February 01, 2010

Decadent Desserts on a Healthy Diet?

Photo: chotda

Some people don't have much of a sweet tooth. They can pass up ice cream, pastries, cakes, brownies or other goodies without making a big deal out of it. If one of these people gets mugged by a girl scout on the way out of the supermarket, and somehow ends up with a box of Thin Mints? She can arrive home 10 minutes later without having to explain why half a sleeve of cookies is already missing.

However, a lot of us struggle with this issue. I'm one of those folks who, if I didn't worry about consequences, could happily spend my entire day munching on one sweet thing after another. Well, that's not entirely true--to fully appreciate my desserts, I'd blissfully intersperse them with cheeseburgers, nachos, and deep-fried potato skins.

But much as I'd love to, I don't generally eat like that. I am more likely to eat broccoli and salmon than onion rings and whoopee pies. I have way fewer desserts than I would if all of a sudden the nutrition fairy waved her magic wand and said: "The hell with it, let's just say all food is now created equal. Have whatever you want."

Hey thanks nutrition fairy!

However, in the real world (as opposed to the world of television commercials and benevolent nutrition fairies) it is generally understood that eating humongous quantities of chocolate chip cookies or lemon meringue pie or mocha almond fudge ice cream is a bad idea.

So what's the best way to balance the desire for good health with the nearly orgasmic happiness a delicious dessert can bring?

Well, the secret is... there is no one best way. All those diet and self-help books that that say there is? They're wrong. Everyone's different; the trick is to figure out which is your "best way."

Here are some possible strategies. Some of them, in my mind, totally suck and are stupid. Yet they all work for someone. The problem comes when you're trying to use a strategy that isn't right for you.

1. The Black and White Rule.

Some people find sugar (or other sweeteners) to be problematic in the same way alcohol is to an alcoholic. Rather than grapple with constant temptation, they find it easier to have a blanket rule: they don't eat sugar or sweet desserts at all. Except maybe just fake ones like a piece of fruit. (And yes, fruit is wonderful, but I maintain that no, it's not dessert.)

Advantages: Black and white rules are simple to apply! This approach works especially well for people who find their sugar cravings diminish when not toyed with all the time.

Disadvantages: No sugar? Acckk!!!! And for some, "all or nothing" type rules encourage rebellion, or lead to guilt and self-destructive behavior when rules are violated.

2. Heaping on the Healthy Ingredients.

There are two components to this strategy: (1) generally filling yourself up with ample quantities of healthy foods, so you're not feeling constantly hungry and don't have a lot of extra room for junky treats; and (2) using healthy ingredients in desserts along with the Evil ones.

For example, many tasty desserts feature fruits and vegetables, like the carrot and apple cupcakes in Simply Recipes, or Leah's banana pudding pie over at The Goat's Lunch Pail.

Advantages: eating more nutritious whole foods is a good way to improve your general health and mood, and keep you from feeling sick, weak, tired, cranky and generally crappy.

Disadvantages. Even desserts with a few healthy ingredients also usually contain loads of sugar, butter, and refined grains. Despite what many natural bakeries imply, these ingredients don't become good for you merely because they are organic or are snuggled up next to a shredded fruit or vegetable. It's not a great idea to eat large quantities of blueberry danish just because blueberries have some lovely antioxidants in them.

3. Portion Police.

This is one of the most common ways of enjoying desserts, but not experiencing the weight gain or other adverse health consequences of massive sugar consumption. Eat desserts in moderation! Don't consume big-ass slices of cake, or multiple scoops of ice cream, or entire packages of lame grocery store cookies. Have one of Geosomin's mini-cupcakes or Roni's mini-apple pies instead!

Advantages: If you can stick to your plan and eat small portions of your favorite treats, you can enjoy them without guilt.

Disadvantages: If you suck at portion control, there is no such thing as a small portion.

4. Special Occasion Exceptions.

This is another portion control method, but focuses more on frequency and less on quantity. Special Occasion people go ahead and have that second slice of chocolate layer cake--but only have cake at all when it's their birthday, or a holiday, or a long-awaited get together with special friends.

Advantages: When desserts are consumed only rarely, they stay "special" and don't worm their way into your daily routine and start sneakily escalating into habit-forming entitlements.

