Health Benefits of Desserts

Ever feel like this?

Dessert deprivation is not a happy, healthy state.

In a culture that places excessive value on dieting and thinness, yet struggles increasingly with weight gain and obesity, it’s easy to view dessert as a tantalizing enemy. But according to many health experts, recovered dieters and studies, negative attitudes and avoidance of desserts—and other foods—can be more detrimental to our wellness than indulging.

But that’s not all. Desserts can actually boost our wellness. (Did she say boost?) Yep! Consider the following…

Benefits of Incorporating Desserts into a Healthy, Balanced Diet

Improved weight control.

In a recent study published in the journal Steroids, 195 obese adults followed calorie-controlled diets for 16 weeks. Both plans contained the same amount of calories and namely healthy foods, with one difference—one group consumed dessert daily. The dessert eaters lost slightly more weight than the non-dessert eaters and were significantly more successful at keeping lost pounds off.

“Most people simply regain weight, no matter what diet they are on,” Daniela Jakubowicz of Tel Aviv University and lead author of the study told the New York Times. “But if you eat what you like, you decrease cravings.”

Reduced unhealthy food cravings.

Dessert benefits are particularly acute for non-dieters. Why? Because routine indulgences and some amount of flexibility in your diet prevents feelings of deprivation, which can stimulate the weight gain that prompts dieting. And viewing desserts as savory treats rather than “bad” or “junk” foods can help diminish sugar cravings while making sugary fare less tantalizing.

Another study featured by Better Health Research showed that daily intake of dark chocolate helps keep cravings for unhealthy foods at bay. Participants who ate dark chocolate also ate 15 percent fewer daily calories compared to non-chocolate eaters.

Improved nutrient intake.

We crave dense foods when our bodies are lacking nutrients or calories. And eating too little is one of the top contributors to food cravings, according to the University of Rochester Medical Center.

In some cases, a rich dessert is just the fuel your body and brain needs—particularly if you consume too few carbohydrates. Are desserts the healthiest source of carbohydrates? Not usually. But consuming enough carbohydrates from any source is healthier than severely restricting or skipping them altogether.

Desserts can also provide essential nutrients from whole foods, such as whole grains, nuts, fruits and even vegetables. Consider the following:

  • Pumpkin pie contains rich amounts of fiber, calcium and vitamins A and C. One standard slice provides of 260% of adults’ recommended daily intake of vitamin A.
  • This strawberry rhubarb crisp with an oatmeal crust provides a full serving of fruit per serving and valuable amounts of B-vitamins, fiber and healthy fats.
  • Cheesecake provides valuable amounts of protein, calcium and vitamin D.
  • Blueberry pie provides plentiful antioxidants and about 8 grams of fiber per slice—about one-third of women’s daily minimum and one-quarter of men’s.
  • Dark chocolate is high in antioxidants and can have a positive impact on blood sugar control and heart-health. (The darker, the better.)
  • Oatmeal raisin cookies provide valuable amounts of fiber, B-vitamins, calcium and iron.
  • One cup of slow-churned ice cream provides 12 percent of adult’s daily calcium needs and as much protein as an egg.

Desserts should not replace nutritious whole foods in your diet, of course, but it’s nice to know that they aren’t devoid of nutrients. If you love sweets, the following tips can help keep your sweet teeth happy without compromising your wellness.

5 Ways to Have Your ‘Cake’ and Stay Healthy, Too

1. Go for quality, not quantity. It can be tempting to stock up on affordable or “diet” style desserts that seem oh-so-healthy. In reality, desserts made from natural, high-quality ingredients tend to be more satisfying. Artificial sweeteners and desserts that taste “diet-y” can leave us hungry (and reaching) for more.

2. To prevent blood sugar imbalances, pair sugary sweets with fiber or protein-rich foods. Because fiber and protein have a mellowing impact on blood sugar, foods like whole grains, berries, low-fat milk and yogurt, help keep us fuller longer and guard against dreaded crashes. Top ice cream with raspberries, for example, or have sorbet after a balanced meal.

3. Don’t torture yourself with dozens of accessible faves. If your one donut tends to bring along friends and one cookie seems foreign, keep tempting fare out of reach. Like our diets, our kitchens should contain moderate amounts of sugary sweets at most. Recovering dieters are especially prone to the “feast or famine” mentality. As your attitudes about food and eating improve, the tempting nature of desserts will reduce, leaving you more capable of portion control. In the meantime, take yourself out for a single ice cream cone or slice of pie rather than rushing to Costco.

