Dessert sounds like one of those things that would be off-limits if you’re trying to eat healthily or lose weight. After all, they’re sweet and sugary, and many are loaded with fat and calories. Still, most of us have a sweet tooth that’s hard to ignore. Deny your craving for a few days and you may find yourself binging on desserts that are anything but healthy.
Instead of trying to suppress the sweet side of life, there may be a better way. Maxine Yeung, a registered dietitian and pastry chef, wrote in Self that there is a healthy way to enjoy dessert. As many "diet" desserts didn’t actually fulfill her cravings, she turned to eating smaller quantities of regular desserts, which seemed to do the trick. Additionally, registered dietitian Amy Kubal told The Daily Meal that she recommends "choosing treats that contain a mix of protein and healthy fats and that are low in sugar will leave you feeling both satisfied and gratified."
Is it possible to eat cheesecake without feeling guilty? What about chocolate-rich treats? We were surprised to find that more than a few options fit into our meal plans and satisfy our cravings. The following desserts are actually way healthier than you think.
Ice cream sandwiches can be healthier than you think
Something as indulgent as ice cream sandwiches would certainly be avoided by anyone watching what they eat, right? Not necessarily. Ice cream sandwiches do contain two high-fat ingredients: ice cream and cookies/cookie wafers. But putting them together actually gives them a major benefit over eating them alone: Portion control. Store-bought ice cream sandwiches are individually packaged, providing a predetermined number of calories and fat per serving.
The ice cream used in the sandwich also plays a role in how healthy it is. Light ice creams contain 50 percent less fat or 33 percent fewer calories than regular ice cream, according to the International Dairy Foods Association. Using skim milk helps some brands like Skinny Cow keep their ice cream sandwiches around 100 calories with only 1.5 grams of fat.
Registered dietitian Sarah Haas recommended taking things one step further and making your own ice cream sandwiches at home. It allows you to control the ingredients that go into the cookies and the ice cream, as well as the exact portion size.
Frozen fruit pops are often healthier than you think
It should come as no surprise that fruit is healthy. While most fruits contain high amounts of naturally-occurring sugar, they also contain fiber, which fills you up and keeps you from overeating. Fruit’s benefits don’t end at fiber; each fruit has a unique blend of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
Of course, turn that fruit into a frozen fruit pop and it’s not automatically a healthy choice. Julie Upton, registered dietitian, wrote in HuffPost that it’s best to choose kinds that are made with water, fruit juice, and fruit puree. A quick peek at the nutrition label will tell you if a frozen popsicle contains added sugars in the form of white sugar or high-fructose corn syrup.
It’s also incredibly easy to make your own healthy fruit pops at home. Food Network suggests blending two cups of frozen berries with one quarter cup of apple juice, a few tablespoons of honey, and the juice from half a lemon. Add in a pinch of salt and freeze the concoction in ice pop molds for at least five hours.
Baked or grilled fruit desserts are healthier than you think
If warm desserts are what you crave, look to a dessert centered around baked or grilled fruit. It can feature all the warming flavors of pie or cobbler without the heavy, fat-filled crust. Even a decadent-seeming grilled fruit dessert can be surprisingly healthy.
Keri Gans, registered dietitian and the author of The Small Change Diet, explained to U.S. News & World Report that cooking fruit reduces its water content, concentrating the sugars and making the fruit taste even sweeter. For extra sweet fruit, take things one step further and caramelize those sugars by cooking sliced fruit in a skillet, under the broiler, or on the grill.
For a rich but healthy dessert, try slicing pears or apples in half and coating them with a little maple syrup, ground cinnamon, and ground ginger. Then, bake them for about 30 minutes in a 350 degree Fahrenheit oven. Or, you can halve figs or peaches and cook them on the grill or in a skillet over medium-high heat. After about five minutes, they’ll be soft and caramelized. Serving baked or grilled fruit with a dollop of vanilla Greek yogurt and a drizzle of honey is an excellent alternative to the classic ice cream pairing, too.
Dark chocolate bark is healthier than you think
Chocolate can be surprisingly healthy, but it really all depends on the type of chocolate. Healthline explored the health benefits of dark chocolate, which has a higher cocoa content than milk chocolate. In addition to being a good source of fiber, iron, magnesium, and other nutrients, chocolate is also antioxidant-rich and contains beneficial polyphenols and flavanols. Dark chocolate may also be able to promote cardiovascular health. Interestingly enough, a 2003 study published in Nature found that these benefits may only extend to dark chocolate that isn’t consumed or mixed with milk.
That makes dark chocolate bark ideal because it can be made without any milk at all. Courtney Schuchmann, registered dietitian, told Aaptiv magazine that dark chocolate bark is a low-carb, low-sugar treat when made with low-sugar dark chocolate chips. In addition to the health benefits of chocolate, the nuts in the recipe also provide healthy fats. Make your own at home by melting dark chocolate chips with coconut oil. Fold in any additional ingredients (like nuts or shredded coconut), pour the mixture onto a baking sheet, and freeze it until it’s hard enough to break into pieces.
