How to Make Healthy Desserts that Don't Suck

Emmie Satrazemis, RD, CSSD
     
Emmie Satrazemis, RD, CSSD
Emmie Satrazemis, RD, CSSD

I have always been an advocate of just letting dessert be dessert - why do we always have to find a way to make our favorite foods less desirable just so they can fit into our diets? In reality, any food can be a part of a healthy diet, even your favorite sweets. Have a cheat meal and treat yourself from time to time. But make sure you're getting the bulk of what your eating right first. Otherwise you're just continuing to add unwanted calories and bad nutrition on top of an already struggling diet. 

Alright, alright, I get it. Sometimes you're not ready for a cheat meal, or your trying really hard to stick to your eating plan and just want a little taste of something decadent without the guilt. These days there are an overwhelming amount of so-called healthy or diet friendly desserts on the market and countless healthy dessert recipes on the internet. But which ones are actually going to keep you on track? What exactly should you be looking for? And is it possible to find dessert options that not only fit into your diet, but help improve it?

Look Beyond Calories 

Don't be fooled by traditional "healthy" desserts that only focus on calories or added sugar alone. While calories are the most important factor for weight loss, the quality of your choices is still really important. It is possible to lose weight eating nothing but sugary, high fat treats if your calories are right, but you will probably end up feeling horrible and increase your risk of multiple diseases over time from a nutrient poor diet. That 90 calorie candy bar may sound great, but is it also offering you any nutritional benefits, or just empty calories?

Dessert or not, what makes one option better than the other, is simply good nutrition. In other words, more of the good stuff like protein, fiber, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals, and less of the not so good stuff like sugar, trans fats, and empty calories - all within a desirable calorie range. Take a look at the overall nutrition facts label to see what exactly what you're getting. 

You should also ask yourself how heavily processed are your low-cal, low sugar dessert options? Are you getting simple ingredients, or is it created in a lab to taste like real dessert? Choosing more options with real ingredients will not only taste better, but can also play a role in calorie management. Studies suggest that choosing quality foods may help you lose more weight, and one study showed your body may actually burns more calories digesting whole foods compared to processed ones (1,2). Look for more products with clean ingredients you recognize as food. 

Create Your Own Healthy Desserts

One way to get more nutritious desserts, is to take control of the ingredients by creating your own. You can easily adapt a favorite recipe or create your own masterpiece.  And you can save even more calories by sharing the goods with friends and family. 

create your own healthy desserts cupcakes

Ingredients to Limit

You can quickly cut empty calories by adjusting the amount of sugar and fat you have in your recipe. Sugar and fat are found in just about every dessert imaginable to add flavor and texture. But they can add a lot of calories in very little volume and usually don't provide any nutritional benefits. Even most healthy fats, like heart healthy oils, are made up of mostly fat, calories and not much else. When it comes to these options, a little bit goes a long way, or you can avoid them all together. Here are some of the biggest culprits you'll want to cut back on: 

  • Butter
  •  Oil (includes coconut oil)
  • White or refined flours
  • Added sugars like table sugar, brown sugar, honey, maple syrup or agave
  • Heavy creams
  • Sweetened, condensed milk
  • Egg Yolks

Best Ingredients to Add Instead

You can still get a creamy, velvety texture to your dessert and a lot of sweetness with better ingredients. Opt for more whole based, healthy fats that contribute additional nutrients like protein and fiber from avocado, nuts, seeds and nut butter, or a creamy low-fat alternative like pumpkin and over ripe bananas. And swap added sugar with natural sugar from fruits and dried fruits.

Date paste will work in almost any recipe, and adds zero added sugar with a hefty dose of antioxidants and fiber. In fact, dates have the highest concentration of the antioxidant, polyphenols, compared to any other dried fruit (3). Chia seeds and flax seeds soaked in water can replace eggs for a vegan alternative, and canned beans, rinsed and pureed, are an excellent flour substitute for a gluten-free, high protein twist. 

healthy dessert recipe substitutions chart-1

Any chance you get to add naturally nutritious ingredients helps. Fruits and veggies, not only work great as fat and sugar substitutes, but they are the most nutrient dense food group - ensuring you are adding more health benefits and not as many calories to your recipe. While carrot cake make seem like a great start, here are some other tricks to consider:

  • Use beet juice to create a red velvet cake
  • Top cakes and tarts with fresh or frozen berries
  • Add fruit or shredded veggies to breads and muffins
  • Blend frozen fruit to make a simple sorbet or mix with Greek yogurt and refreeze for an easy low sugar fro-yo

Healthy Dessert Recipes to Try  

We did our best to pack as much nutrition as possible into some of our favorite desserts for you to try. Whether you are a chocolate lover or pumpkin fanatic, here are two of our favorite "healthy" desserts that wont disappoint your taste-buds or your diet: 

Vegan Pumpkin Pie Chia Pudding <- Click for full recipe

Gingerbread-Chia-Pudding-with-cinnamon-on-top

What Makes this Dessert Great?

Not only does this pudding make you wish it was Thanksgiving already, but it's vegan, gluten-free, and paleo, and has 9g of fiber per serving. 

Chia seeds absorb up to 12 times their volume when soaked in liquid, creating a natural gel texture that works great for puddings and smoothies. Soaking them can also make their nutrients more bio-available for absorption since their fibrous shell begins to break down. These tiny little seeds are great for weight loss because of this, as they draw water into your gut and help keep you fuller longer. This effect may also help lower cholesterol and promote better blood sugar control (4).

Nutritionally speaking, Chia seeds contain about 5g of protein per ounce and 9g of healthy fat. They are high in plant-based omega-3s, or ALA fats, which are not quite the same as the omega-3s you get from fish, but still offer great heart health benefits (5). 

Coupling these super seeds with a low calorie, low carb veggie like pumpkin adds loads of vitamin A to the dish. One quarter cup of canned pumpkin is only 25 calories and provides over 100% of your daily vitamin A intake - and so does each serving of this pudding. It's also a good source of fiber and potassium.

 

Dark Chocolate Black Bean Protein Brownies <- Click for full recipe

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What Makes this Dessert Great?

Contrary to popular belief, chocolate can be really good for you. It’s the added sugar and over processing that usually causes problems. Cocao is naturally full of antioxidants, fiber, vitamins and minerals. And it is one if the strongest "feel good" foods on the planet, promoting better mood, brain health and heart health (6,7). 

Look for the purest and highest quality cocao you can find. Avoid options that have been processed with alkali. Alkalizing or "dutching", is a chemical process used to treat cocao powder to taste less bitter and provide desirable qualities in many products. However, this process may also decrease the amount of antioxidants in the chocolate (7).

Wondering what's the difference between cocoa and cocao powders? Cocao is made by cold pressing cocoa beans whereas with cocoa, the beans are roasted beforehand. Cold pressing is thought to preserve more of the antioxidant capacity.

As if all this chocolaty goodness wasn't enough, these brownies are also made with black beans, protein powder, avocado and dates. Making them gluten-free and grain free, while providing 11g of protein, 6g of fiber and no added sugar.

 

For more great recipes and tips to keep your diet going strong, check out our Trifecta Community Page or download the FREE Trifecta app. LEARN MORE

 

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