4. Top it with fruit. Or fruit with it. Most Americans fall short of the daily recommended 2 cups+ of fruits per day. (More is better.) There’s no time like dessert-time to start changing that. You’ll likely end up eating less of the cake/cookies/ice cream/pie, feel more satisfied—without feeling stuffed, and take a leap toward your antioxidant and fiber needs. A sweet win-win, in my opinion.

5. Eat more whole foods. The more whole foods we eat, the more our taste buds love them. As a kid, I ate sugar cubes from the bowl and plowed through my Halloween candy in days. Now that I eat namely whole foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, fish…), sugary sweets are too sugary. Some seem darn near flavorless. If you don’t currently eat healthy variations of conventional desserts, such as whole grain cakes, all-fruit pies and pumpkin tofu cheesecake (YUM!), I suggest trying it. And the more whole foods you incorporate into your overall diet, the better.

What do you love most about desserts?  Do you enjoy them with ease or grapple with guilt?  As always, I welcome your thoughts and questions.  I’m having so much fun with this, I’ve decided to carry the dessert party on via Twitter (#HealthySweet) today—sharing factoids, tips and more. Hope to see you and your sweet-teeth there. 😉

Leave a comment

55 Comments

  1. Love this, August! I am a calculated Dessertaholic. I wrote a post a while back on a similar subject called “Sweets Without Grief”. In moderation, a little indulgence is healthy. Deprivation only makes us depressed. One of my favorite tricks I practice…I eat sweets early in the day so I have plenty of time to burn those calories. : )

    Reply
  2. Hey was this inspired by my Oreo cookie splurge? Hahaha!
    I will definitely copy that strawberry rhubarb recipe. Thanks for the healthy choices!

    Reply
  3. Love this post, August. So important. I can’t imagine a life without chocolate, what would be the point? Though I have made the switch from candy bars to cocoa/frozen cherries smoothies when the cravings come. One of my greatest memories of childhood is going blackberry picking with my mom and grandma in Pa. While they made pies, I would get to eat a big bowl of blackberries and cream. I can still taste it!

    Reply
  4. Ice cream is a food group, and the one I could not live without. Given a variety of health issues, I’ve had to get used to brands that are fat-free, low sugar, no sugar added, low fat, etc. But, it works. One fairly large bowl a night…with chocolate sprinkles and Cool Whip (sugar-free), of course. I’m happy–and pretty healthy these days. 🙂

    Reply
  5. Dieting has never worked for me, because it always seemed to boil down to deprivation. I loooooove dessert! And yes, moderation and quality is key. My favorite to keep around home is ice cream. I used to rationalize eating it by saying it contained calcium and protein. Good to see that I wasn’t just deluding myself!

    Reply
  6. mgedwards

     /  September 21, 2012

    For some reason I have the lyrics of an old Poison song playing in my head…”stop your teasing, and start your pleasing!” The health benefits of dessert — I love it! Can I have some nonfat whipped cream on it? Pretty please with sugar on top? 🙂

    Reply
    • Of course! And I love the theme song. I’d go for regular or homemade whipped topping when possible, because fat-free dairy products tend to have more added sugar and satisfy less. In either case, eat up and enjoy. 😉

      Reply
      • mgedwards

         /  September 21, 2012

        Sounds delish! It’s a great prelude to the holidays. Now I have to figure out how to many Asian desserts healthier. Red bean and sesame desserts, fatty fruits (e.g. mango and papaya), sponge cakes, moon cakes — none of them are very healthy even though they may be natural with less sugar. Asians have started using western creams and toppings too, making them even less healthy.

  7. I’ve been waiting for this post since our chat on Twitter!

    One thing that I’ve noticed is that I have mid-afternoon cravings. if I try to ignore them, one of two things happens. I’ll either keep sneaking to the kitchen and grabbing a little of this and a little of that (which ends up taking in a lot of calories), or I’ll eat a much bigger dessert that I need in the evening. My solution was to allow myself one small package of dark chocolate covered blueberries in the afternoon if I get hit by cravings. One pack is less than 100 calories, so it’s portion controlled and satisfies my sweet tooth so I don’t binge later.

    Reply
    • Aw. Thanks for encouraging it! 🙂

      Your mid afternoon snack habit sound like a great (and tasty!) one. In general, we shouldn’t go longer than 3 to 4 hours without eating. I feel a lull around then, too.

      Reply
  8. I’m a high protein believer, however, I also love sweets. You said the magic words – pumpkin pie. I could eat it three times a day, every day.

    For sweets, I usually have frozen yogurt with some sugar-free candy on top. I try to avoid any pure sugar. At one point I completely cut out bread, but it’s messy. Now I will eat the bun with a burger or hot dog.

