Let dessert just be dessert

As we start the new year, I am bracing myself for what I know is coming. In an effort to stick to their 2018 resolutions, people everywhere will try to make their desserts…”healthy.”

“Can I use low-fat cream cheese instead of regular in that recipe?” “Can I use applesauce instead of sugar in those muffins?”


Here’s why that’s not a good idea.

In a class that I was a teaching assistant for this last semester, we read a study about milkshakes. People were given two milkshakes: one was labeled “indulgent” and perceived to be high fat and high in calories. The other was labeled “sensible” and perceived to be low fat and low in calories. When people finished the “indulgent” shake, they reported feeling more satisfied and had a steeper decline in levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin. After the “sensible” shake, people reported feeling less satisfied and maintained higher levels of ghrelin, i.e. they were hungrier sooner after finishing the shake.

Here’s the kicker: the contents of both milkshakes were the same. The mindsets of the participants were influencing their intake.

The same principle can be applied when we try to make desserts “healthy.” If we feel like we’re compromising on dessert we may not feel as satisfied after eating it. Or maybe worse, you’ve made the dessert “healthy” by altering the ingredients or adding a vegetable (e.g. carrot cake, zucchini bread, etc.) so now you use that as a justification to eat more of the dessert than if you had just left the recipe as is.

Not to mention fat adds flavor when baking or cooking. So when you sacrifice that full-fat cream cheese in favor of low-fat or fat-free, you lose precious flavor which might also contribute to feeling less satisfied with the end result.

Our Christmas cookie tray for a Christmas party this year. Cream cheese adds such delicious flavor to those cookies on the right! Recipes from sallysbakingaddiction.com

The critical error we make when we try to alter dessert ingredients is failing to recognize that all desserts and all ingredients can fit into a healthy diet. Instead of trying to alter or  replace your favorite dessert, get real with yourself about what really satisfies you. If you find yourself foregoing your favorite cookie and instead eating cheesecake bars made with Greek yogurt that you only kind of like, eat the cookie next time and forget the yogurt bars. Allowing yourself the real deal dessert that you want is healthier than feeling restricted any time of the year.

Homemade apple pie. Every bit as good as it sounds.


Brownell et al. (2011). Mind Over Milkshakes: Mindsets, Not Just Nutrients, Determine Ghrelin Response. Health Psychology, 30(4), pp. 424-429.

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