Rich ice cream, homemade apple pie, toasted almond cheesecake... who doesn’t love the luxury of a fabulous dessert? The simple pleasure of a sweet indulgence at the end of a satisfying meal dates back to the 14th century, although according to Wikipedia, it wasn’t until the beginning of the 20th century that the term “dessert” took on its present meaning. Even ancient civilizations enjoyed sweet treats--probably dried fruit and honey in those days--but enough of the history lesson!
While it is unlikely that our predecessors worried much about whether or not desserts were “healthy”, at some point in time, the two words “healthy” and “dessert” started showing up in the same sentence. Gone were the guilt-free days of giving oneself permission to enjoy a reasonable serving of a beloved dessert. Instead, grocery shelves and freezers exploded with heavily processed, cheap and so-called “healthy” versions of traditional desserts. Artificially colored sherbet, sweetened with high fructose corn syrup became the “healthy” alternative to real ice cream. Fat free cookies, which packed more sugar than the original versions, gained popularity. Recently a host of “healthy” packaged gluten free treats with an impressively lengthy list of ingredients have emerged.
An unfortunate result of the “healthy dessert” mentality has been the ease of convincing ourselves that since the dessert is “healthy”, it is acceptable to overindulge. “Healthy” sweet treats are now being freely consumed, not only as an after meal dessert item, but also as a between meal snack without regard to the effects on blood sugar and insulin levels.
Regardless of whether desserts are homemade or purchased at the supermarket, in general, they cannot be defined as “healthy”... nor were they intended to be. While a controlled portion of dessert in an otherwise balanced and healthful diet may generally be accommodated, snacking on sweet treats between meals is not in the best interest of maintaining good health.
Thankfully, there are some dessert options which do, in fact, offer health benefits, such as dark chocolate brimming with polyphenols for vascular health, or perhaps a dish of antioxidant-rich mixed berries. Fresh seasonal fruit remains the dessert of choice on the ultra-healthy Mediterranean diet (New England J Med 2013; 368:1279-1290, April 4, 2013).
The following are some tips for managing sweet treats and desserts in your home:
DO avoid efforts to put desserts off limits. Therapists who work in the field of eating disorders feel that this approach only strengthens the desire for sweets, potentially leaving the child or teen with feelings of guilt or shame related to eating them. Instead, try a “normalized” approach where sweet treats are sometimes served for dessert as a matter of routine.
DO consider going out for ice cream or other desserts instead of stashing sweet treats in the home. Or, consider making a favorite dessert at home--this way the whole family gets a portion of the dessert. . .but then it’s gone. By contrast, when sweets are stockpiled in the home, parents often find themselves in the unpopular position of constantly having to say “no”.
DO avoid the rule that dessert is contingent upon eating another part of the meal. The child, for example, who is not allowed to have dessert unless the brussels sprouts are finished may not only come to further detest the vegetable, but also learns to overvalue the dessert component of the meal.
DO avoid ALL commercially prepared sweets which contain “partially hydrogenated” oils, otherwise known as “vegetable shortening”. The FDA has given companies three years to remove this artificial ingredient from their products. Here is a partial list of sweets which may contain “partially hydrogenated” oils. Select a brand that is free of this harmful substance... or make it yourself!
Bakery goods such as cookies, cupcakes, muffins, whole cakes and pies
Breakfast pastries / strudel
Canned cinnamon rolls
Cookies / cookie dough
Packaged snack cakes