Disadvantages: It's tempting to start celebrating more and more "special occasions" like "I finally got my hair cut day" or "the fifteen week anniversary of my middle child going off to kindergarten," or "Tuesday Afternoon."

5. The Calculator Strategy.

If you count calories or carbs or weight-watcher points, and you're also eating enough nutritious whole foods, you can plan for a decadent dessert by cutting out discretionary calories elsewhere.

Advantages: No guilt! You earned your dessert; enjoy every bite.

Disadvantages: Counting calories or points or carb grams or whatever can be a huge pain in the ass. Also, some people get too focused on the numbers and forget how important it is to include food that's nutritious, not just waist-line friendly.

6. Exercise Erasure.

A rich dessert can be "bought" by an additional calorie expenditure above and beyond what is normal for the day. Say you already went to the gym in the morning, but you're craving a special dessert after dinner--so you put in an additional hour on the Wii or treadmill, then enjoy your treat.

This method can also be used as a deterrent to mindless overindulgence. Knowing how many miles of extra walking or running a double-dip ice cream cone represents can help you rethink that cone unless you're really dying for it.

Advantages: if you have the time, and commit to the exercise before having the treat, it's another no-guilt way to enjoy yourself--plus will pay off with all the health benefits that exercise brings.

Disadvantages: Many people overestimate how many calories they're burning when they exercise, and underestimate how many are in most treats.

7. Low-Cal Convenience Desserts

Some people are great cooks and use the best tasting ingredients they can find so that every dessert is a gourmet treat. (For example, The Bag Lady can show you how to make a perfect pie crust, and she's not afraid to bring on the lard.) Others may sometimes opt for convenient low-calorie treats, so that they can eat them more often with committing to an extra ten mile hike after dinner.

The funny thing about reduced-calorie treats? Everyone has opinions about which ones are delicious and which ones are so hideous they should be outlawed. But rarely do people agree on which is which. One persons "delicious" low-cal chocolate pudding will taste like 100 calories of fertilizer to someone else.

Advantages: if low cal treats taste good to you, you can eat them more often than full calorie desserts.

Disadvantages: if you're eating them instead of a "real" dessert, and they're not satisfying you, they may cause you to consume more calories in the long run, with less satisfaction.

8. The "F-ck It, We're All Going to Die One Day Anyway" Approach.

This may be hard for health and fitness enthusiasts to comprehend, but there are many folks out there who just don't give a crap whether their diet may one day kill them. They choose to eat what they want, in whatever quantities they feel like, and they don't worry much about whether gigantic portions of processed, sugary salty nutritionally bankrupt food with make them obese, give them diabetes, or set them up for a heart attack.

When I find myself mentally tsk-tsk-tsking over the contents of other people's shopping carts at the grocery store, or watching what people order and consume in a restaurant, I have to remind myself that nutritional choices are a lifestyle choice, not a moral one. What's it to me if the guy at the next table finishes his large pepperoni pizza and orders a 2500 calorie cake and ice-cream extravaganza for dessert? Why do I judge him for making different choices than I would, if I don't have to live in his over-stuffed and under-nourished body? It's his body and his choice.

(Not that I plan to stop the tsk-tsking any time soon, but I do know I'm being a judgmental butthead).

What strategies do you use when it comes to desserts? Or are you one of those people who doesn't give them a second thought?

[Note: this is also posted over at Blogher, where you can join us for grueling daily fitness challenges at the 10x Club.]


  1. i'm a portion control/special occasion person... i try to be moderate with the treats, except for occasionally when i'm not...

    overall, i try to practise the 80/20 rule... at least 80% of my food is quite nutritionally sound, and up to 20% is for fun - eating out with friends, chocolate, alcohol... i try to make my percentage closer to 85/15, though, to give myself an "underestimating how much fun i'm ingesting" buffer.

    my favorite portion-control device, besides using a smallish plate: i bought a tiny scoop, which is supposed to be for cookie dough, but which i use for ice-cream... i can have 3 scoops and it's about 1/2 a cup.

  2. I'm the kind of dessertaholic who will forfeit dinner in order to eat a bigger slice of pie. I think I could eat my weight in dessert--unless it had lemon filling, in which case it doesn't count. Really, though, I control with a mix: I exercise portion control, exercise off the calories, and sometimes pick low-fat treats. Then there are the days I throw caution to the wind and chow down.

