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.]

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