    Very interesting.

    Reply
    • When I first read your comment, my eyes skipped the word ‘could.’ 😉

      Glad you enjoy fro yo—one of my FAVES—and have incorporated some carbohydrates back into your diet. The key is emphasizing the nutritious sources. Less meat juice on the lap is an added perk. LOL

      Reply
  9. My biggest struggle is portion control when it comes to desserts….keeping few options in the house is key. Also, I do better with chocolate or cookies (can have one square or one cookie no prob) but really struggle with salty treats like chips or crackers and cheese (that’s when I go nuts). It’s key for me to keep the stuff I struggle with out of the house while having some treats that I know I can control on hand so I am not deprived.
    GREAT post and I love all your tips and tricks. Finding more whole food type treats, like berries etc, for dessert is definitely high on my list!

    Reply
  10. Coleen Patrick

     /  September 21, 2012

    Desserts are a must! I am so craving strawberry rhubarb pie right now!! Yum.

    Reply
  11. “Sugary sweets are too sugary.” Exactly, August! Eating whole foods reduces those processed cravings and ultimately, sugar loses its hold entirely. It’s not an overnight process but it is well worth the work, and life is truly sweet, again.

    This is just a stellar post, August, so typical of your practical approach to nutrition. Quite refreshing!

    Karen

    Reply
    • You are proof of extremely healthy pudding, Karen. It’s incredible what happens when we focus more on “healthy in” rather than what to keep out… Thanks for the wonderful support!

      Reply
  12. Love your suggestions on how to stay healthy, August! Some fruits are sweet and delicious too: papaya, peach, pineapple, and gala apples are among my favorites.
    I don’t have a sweet tooth, but sometimes I… just… need… chocolate! 🙂

    Reply
  13. Ice cream and berries is my favorite combination. It doesn’t have to be a lot but the sweet and cold combination is totally satisfying. Since I have quite a sweet tooth this was the perfect post to read after lunch.

    Reply
  14. Running from Hell with El

     /  September 21, 2012

    I really do love sweets, but I’m picky. I’d only eat the really good ice cream (my favorite is Starbucks Java Chip) and while I will sink to the level of OTC chocolate, I’d much prefer to linger over a smaller, more divine piece of the really good stuff. From a psychological standpoint, I think you pretty much nailed it.

    There’s one thing I’m wondering about, however: if people get addicted to sugar in the same way they get addicted to drugs and alcohol, is it possible for people to indulge just a little without falling off the wagon? I reckon it’s a complicated question because we HAVE to eat but we don’t have to use substances like alcohol.

    I hope you’re having a swell Friday!

    Reply
    • That is a complicated question, El. While it’s a minority of people in the general population who are truly addicted (in psychiatry, they use the term “sugar dependence,” as there are difference between clinical addiction and sugar issues), anything can become addictive.

      Treatment, particularly permanent avoidance of all sugar, is pretty controversial. I won’t get into the nitty gritty now, but I will say this: Any foods that cause severe emotional and/or physical upset aren’t worth eating or taunting ourselves with. And those issues are 100+ percent worth addressing. Having been ruled by food issues myself in the past, I know how vital and empowering healing can be—no matter what/how we end up eating.

      Thanks for the awesome thoughts! Happy Friday back at ya. 🙂

      Reply
  15. I’ve told you this before, but diabetes runs in my family. My paternal grandfather was dead from it by the time he was 60. He flatly refused the diet and said he’d last as long as he lasted.

    I fear diabetes.

    For many, many years I wouldn’t touch desserts. Or any sweets. Not even soft drinks or juices.

    Over the last few years, I’ve started eating sweets. I buy those huge Godiva chocolate bars. My husband and I each have 1-2 squares per evening. This is our treat. If we go out, I order dessert.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter if I have dessert or not. I enjoy it, so I eat it. Occasionally, I consider ordering dessert instead of food. I haven’t done this yet but still might.

    Reply
    • Your previous fears are so understandable, Catie! Thanks for your thoughtful, open comment. I’m glad you treat yourself now – responsibly at that.

      For years it was believed that sugar causes diabetes. We now know that’s not true. The same balanced, healthy diet — that can contain sweets — suits people with and without diabetes. (It’s simply more important for people with chronic disease.)

      Reply
      • I didn’t know that overeating sugary food didn’t cause diabetes. All this time I thought that. (!!!!)

        The doctors have told me I don’t yet have diabetes not to let myself get fat. My aunt told me to not to get tested for it any more. (grins at her advice)

      • It’s still a pretty common myth. Gaining excessive amounts of weight typically causes type 2 diabetes. Genetics cause type 1, which starts at birth. The Diabetes Association has some great info. on that and other myths here.