  3. I made some of Ina Garten's lemon bars over the weekend. Which, if we're being honest, are basically lemon flavored butter and sugar. And I used the small portions approach. I had a small portion for breakfast, a small portion after lunch, a small portion with my afternoon cuppa, and a small portion after dinner.

  4. At a Weight Watchers meeting the other week, a woman confessed to eating nothing but chocolate cake one day. She kept within her allotted number of calories, but they were composed of nothing but chocolate cake.
    That's one way to say within your limits.
    Oh, the subject line had the word 'healthy' in it. Oops.

  5. I have to say I do a combination of approaches. Sugar does set me off, so I have to keep it limited. I aim for "only spcial occasions" with a few times when something just looks really good so I call it a soecial occasion. And on those occasions I use portion control (half a serving of cake, etc). If I have any say in the desserts, I do load them with fruit (chocolate fondue made from dark chocolate, with lots of fruit to dip in it). And generally speaking I just try to avoid sugar all the time when I am not having whatever special occasion I allow.

    It works for me until I let my guard down and start eating sugar every day. Then all bets are off and I eat too much and feel horrible.

  6. with dessert, I use it as an every now and then type thing...same as I do with pizza, donuts, etc. That way, it feels like a treat to me, rather than an every day thing. Don't get me wrong, I could eat a Recees Blizzard daily. But then I would suffer massively. :-(

  7. This has become one of my favorite topics!

    I am a bona fide recovering sugar addict. When I was eating out of control, sugar and fat (read: donuts, ice creams, sugary coffee drinks, cheesecake, chocolate bars) dominated my entire diet. I have said many times how I am AMAZED that I did not become diabetic.

    That being said, a few months ago, I experimented with allowing a small "treat" once a day once I started eating more carefully and healthily. (When I was starting AGAIN (yo-yo ain't my name for nothing!), this little treat was a useful transition, because to go cold turkey off sugar felt too extreme.)

    This strategy worked for quite a while. I enjoyed my daily treat, yet I continually made it smaller and smaller on purpose.

    The day finally came when I couldn't be bothered to waste the calories on it. I was learning what it felt like to be sugar-free. And it felt so much better than being in the self-induced sugar fog!

    Sugar for me is a DRUG. No question. If I don't touch it, I am perfectly happy and feel sane. If I have an occasional indulgence, like a Starbucks vanilla latte, I am quickly reminded of the crazy things sugar does to my brain. It really grabs hold of me very quickly, and immediately makes me want to eat more, more, more. Instant insanity!

    When I am abstinent, I can have all sorts of sugary things in my house (like iced chocolate cupcakes and chocolate croissants) and I won't care, or even think about them at all. This alone freaks me out because I used to get annoyed with people who could cohabitate with it and not eat it. It was unimaginable to me. If I have "just a little", I will want to eat the whole thing. Hands down. Every time.

    I DO have fruit on a regular basis, and a small bowl of dried fruit most afternoons. It is sweet, but somehow prevents sugar mania. I have stevia in my coffee. I chew sugar-free bubble gum if I feel the need to chew, but not eat.

    I have never been and never will be the type of gal that eats half a chocolate bar, and leaves the rest lying in sight for hours or days (my college roommate).

    Whew! I warned you this is a pet topic of mine!

  8. I will continue to stick with options 3, 4 and try 6 (but that one usually fails). I love getting my co-workers and friends to split desserts with me so I don't feel guilty.

  9. Since I started juicing again, back in November of '07, I haven't wanted traditional sweets, and haven't had any.

    Yes, I know, I'm weird.

  10. Most of the time my focus is on getting the most nutrition for my calorie buck, which means reaching for a homemade granola bar instead of a handful of my husband's ginger snaps.

    If I'm expecting a big meal or special treat, I try to do a longer workout, but luckily those occasions don't come up too often.

    I avoid the "f*ck it" approach to food. If I'm going to eat a 3,000 calorie meal, it's going to be an all-out, special affair prepared by a chef and served by a waiter in a black tie. Blowing my calorie budget on something I can have any time, like Oreos, doesn't square with my philosophy. But that's just me. It takes all kinds, and the world would be a dull place if we were all alike.

  11. I'm a special occasion consumer. I cannot have chocolate in my house. Period. I will overindulge. This may not work for everyone, but I have found that when I do eat dessert, it doesn't taste quite as good as it used to.

