For Christine Hyung-Oak Lee, a 44-year-old writer living in Berkeley, CA, the diet teas, in their distinctive green packages, seemed harmless. After all, she first spotted them while shopping with her mother in Chinese supermarkets in the late ‘80s. Then in her early teens, Lee and her mom used them together. These products didn’t have the stigma attached that laxative pills did, even though they were essentially laxative teas. “The slimming teas were honestly a core part of my bulimia, which I developed over the next few years―throwing up after dinner and using these laxative teas,” Lee tells me.
If you’re not familiar with these teas, they might be called “dieters’ tea,” “slimming tea,” or―more recently―“detox tea,” “cleansing tea,” or “skinny tea.” Product names include Oriental senna tea and NingHong diet tea. Like other laxatives, they move whatever’s in your stomach into the toilet bowl. 3 Ballerina “tea dieter’s drink” is one example whose green packaging, with Chinese writing, attempts to capitalize on the link between East Asian herbal medicine and healthfulness.
Sondra Kronberg is a clinical nutrition therapist and a spokesperson for the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) who’s been working with people with eating disorders for 30 years. Kronberg explains that “use of the teas is a compensatory behavior,” as shown by the teenaged Lee compensating for having eaten dinner by drinking tea afterward to rid it from her body.
Used in moderation, laxative teas can relieve constipation. But obviously, overuse is dangerous. Drinking too much of these teas or steeping them too long can lead to liver, kidney, and colon problems, and the FDA has reported several deaths resulting from laxative tea abuse. While senna, the ingredient commonly found in dieter’s teas, is FDA-approved as a laxative, laxatives are intended for occasional use to combat constipation, not chronic use as a weight loss aid.
Ironically, these teas, like the more common laxative pills, aren’t even effective for weight loss. Sure, you might feel temporarily lighter, but it’s mainly water weight that’s being lost via laxatives. They’re pushing out waste from the colon, rather than the parts of the body that actually absorb calories.
And, as with alcohol, the body can build up a tolerance to laxatives. Upping the dosage to achieve the same effect increases the risk. And some research has suggested a link between colorectal cancer and non-fiber laxatives (which include laxative teas).
Although disordered use of laxative teas is a problem across races, there are specific cultural associations for Asian-Americans. There’s the prevalence of tea-drinking culture and, for some groups, the use of medicinal herbs. There’s also a common expectation for Asian women to be thin, which led in Lee’s case to bulimia. Lee says, “In Korean culture—at least back then—conformity was very important, for various reasons. [Being] thin was one of the requirements.”
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Abuse of laxative teas can be hard to spot because of the aura of health carried by teas. It may not be obvious to everyone that natural products like senna, aloe, rhubarb root, buckthorn, castor oil, and licorice―all of which have been packaged as diet teas―can be damaging when overused. Lee says, “By packaging it as a ‘food’ and giving it a name that didn't say ‘laxative,’ it was very normalized.”
In recent years, these teas have become especially normalized through savvy marketing. Peppy packaging and overly precious names like Bootea, Slendertoxtea, and Flat Tummy Tea have been hawked by social media influencers and celebrities like Kylie Jenner and Lindsay Lohan. Often such teas come as packaged AM/PM regimens, that combine caffeinated teas (AM) with laxative ones (PM). They’re thus fitting for a group of consumers used to cycling through health routines, whether it’s a five-day juice cleanse or a 28-day reset. (Tonic contacted the tea companies mentioned in this story and none have responded to our request for comment.)
The products have also tapped into a way of thinking about food in terms of purity and toxicity―hence all the talk of “detox” tea. “There’s a religiosity around it,” notes therapist Kronberg, who believes that fixations with clean eating and cleansing the body have replaced church attendance in the way that Americans express virtue. Herbal teas fit neatly into that, even though health claims associated with them tend to be exaggerated. As with exercise, even a healthy habit can become deeply unhealthy in the context of disordered eating.
Kronberg explains that when it comes to young people wedded to their smartphones, one thing “that influences them in terms of marketing is that they carry phones, and they are getting bombarded every day with messages about food and body and weight.” And this stuff persists. Anyone who’s ever done an online search related to diets will thereafter be bombarded by advertisers of diet products. These include, in their reinvented celebrified guise, slimming teas.
Of course, not all drinkers of such teas have eating disorders. But the euphemistic labelling and packaging can make it more difficult to identify troubling patterns.
For Lee, one of the factors that helped her recovery from disordered eating was her pregnancy. Developing a different relationship with her body, and being motivated to be a positive role model for her daughter, helped make her disordered habits a thing of the past.
But for others who might be tempted by the same products she was, whether they’re sold in Asian stores or health food shops, she says, “Those diet teas are a travesty. They should be named for what they are―laxatives. They should be placed in the herbal medicine aisle (because people do need laxatives), and not in the beverage/food aisles. They shouldn't be so normalized.”
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If you or someone you know is dealing with an eating disorder, contact the helpline of the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) at 1-800-931-2237, or visit their site. You can also live chat with a volunteer via Facebook Messenger, and text 'NED!' to 741741 for crisis support 24/7.
Update 3/12/18: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that Tonic contacted the tea companies for comment.