DIY hot chocolate full of rich, cozy yumminess, simply bring 1 cup of milk or unsweetened dairy-free milk and 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon to a slight simmer. If you want a little spicy kick, add a pinch of cayenne powder. Add 1 tablespoon of natural cacao powder and 1/2 ounce of finely chopped dark chocolate (around 70 percent cocoa content). Whisk vigorously until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is foamy, then pour into a mug. Though it has been suggested that mixing cacao with milk can greatly reduce how many antioxidants we can absorb, this has not been universally accepted by science.

Two to buy: Wilderness Poets Cacao Powder and Alter Eco Classic Blackout

2. Golden Milk

Have you noticed that all the cool kids are drinking steamy mugs of a golden-hued brew? And not just because it has serious Instagram like potential. The Ayurvedic-inspired drink is a great way to welcome more turmeric into your life. 

The pigment that lends turmeric its bright yellow color is curcumin, a phytochemical antioxidant shown to possess strong anti-inflammatory powers which may benefit athletic bodies. In a recent meta-analysis of 346 studies published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, curcumin was determined to contribute to lower amounts of inflammation and oxidative stress in those who were physically active, leading to reported reductions in muscle pain and damage along with improvements in workout recovery and gastrointestinal functioning. And this study review suggests increasing curcumin intake can lower muscle damage and inflammation associated with a bout of acute exercise.

Keep in mind that excess inflammation isn’t just a concern if you’re aiming to train hard — it can be disruptive to many cellular processes that may damage certain organs, including the heart and brain, over time. And, yes, there is some research suggesting that frequent curcumin consumption can lower the risk for heart disease and improve brain functioning. The caveat is that you may need to consume more turmeric daily than what is in a golden milk formulation to get the full benefit. And it’s almost impossible to know how much curcumin you’re getting from the drink. Still, sipping golden milk can certainly help get you closer to a useful curcumin intake level. 

Why not just dump straight-up turmeric powder into your steamy milk? Many golden milk powders are formulated with piperine, a compound in black pepper that enhances curcumin absorption by temporarily increasing intestinal permeability. Other spices like cardamom and ginger used in various brands can help offset the strong astringent flavor of turmeric. Some formulations include other add-ins like mushroom extract.

Look for powders that contain lower levels of sugar and resist the urge to sweeten the pot with spoonfuls of honey. After a few drinks, you should get used to the astringent flavor of golden milk, thereby reducing the urge to add spoonfuls of sweetness. 

Beyond whisking into warm milk, sprinkle golden milk powder on cauliflower before roasting, stir into Greek yogurt and then dollop over salmon, use in salad dressings, whisk into a pot of simmering grains like quinoa or rice, blend into dips, add to scrambled eggs or use it as a way to revamp your overnight oats.

One to buy: Gaia Herbs Golden Milk

3. White Tea

White Tea
(Photo: GettyImages)

White tea has long played second fiddle to its green counterpart, but you should know that it’s also a drink with some potential steep health benefits. Even less “processed” than green tea, white tea is produced when young leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant are allowed to wither and dry for a short period without exposure to external heat sources, and, in turn, it is less oxidized.

The upshot is that white tea has an antioxidant content on par with green tea, which includes epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), the signature antioxidant for which green tea has largely been hailed. While more research is required, there is data to suggest that ingesting more EGCG may offer some protection against developing certain types of cancer. It may also help with fat-loss efforts thanks to some anti-inflammatory effects. But likely the biggest reason why studies show that consuming more green tea, and by extension white tea, can help in the battle of the bulge is that drinking more unsweetened tea during the day leaves fewer opportunities to consume sugary drinks. 

When steeped, white tea yields a delicate floral flavor with disappearing sweetness. Those who find green tea to be too “grassy” will likely find sipping white tea more agreeable.

For the best quality, you should use loose leaf white tea such as Silver Needle instead of what’s stuffed into a tea bag. Steep the leaves in water that has been brought to just under a boil. Or keep a jar of white tea leaves in the fridge that have been soaked in cold water for several hours and reheat as needed. There is some research to show that this cold steeping can give you a drink with an even bigger antioxidant punch. It’s thought that white tea contains less caffeine than green or black, but content likely varies based on different factors such as when the leaves were plucked and how they were handled afterward.

One to try: The Republic of Tea Silver Rain White Tea

4. Rooibos 

(Photo: GettyImages)

Rooibos hails from the shrub Aspalathus linearis, which is a plant indigenous to South Africa. In that country, steamy cups of rooibos, also known as red bush tea, have been sipped for centuries for their medicinal properties.

When workers pick, bruise and ferment the leaves, they turn a reddish color, giving the tea its moniker. Ruby-hued rooibos has a smooth mouthfeel and is naturally sweet-tasting without any of the bitterness associated with regular tea. (Read: you’ll be less tempted to spike it with sugar.) Rooibos is also so low in tannins that you can steep it indefinitely without it becoming bitter. And since tannins, natural compounds present in green and black tea, interfere with the absorption of certain nutrients such as iron, drinking rooibos with meals won’t impact nutrient absorption rates.