  12. I eat a small something sweet every night for dessert. I work it into my calorie count for the day, and try to keep it at least a little healthy.

    Once a week [usually Saturday] I allow myself 1 decant treat! I make it something I really love, and I try to by it in a single serving if possible [like a really great pasrty, slice of cake or cookie from a real bakery]. These allowences keep me sane! I could never live a life without desserts !

  13. Mmmmm, CAKE! That picture is awesome.

    I never thought it possible but I have tamed my sweet tooth.

    I used to keep ginormous bags of peanut m&ms hidden in the couch cushions but now I just keep a stash of Trader Joe's 100 cal chocolate bars for when I really want that flavor on my tongue. My last stash of 3 boxes lasted 4 months, I suppose just knowing that I can have it whenever I want it helps keep me from wanting it *all the time.*

    And because life without cake isn't worth living, I plan my major dessert indulgences. It's not going to be a piece of crap ass supermarket cake, but rather a piece of homemade lusciousness savored with my favorite people.

  14. I am honestly more tempted by a great looking plate of fried food than desert, but I do get caught by the ooey gooey sometimes. I employ a combination of #2 (when it will satisfy the craving), and #3. I honestly cannot tolerate much sweet stuff at one time without feeling sick (I recently had a WHOLE slice of cake at a birthday celebration instead of my usual half and felt AWFUL) so it works out. I try to not do alcohol and sugar on the same day unless it is a SPECIAL SPECIAL occasion. And I try to judge whether its worth it and keep it to a reasonable amount of calories.

    A full day of chocolate cake? OMG, that would make me soooo sick. A full day of pizza I could probably do though...

  15. This: "I'm one of those folks who, if I didn't worry about consequences, could happily spend my entire day munching on one sweet thing after another. Well, that's not entirely true--to fully appreciate my desserts, I'd blissfully intersperse them with cheeseburgers, nachos, and deep-fried potato skin" Is me exactly! (Well, minus the cheeseburger).

    I have tried with middling success all the above options. I've found what doesn't work for me (i.e. portion control. i cannot eat "just 3 bites"of something I love. Cannot.) but I'm still working out what does work for me.

    Great post - I've never thought of all these tips together like this. Makes me wonder if you don't have to be a little crazy to be healthy in our society tho.

  16. I'm a black and white person because once I'm thru the gateway, I basically have no off-switch. So it's better for all involved that I don't even start with the sweets.
    Plan B is #6 I'll circumnavigate the globe running to burn off my indiscretions.

  17. I'm pretty much a #5-#8 category. I count calories, I work it off, I eat the low cal stuff and I say ef it every now and then too. A pie at the grocery store came dangerously close to being eaten yesterday. That would have been #8 talking. :)

  18. I pretty much leave desserts to special occasions, because it seems to start the cravings in me, and I hate saying no to myself!

  19. I'm a number 8. Once I've eliminated the allergy foods, I'm not putting up with anything more.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  20. I have employed all of those strategies and probably ones that I cannot verbalize because I was too sugared out to remember what I was trying to employ. I have tried the exercise if off option and found that I would have to walk around the world about 40k times to work off some of the nights of dessert eating that I've had. It's not worth the food to have to walk that far.

  21. I have a massive sweet tooth. I eat a little dessert every day, and a LOT of dessert once in a while. If my pants get tight, I eat 'a lot' a little less.

  22. Because portion control is a constant problem for me I guess I would fall into that category. As far as cutting back on sugar, that's different. One thing I like to do is instead of having something sweet at night (unless it's my treat day) I'll just have a bowl of cereal. A nice sweet bowl of cereal. I know cereal can pack Wollops of sugar, but nowhere near as much as a slice of boston creme pie or a half a dozen donuts.

  23. II am a planner. I plan to have my healthy ones during the week. like 10-15 organic animal crackers/cookies or a couple graham crackers at night for a treat & I always plan for a REAL BIG OLE fattening cookie or 2 on the weekend. I work out hard during the week & eat pretty clean so I am not worried about these choices plus I exercise a lot too.

    I never really go hog wild.. that is just me.

  24. I guess I do a combination of portion control, volumetric (less calorie dense for the volume), and planing. Eating warrior style makes it easier.