Chocolate-covered strawberries are healthier than you think
When you think of desserts associated with romance, chocolate-dipped strawberries probably come to mind. You might not realize that these romantic treats are healthier than you might think! Strawberries are not only high in nutrients and antioxidants, but they’re also high in water, so they don’t contain as many carbohydrates as some other fruits. Plus, they’re naturally sweet, so this dessert doesn’t need a lot of added sugar to taste great.
UCI Health recommends drizzling strawberries with melted dark chocolate instead of dunking them. While chocolate does contain many health benefits, it’s also a high-calorie food, so the drizzle will help you enjoy the chocolate in moderation. Simply transfer the melted chocolate to a plastic bag, snip off a small section of the corner, and squeeze the bag until the strawberries are covered with the desired amount of chocolate.
This dessert doesn’t have to revolve around strawberries, either. Chocolate pairs well with almost any sweet or tart fruit, like raspberries, mandarin orange segments, apple or pear slices, or bananas. Even juicy fruit like pineapple or mango works well.
Truffles can be healthier than you think
Chocolate truffles are rich and luxurious, but sadly, they’re not very nutritious. These bite-sized treats may be portion controlled, but they’re traditionally filled with a ganache, a silken mixture that combines boiled heavy cream with chocolate. Each tablespoon of ganache contains 80 calories and 3.8 grams of fat and that doesn’t even account for the truffle’s chocolate shell (via Cooking Light).
Luckily, it’s possible to make homemade truffles that satisfy your sweet tooth without breaking the calorie bank. Many truffles can even be customized to fit a paleo, keto, plant-based, and vegan diets. Instead of using fat-laden heavy cream to make ganache, healthier truffle recipes use naturally sweet ingredients. Try blending together dates, instant oats, and bananas to make the truffle base. Then add in your favorite flavoring ingredients, like shredded coconut, nuts, or nut butter. Roll the truffle dough into little balls and refrigerate for a few hours before dipping them in melted chocolate to emulate classic chocolate truffles. You can also roll them in cocoa powder for a light (but decadent) finish.
Oatmeal cookies are healthier than you think
When the dessert cravings hit, don’t reach for any old cookie. Grab an oatmeal cookie instead. Unlike chocolate chip cookies made with refined white flour, oatmeal cookies contain oats, a whole grain. SFGate also pointed out that oatmeal cookies — especially the ones made with raisins and whole-wheat flour — are higher in fiber than most other cookies. That lowers their glycemic index, making it less likely to experience a spike in blood sugar levels.
It’s easy to add extra nutrition to oatmeal cookies, too. Their grainy texture makes it more likely that you’ll enjoy them with the addition of dried fruit, flax or hemp seeds, or chopped nuts. You can also try replacing some of the flour with wheat bran. This high-fiber ingredient isn’t very palatable on its own, but it can be baked into cookies and muffins to make them more filling and amp-up their nutrition content. A study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, which surveyed over 1,500 participants, found that oatmeal cookies containing up to 50 percent bran were just as acceptable to consumers as regular oatmeal cookies.
Banana splits can be healthier than you think
Okay, first thing’s first: The banana split you’ll find on a restaurant menu is almost definitely not healthy. They may start off with the same base ingredient (nutrient-rich bananas), but the toppings contain less than nutritious ingredients. Vanilla ice cream and whipped cream are high-fat foods, chocolate syrup is often made with high-fructose corn syrup, and maraschino cherries contain artificial colors and a ton of added sugar.
That said, registered dietitian Amy Gorin told Everyday Health that bananas have a high nutrition content, including fiber, potassium, and vitamin C. They’re also naturally sweet, making them perfect for dessert.
Instead of making a classic banana split, try caramelizing halved bananas in a hot nonstick skillet to bring out their sugary-sweet flavors. Then, instead of topping the banana with the traditional toppings, try using low-fat Greek yogurt, dark chocolate chips, and fresh cherries. It will have all the same flavors as the original, but with a fraction of the empty calories. "This banana split is also the perfect way to utilize overripe bananas," Jenny Shea Rawn, registered dietitian, told the outlet.
Apple crisp is healthier than you think
Apple pie is the quintessential American dessert, but packaged pie crusts often fall short of the health mark. They tend to contain hydrogenated lard, artificial coloring, and preservatives like BHA and BHT. While these preservatives are generally recognized as safe, Berkeley Wellness pointed out that their health effects are unclear, and animal studies may point to them being a potential carcinogenic risk to humans. Even homemade pie crust is made with a ton of butter, which is high in artery-clogging saturated fat.
Luckily, apple crisp and apple crumble aren’t made with pie crust. They taste very similar to apple pie because the apple filling is also tossed with sugar and cinnamon. But instead of being enclosed in pie crust, these desserts contain a lower-fat streusel topping. Apple crisps are especially healthy because their topping contains oats, a high-fiber food that can help you feel fuller faster than toppings made with refined white flour.