It also contains no caffeine, so a steamy mug of rooibos is a good option for a nightcap that won’t keep you awake. In the warmer months, it makes for an excellent glass of iced tea. You can find rooibos in tea bags or in loose-leaf form, some of which have added flavors like vanilla. 

To date, there has been much less research conducted on rooibos compared to green tea, but we do know that the herbal brew supplies a healthy amount of antioxidants, including flavonoids. These are antioxidants that help protect our cells from damage, thereby lowering inflammation and the risk for chronic disease progression.

One study found that blood antioxidant capacity increased in participants after drinking two cups of rooibos. There is the possibility that antioxidants from rooibos have a positive impact on bone health by increasing the activity of osteoblasts — cells that form new bone. Sipping rooibos tea may also have beneficial effects on blood pressure by hindering angiotensin-converting enzyme, which indirectly increases blood pressure by causing your blood vessels to contract. But much more research on its bone and heart health benefits are needed before any conclusions can be made. It appears that having some patience and steeping rooibos for several minutes will result in more antioxidants in your cup, and boiling rooibos tea bags or loose leaves in a pot for a few minutes also appears to release a great deal of antioxidants. 

One to buy: Oteas Organic Rooibos Vanilla

5. Yerba Mate

Yerba Mate
(Photo: GettyImages)

If you’re trying to scale back your coffee intake but still need a jolt for those deep freeze mornings, try steeping this national drink of Argentina. Yerba mate (pronounced MAH-tay) is a drink made from the dried leaves and twigs of the evergreen Ilex paraguariensis plant, which is native to South America. Everywhere you go in Argentina, you’ll see people walking around with gourds or thermoses filled with this herbal brew. Yerba mate is often described as earthy, vegetal, herbaceous and bittersweet in flavor. Few love the taste at first sip, but most people come around on it. Again, just ask the Argentinians. 

While the caffeine content of yerba mate will be impacted by a few factors, including brewing time and quantity of leaves used, it’s thought that a cup of the beverage contains about 40 milligrams of caffeine. In comparison, brewed coffee ranges from 60 to 180 milligrams in a 6-ounce serving. Mate also adds two other stimulants to your mug — theophylline and theobromine — which may work synergistically with the caffeine to help you shake off morning brain fog or give your workouts a much needed jolt.

For some people, the naturally caffeinated beverage delivers the oomph of an Americano without the jitters or irritability, but this benefit remains largely anecdotal. (Note: the author of this article is among those who find mate offers a “cleaner” buzz.) And since the drink contains fewer acids than coffee, some people find it easier on their stomachs. 

Preliminary evidence — including this study and this one — suggests that frequent mate consumption can help improve body composition by limiting the division of fat cells and speeding up metabolism. And in a 12-week investigation in overweight people published in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, those given 3 grams of concentrated yerba mate powder per day lost a higher percentage of body fat than those taking a placebo capsule. But a cup or two of mate daily likely would have a minor effect on body weight compared to overall diet and physical activity.

When mate leaves are brewed, they release several types of antioxidants, including chlorogenic acids and polyphenols, meaning yerba mate is a drink with a potentially high antioxidant capacity. No mate-disease link owing to these antioxidants has been played out in research just yet, but in one 40-day investigation, participants who drank a little over a cup (330 ml) of yerba mate each day lowered their LDL cholesterol levels by about 8 percent and apolipoprotein B by 6 percent while raising their HDL cholesterol (the good kind) by 4.4 percent — three blood lipid parameters that may lower the risk for heart disease.

Like other herbal teas, you can brew mate from tea bags or by steeping the dried loose leaves, with the latter providing the most flavor. Traditionally, yerba mate is prepared in a container called a gourd and sipped through a metal straw, but a mug will do just fine. You can also try steeping the leaves in a French press. 

Remember, because it contains stimulants, you should not sip mate within a few hours of bedtime because it may lead to a restless night. Another cautionary note: The latest recommendations are that pregnant women should greatly limit their intake of the stimulant caffeine from any source, including mate, as it may raise the risk for complications including low birth weight and miscarriage.

One to try: Milonga Organic Yerba Mate

Hot Chocolate Recovery Smoothie

The winter chill may leave you not so thirsty for a frosty smoothie. Instead, recover with this toasty and tasty drink. 

  • 1 cup milk or unsweetened dairy-free milk 
  • 1 scoop protein powder of choice
  • 1 tablespoon cacao powder
  • 1 tablespoon peanut butter or almond butter
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 banana, peeled

Place milk in a small saucepan and heat until a few bubbles have broken the surface. Place warmed milk, protein powder, cacao powder, nut butter, cinnamon, vanilla and banana in a blender container and blend until smooth. Sip by the fire and forget you’re doing your body good!