  25. I guess I practice portion control. A square of super dark organic chocolate is the perfect end to my day. :)

  26. I just find that the longer I stay away from them, the less I crave them.

  27. I love exercise erasure and if I have to spend an hour and thirty minutes in the gym to indulge, so be it but I indulge with Skinny Cow or LesserEvil snacks etc.

    I will make all kinds of exceptions for sweet potato pie though.

    People who don't have a sweet tooth are so appalling.

  28. Oh MAN you make me giggle!

    I find that I have to use all of these strategies depending on my mood. Luckily I'm getting better at figuring out how best to manage myself and my cravings, so I can pinpoint which strategy will be most helpful at which time. But in general, I do to some extent employ all of them.

    "Not that I plan to stop the tsk-tsking any time soon, but I do know I'm being a judgmental butthead." ME TOO! :)

  29. I control with a mix: I exercise portion control, exercise off the calories, and sometimes pick low-fat treats.
    how to grow taller

  30. I exercise portion control, exercise off the calories, and sometimes pick low-fat treats.
    how to grow taller

  31. you're SOOO funny, i was LMAOing (quietly because my mom's asleep) about the last thing on the list, i'm ALWAYS tsk-tsking at other people's food choices, my eyes usually become the size of saucers watching some people eat "suicide food" hahaha. I can actually feel MY arteries getting clogged, ick!

    Anyways, i go for making desserts out of healthful things so i don't feel bad about eating them and i can eat them pretty much everyday. Like cake made out of whole wheat flour and applesauce or yogurt (replacing the butter) with fruit in it and plenty of wheat bran or oat bran or whatever bran, and using only egg whites (sometimes 1 whole egg if i'm feeling kind of crazy, lol)

    See to me, if its good for me that makes it taste FREAKING AWESOME (even if it ain't) when i know something i make has like 4 grams of fiber and 5 grams of protein in it and it's chocolaty, moist and yummy it makes me want to jump up and down and it makes me feel so good about myself.

    If i know that something has like 5 grams of saturated fat, it makes it taste disgusting, actually my tongue thinks it tastes awesome, my brain is the one who want's to spit it out (stupid tongue).

    But when i DO get confronted with the real thing i tend to just have a bite (or 2 or 3, again if i'm feeling kind of crazy) and that's usually enough for me. I just want a TASTE!

    HOWEVER, and this is literally a big however, if i get left alone with the real thing and i'm, ahem, a little tipsy, that taste becomes a shoveling contest. Oh man! Next time i decide to drink i'm gonna have to duct tape my mouth shut, or super glue carrots onto my hands, mmmmm carrots...

  32. (I enjoy your writing so much).

    I could relate to all the disadvantages.

  33. I think eating in moderation would help. Mostly the problem seems to be that people don't know what a real serving size looks like. They cover half the plate with rice and still call it a serving when it's more like four servings. Too much intake and not enough burning of calories has the same result no matter which foods you're eating. Of course, pigging out on healthy food might at least keep the cholesterol levels in check...maybe...maybe not.

  34. Exercise erasure is my favorite tactic, but realistically speaking, I need portion control as well. Generally I'm OK with just having a little of something, but my downfall is when I have it with cheese on the side - the 2 balance each other out and I could go on forever that way!

  35. I'm a black-and-white girl. If I eat one brownie, I end up eating the whole tray. If I have one quarter of an eighth of a sixteenth of a slice of a pie, soon the whole pie is gone. I know no self-control; if I give myself an inch of leash, I'll start running and take a mile. On one of the whole-tray-of-brownies-and-a-dark-chocolate-mousse-cake day, I do a LOT fo cardio and try to get rid of it all, though sometimes I'm so blated from all the heavenly scrumptious delicious beautiful decadent.... *ahem* anyways I'm too bloated to actually do said exercise, and have to just about kill myself running the next day. Approach #8 made me laugh :)

  36. I loved the last approach. Made me LOL. Anyway, I generally try to stay away from sweets. I have fruits instead; when they are available. If not, I just enjoy a couple of bites of whatever dessert is available and move on with my life.

  37. The truth is, we can actually eat anything as long as we take food in moderation and in portions. Thanks a lot for these healthy facts.

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  39. Nice! Due to individual differences one must find the system that best suits oneself since this is the one that will work most effectively. And yes, always in moderation! Having a healthy body necessitates discipline. Don't miss out on those lovely treats but don't over indulge either.


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