I love cookies. Chocolate. Ice cream. Peanut butter and chocolate might be the best flavor pairings in the world, IMO. I also love kale salads, chickpeas and roasted broccoli, but that's not the point of this article. Let me say it again—I'm a registered dietitian and I eat dessert every day. I also think it's perfectly healthy.
Now, before you get up in arms about added sugars or refined grains or question where I got my nutrition degree, let me explain. Dessert tastes good, I really enjoy it and once I eat it—it's not a big deal. There is no guilt, no shame, no banning brownies forever after I've eaten half a pan. It's just part of what I eat, along with vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, nuts and dairy.
I have the office candy bowl at my desk, which means I usually have some chocolate in the afternoon. And depending on the day and what I'm in the mood for I usually eat some ice cream, cookies or candy after dinner.
While too much added sugar isn't healthy, stressing about dessert isn't good for you either. Also, life's too short and dessert tastes delicious. Here's how I do it and you can too.
Give yourself permission to eat dessert
If you've ever been around a toddler, you know how much more desirable something becomes as soon as it's off-limits. And adults aren't that much different. Restricting food makes it more desirable. Whether that's limiting sugar, cutting out food groups (looking at you Whole30 and keto) or not letting yourself order what you really want at a restaurant.
Eating dessert may not be helping you meet your vitamin C needs (although strawberry shortcake can) or upping your protein intake (news flash: most of us eat enough protein), but it doesn't have to. And yes, dark chocolate has some health benefits—but that's not really why we eat it. We eat it because it tastes good. If you eat a variety of foods throughout the day, it's perfectly healthy to have some dessert. It tastes good. It's delicious and banning it from your diet makes it more irresistible.
Let go of guilt around food
Speaking of letting go of food rules, let's talk about a really big problem with diets. They label foods as good and bad. A brownie isn't "bad" and an apple isn't "good." They both satisfy you in different ways and both can absolutely be part of a healthy diet. And, if you eat a brownie, you aren't "bad."
Thinking about foods as "good and bad" and limiting desserts makes you more likely to binge and feel guilty when you do finally eat some. This can lead to feelings of guilt and shame and vowing never to do it again—and can set up an unhealthy binge-restrict cycle. I've heard people say so many times that they were going to restart their diet on Monday, or next month or at some point down the line. That sets you up for overeating foods now, that you foresee yourself cutting out in the future, and feeling guilty about it.
I think almost everyone agrees that a chocolate chip cookie is tasty. Have one (or two or three or four—it happens), enjoy it and move on. No guilt necessary. Also, if you find yourself unsatisfied with "healthy" desserts like low-calorie ice creams and reduced-fat cookies, you may need to indulge in the real deal.
What about added sugar?
Pictured recipe: Mug Brownie
It's true that most Americans eat more than the recommended amount of added sugar. The Dietary Guidelines recommend getting no more than 10 percent of your calories from added sugar. To put it another way, that's 200 calories (about 12 teaspoons or 48 grams) per day from added sugar on a 2,000-calorie diet. The American Heart Association has even stricter caps on added sugar: no more than 6 teaspoons a day for women and 9 teaspoons for men (about 24 and 36 grams respectively).
One scoop of premium chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream has 25 grams of sugar (and while most of that is added sugar, some is coming naturally from the milk). Our mug brownie has 13 grams of added sugar, well within the limits. Added sugar is also found in foods we don't think of as dessert—like cereals, yogurt, crackers and sauces. To make room for dessert, you can cut back on these sneaky sources so when you eat sugar you're actually enjoying it.
People with diabetes may need to be more mindful of their sugar and carbohydrate intake. But that doesn't mean dessert has to be off-limits. Making smart tweaks to desserts or adjusting portions can help people with diabetes keep their blood sugar in a healthy range (learn more about healthy desserts for diabetes here).
I am a firm believer that dessert should be enjoyed and that we all deserve to treat ourselves. Dessert every day may feel radical, or it may be very similar to how you eat now. Food is more than nutrients. It's how we celebrate holidays and birthdays. It should make us feel good, and sometimes that means a nutrient-dense salad and sometimes that means a chocolate-covered caramel.
And while, in theory, giving yourself permission to eat dessert will help you be satisfied with less, it's not a perfect science. If you're celebrating with lots of cake or traveling and checking out all the local doughnut shops or just ate too many chocolate chips straight from the bag, it's OK. It's just one day of many and won't destroy all your healthy habits.