Avocado chocolate mousse is healthier than you think
Chocolate mousse definitely doesn’t look like something that would be healthy. And, really, traditional recipes aren’t. They’re made by folding a combination of whipped heavy cream, eggs, and refined white sugar into melted chocolate. It creates a rich, light, and airy dessert that’s high in fat, calories, and added sugar.
As it turns out, another high-fat ingredient can be used to make mousse, but it happens to be composed of healthy fats. Avocados are high in monounsaturated fats, which are considered "good" fats because they can help raise HDL (good) cholesterol levels. A 2019 Penn State study also found that consuming an avocado a day was associated with lowering oxidized LDL (bad) cholesterol levels.
In an article for the Produce for Better Health Foundation, registered dietitian Alex Caspero suggested whipping up avocado mousse when you get a craving for ice cream or calorie-rich puddings. Simply blend an avocado with dark cocoa powder, almond milk, a splash of vanilla extract, and just enough maple syrup to make the mousse sweet without adding too many calories. You’ll be surprised to find that this dessert doesn’t taste anything like avocados and is every bit as satisfying as the original.
Chia pudding is healthier than you think
If you grew up with a chia pet, the idea of consuming chia seeds might sound a bit off. But it turns out those tiny seeds have become trendy for a reason: They’re an incredible source of nutrients. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics revealed that both the seeds and the sprouts are edible. The seeds, in particular, are a great source of fiber, protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and minerals like iron and calcium. Just don’t eat the seeds that come with a terra-cotta pot; according to Parade, they aren’t approved for consumption.
Chia seeds can be used in several different ways, but using them to make pudding is arguably one of the best. Food & Nutrition suggested combining two tablespoons of chia seeds with a half-cup of unsweetened almond milk to make a basic chia pudding. The pudding can be flavored with ingredients like vanilla extract, cocoa powder, or maple syrup. Plus, you can add in sliced or mashed fruit, peanut butter powder, or nuts to the mix if you like. Let the mixture sit overnight in the refrigerator, and it’ll be as thick as pudding by the morning.
Cheesecake bites are healthier than you think
Before you run to the Cheesecake Factory and load up on dessert, it’s important to note that not all cheesecake is healthy. In fact, most cheesecake is not. According to Health, a single slice of New York-style cheesecake with strawberry sauce contains 891 calories, 60 grams of fat (33 of which are saturated fat), and a whopping 75 grams of carbs. It might taste delicious, but it probably won’t make you feel quite so good.
That doesn’t mean you can’t have your (cheese)cake and eat it, too! Registered dietitian Jennifer Pullman suggested taking your favorite desserts and turning them into small-bite treats. Instead of packing the crust and filling it into a pie pan, use a mini muffin pan instead to keep the calories lower. Pullman also makes her cheesecake with low-fat cream cheese and replaces half the sugar with Stevia, a calorie-free sweetener. Eat This Not That also recommend making smart ingredient swaps, like using coconut oil instead of butter or ricotta cheese in place of cream cheese.
Frozen yogurt can be healthier than you think
Ounce for ounce, most frozen yogurt is a healthier alternative to ice cream. SFGate broke down the details and explained that the biggest difference is the fat content. Ice cream is made with heavy cream, so it can contain 14 grams of fat per cup. On the other hand, frozen yogurt can be made with whole milk or even skim milk, so it can be fat-free or contain up to 4 grams. Frozen yogurt also tends to have fewer calories and contains beneficial probiotics that aren’t found in ice cream.
Still, it’s easy to get carried away with frozen yogurt. It may be healthier than ice cream, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t contain sugar — especially if you’re loading up on the toppings. In an article for Boston Magazine, registered dietitian Allison Knott warned that each half-cup serving contains about 100 calories, so be careful not to fill that 16-ounce container to the brim. Keep the amount of frozen yogurt to that half-cup serving, even if it looks a little silly in the cup. She also advised to choose toppings like fresh fruit and nuts instead of loading up on the high-sugar chocolate and candy options.
Strawberry shortcake is healthier than you think
Many of the healthy desserts on this list contain fruit — for a good reason. Fruit is naturally sweet and most contain fiber that can lower a dessert’s glycemic index, reducing the blood sugar spike after eating. Strawberry shortcake can absolutely be one of those healthy fruit-based desserts with a few smart ingredient swaps, of course.
You can easily lower the fat content of this dessert by using Greek yogurt instead of whipped cream. It’s even possible to make the yogurt light and fluffy by blending the yogurt with soy lecithin, a stabilizer that helps incorporate air into the faux whipped cream. Registered dietitian Rachel Hartley also recommended making the shortcake with whole wheat flour and almond meal. It adds nutrients to the shortcakes without compromising flavor.
When it comes to the strawberries, they likely don’t need to be sweetened when they’re in season. If you end up with a batch that could use a little extra sweetness, try using natural sweeteners like maple syrup instead of refined white sugar.