        I’d get regular tests, too! 🙂

  16. Great post! I know I eat too many desserts, but it definitely makes sense that incorporating a moderate amount of desserts into a diet will make it more successful because people are more likely to stick with a diet if they’re not depriving themselves of everything they used to like. It’s all about moderation, right?

    Reply
  17. I definitely devour dark chocolate on late nights. mmm And I just made some pumpkin bars which called my name for breakfast. I feel better knowing I’m allowed to indulge every once in awhile. I’m not a big sweets thing, but sometimes it does feel good to revel in something scrumptiously put together. (Because I have NO patience for baking things myself.)

    Reply
  18. Great post, August! Talk about counter-intuitive. I come from a long line of dessert eaters. My grandmother always had three desserts on the table because she made a new one every day. They worked hard, but they lived well into their 80s and 90s, too. Maybe she was on to something with the health benefits of desserts!! 😀

    Reply
  19. My husband and I changed our eating habits like this a few years ago. We sometimes fall of that wagon, but we’ve found that a small piece of dark chocolate for dessert is all we need.

    Great post, August!

    Reply
  20. Like Catie, I always thought one of the causes of type 2 diabetes was a steady diet of sugar. It’s good to know it’s not, August. Whew. This alleviates some of my worries. As you know, I tend to binge eat my sweets. It’s not that I deprive myself of them the rest if the time. As I get older, I find I crave them less. I’m hoping I’m like my grandma. By the time she was 95, she was feeding my shortbread cookies to my sister’s dog because she could no long eat sweets. 🙂

    Reply
  21. Raani York

     /  September 22, 2012

    Thanks for sharing this August. It’s a great blog post.
    As for my dessert habits: First of all: I love blueberries without anything on… just natural… I love them so much, I don’t look at them as dessert, but enjoy them as a meal and refuse to destroy the exquisite taste with anything else.
    When I do decide for an extraordinary dessert, I do enjoy it, spoon by spoon, without regrets. I had been told, that they don’t turn into fat if one enjoyes them compared to the ones eating in quit. (Hard to believe – but however… hope dies last, right?) LOL

    Reply
  22. I have been craving sweets like crazy lately. This helps. I really don’t like to have it in the house because my family has no control, but you have just given me sme options to work with. Thank you.

    Reply
  23. Pumpkin pie has always been my fav! Whole foods makes them very healthy but I wouldn’t eat one from a supermarket like Ralphs where they put high fructose corn syrup etc in it..

    Reply
  24. Also for women to crave sweets is one of the main symptoms of Candida yeast infection in the digestive tract.

    I’ve used to eat a lot of dessert-type foods but now I prefer tiny portions, if any, with organic fruit and bits of chocolate. I’m not a dark chocolate fan unfortunately but I found one kind that I love: Brookside dark chocolate covered Acai and blueberries. They are a healthier option and oh so satisfying!

    Reply
  25. August, I love this (especially since it’s what I’ve been preaching and practicing for years…) And pumpkin tofu cheesecake??! Sounds intriguing – do you have a recipe for that?

    Reply
  26. i never eat desserts. I’ve discovered that I don’t tolerate grains at all i(t’s the cause of my exhaustion) so I don’t see desserts coming anytime in the future, either

    Reply
  27. I love this post. I usually over indulge and the I beat myself up because I feel so guilty afterwards – which is probably not healthy at all. If I take the time to bake healthy cookies, then I won’t feel deprived!

    Must try the pumpkin tofu cheesecake – can you post it, pretty please?

    Reply
  28. Kourtney Heintz

     /  September 25, 2012

    I always like to end my lunch and dinner with a sweet taste. Can be fruit or a cookie or chocolate. Just something to finish off the meal. And if possible, I’d like to have two or three pieces. Sometimes I break a medium cookie into 5 pieces just so it feels like more. 🙂

    Reply
  29. Great points. I firmly believe in “everything in moderation.” The other day I was stressed out and I sat down with a cup of tea and a coconut macaroon–made from the finest ingredients (my mother-in-law had brought it from the macaroon shop) and indulged. It was just what the doctor ordered!

    Reply
  30. I’ll stick to a serving size, and milk the hell out of every.single.bite.

    Reply
  31. Being a severe diabetic, I don’t indulge too much in the way of desserts…mainly dried fruits. But every once in a while, say my birthday…I have a slice of blueberry pie for breakfast! Moderation is usually a logical key.

    Reply
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