When you’re trying to get rid of the junk in your diet and eat more healthfully, desserts are an easy target. With the exception of fresh fruit and some frozen yogurts, desserts typically offer little in the way of good nutrition, so it’s understandable that your first impulse may be to ditch them completely and just do without. But that strategy could backfire, leaving you with an enormous craving for that bite of something sweet after a meal. The good news is, you don’t have to forego sweets completely. There are more healthful choices on the supermarket shelves—you simply have to know what to look for when shopping for desserts.
Desserts and your health
Dessert can mean anything from fresh fruit to cakes, cookies and pies to a chocolate bar, ice cream or hard candy. The top nutrition concerns with dessert are calories, saturated fat and sugar, which can range from the quite reasonable to the outrageous. While an excess of saturated fat tends to clog arteries, not all saturated fats are created equal. The saturated fat found in chocolate, for example, has little or no effect on arteries. On the other hand, most chocolate desserts are loaded with calories from other less-healthful fats and sugar. Trans fats (the result of the processing of vegetable oils), often found in packaged desserts, are also bad news for arteries. Read ingredient labels and avoid desserts that contain partially hydrogenated oils—code for trans fats.
Some food manufacturers cut calories in desserts by using sugar substitutes. Most provide few or no calories and have minimal effect on blood sugar (a positive for people with diabetes); plus, they don’t cause tooth decay. Keep in mind, however, that though a sugar-substituted dessert succeeds in putting fewer calories on the plate, there is no real evidence that it works as a weight-loss strategy.
When the Cookie Monster strikes, it’s important to keep in mind that not all cookies pack the same fat and calorie punch. They can range from simple and relatively low in fat, such as ginger snaps, vanilla wafers and animal crackers, to fat- and calorie-laden double-fudge-dipped chocolate-chip concoctions that can have more than 200 calories and 9 grams of fat in a 2-cookie serving. Note that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) mandates that serving size be determined by weight; a serving is approximately 1 ounce, which can vary from four bite-size cookies to a single heavier cookie. But don’t expect “low-fat” cookies to do your diet any favors. They are likely not as low in calories as you may think and are often even higher in sugar than regular varieties.
Other cookie caveats: Most cookies provide less than a single gram of fiber per serving, but those made with whole wheat, such as whole-wheat fig bars, provide 2 grams of fiber or more per serving. If you’re watching your sodium intake, it may surprise you to know that cookies can have 200 milligrams of sodium or more per serving.
The nutrition profiles for cakes are just as varied as for cookies. Whether you choose lemon chiffon, angel food or chocolate fudge cake, the key to comparison is the nutrition label.
The ice cream aisle can be just as confusing, with premium, super-premium, “lite,” sugar-free, low-fat and fat-free ice cream, along with frozen yogurt that looks and tastes like ice cream. There are also nondairy frozen desserts made from nut milk, soy milk or rice milk. Serving sizes for ice cream are standard (½ cup), making calorie comparisons easy. Super-premium ice cream is the richest and highest in calories (as many as 360 per ½ cup); fat-free, no-sugar added ice cream has the fewest calories (about 90 per ½ cup). But none of the others are truly low in calories. Check the nutrition labels for the lowest numbers—though you may have to try a few different brands before you find one you like.
A new and growing trend in desserts and snacks is single-serving 100-calorie packs. They can be a good option—if you eat only one pack, that is. Be aware that they are typically more expensive per serving (check the unit price on the shelf for comparison), and the extra packaging is not environmentally friendly.
Healthy grocery shopping tips for desserts
- The healthiest dessert, of course, is fruit. To make it more resemble the dessert you may really crave, pick up some chocolate syrup to drizzle over strawberries, lightly-sweetened nonfat or low-fat Greek yogurt to dollop over sliced peaches, or cinnamon and sugar to top off baked apples.
- Don’t overlook unsweetened applesauce as a healthful dessert. It has only 50 calories per ½ cup, compared to about 85 calories (and 2 teaspoons or more of added sugar) in sweetened applesauce.
- If your willpower for sweets is low, look for portion-controlled dessert packages. A more environmentally friendly approach would be to buy regular-size packages and portion out single servings into reusable containers.
- If only chocolate will do, reach for the dark stuff. You won’t get less fat or fewer calories, but you will get heart-healthy phytochemicals.
- Opt for small candies or bite-size candy bars, for built-in portion control. A bite or two may be all you need to satisfy your sweet tooth.
- Pick up a package of biscotti. These crunchy and flavorful Italian sweets are usually lower in fat and calories (only about 25 to 100 calories each, depending on the size) than American-style cookies.
- Angel-food cake, which is made without egg yolks or shortening, is the lowest-calorie cake choice. Top a slice with fresh fruit, or toast it lightly for a caramelized flavor.
- Try no-sugar-added frozen fruit bars. Make sure they are made of 100 percent real fruit.
- Stock up on dessert-flavored varieties of nonfat or low-fat yogurt. Even though they may have more sugar than regular yogurts, they are a more healthful way to top off your meal, compared to many other desserts.