Updated: Dec 10, 2021
The combination of saturated fat, refined carbohydrates, and sweeteners defining the composition of most delicious baked goods is far from the ideal health food, but what's life without the occasional sweet treat, am I right?!
As a nutritionist, it's my job to encourage folks to optimize their dietary choices for their best health, so why would I also encourage y'all to embrace indulgence every once in a while?
Well, avoidance of sweets and the like is a loaded concept. When unpacked, constructs like weight management, body image, unhealthy restrictive eating, disordered eating, and toxic diet culture quickly bubble to the surface, just to name a few examples. These constructs are baked into our thoughts on food indulgence thanks to our culture, and they resonate both subconscious- and consciously at different degrees depending on who you are and what your experiences have been.
To put that in perspective, some folks may be triggered by being told they "should" eat a treat or even at the mere mention of unhealthy food.
Should is a word I use rarely and with caution. "Shoulding" on people brings about shame, and I don't mean to do that to anyone here. I use such a strong word in this post because I want people to know that being a healthy person doesn't mean eating 100% healthy food 100% of the time. (Folks with food allergies & sensitivities, this "should" is not for you when it comes to things that cause legitimate reactions and discomfort.)
In fact, you can eat really healthy and eat cookies, ice cream, and "insert your favorite objectively unhealthy indulgence food here."
Enjoy all your favorites, just do so in moderation because avoiding them altogether may have a greater negative impact on your mental and physical health than just allowing yourself to dig into the imperfect food.
Counter to popular belief, a meta-analysis on the benefits of intuitive eating (a well-researched eating style that encourages consuming whatever your body asks for) cites 17 unique studies to back up the evidence that,
"restriction of food intake is associated with higher Body Mass Index (BMI), weight gain, an increased risk for disordered eating, psychological problems such as emotional difficulties, body image concerns, and reduced cognitive functioning."1
On the surface, thinking that eating perfectly by restricting junk food (or any food, for example, dairy or gluten) from your diet will help you achieve your wellness goals, seems logical; however, the science clearly supports the opposite. Food restriction is actually likely to make you weigh more, sabotage your relationship with food, and be the cause of consequences that could negatively impact your health & life. There are some key reasons why popular thinking doesn't pan out.
First, junk food is everywhere! It's steeped into our culture. Think of some of the most common gatherings like weddings, a football game watch party, or a holiday meal. The wedding celebration almost always includes a cake, the football game will have nachos, burgers, ranch dip, beer, and potato chips, and the holiday dinner, no matter which one it is, I'll bet there's a traditional, delicious, and sugary dessert involved.
Those foods show up at gatherings for good reasons. Much of the time it's traditional, perhaps spiritual, and emotional, but mostly, those foods hold meaning. It can take a deeply rooted emotional toll on you and/or your friends and family members to deny food that carries such metaphorical weight, and that toll can accumulate over time.
Another reason why the "just be perfect plan" inevitably fails; we're humans! We're not capable of being perfect. We see the fresh-baked pie, we know it tastes good, and we feel a visceral response that says, "I want to eat that." Even if you choose to resist, you may be left with a nagging craving for sweets that could worsen your mood or lead to overindulging and possibly binging in the future.
So to answer the question of why this nutritionist is encouraging you to eat less than ideal food from time to time, it's because listening to your food impulses and cravings on occasion is actually better for you than trying to completely ignore them.
Personally, I have a sweet tooth, and sugar cravings are normal for me. When I was growing up, I ate tons of store-bought cookies, donuts, chocolate, candy, and hardly any whole foods. My parents were at a loss as to how to get anything besides carbs in me!
However, after years of eating a more plant-forward and unprocessed diet, I no longer crave those particular foods to satisfy my sweet tooth, and on the off chance I do consume one of them, I usually face consequences like a tummy ache, headache, and a dramatic trip up and down the mood swing roller coaster. Regardless of how I address it though, the urge to dig into something sweet comes up for me all the time.
Although it's totally fine to occasionally indulge in whatever it is you're craving, perhaps you're like me and prefer to avoid consequences that occur for you when you eat highly processed foods. Since I prefer to avoid the high blood sugar response that comes with eating most traditionally-made treats, I like to have my own homemade, healthier versions on hand.
What makes a sweet treat healthier? Generally, it comes down to nutrient quality & fiber content.
I consider a dessert healthier if it's made with an unprocessed sweetener like maple syrup, dates, honey, and even unrefined coconut sugar. These forms of sweetener are usually lower on the glycemic index, meaning they cause less dramatic shifts in your blood sugar. They are also unrefined and derived from whole foods, so they tend to contain other beneficial nutrients in addition to their carbohydrate content. For example, maple syrup contains polyphenols that are especially helpful for keeping your colon in tip-top shape.
Fiber is an important factor too when deciding how healthy a treat is. Higher fiber content keeps the sweet from spiking your blood sugar as much, and it provides the stuff needed to maintain a healthy microbiome.
Inflammatory ingredients come into consideration here too. Now, this is not true for everyone, but an egg-, gluten-, and/or dairy-free dessert tends to be less inflammatory for most folks. If you're someone who does just fine when consumingthe foods listed, then don't even worry about this part!
The type of fat used makes a big difference too. Saturated fat and processed vegetable-based fats are more likely to trigger inflammation and weight gain, so coconut, canola, sunflower, and safflower oil are typically on the less desirable list. Monounsaturated fats like olive and avocado oil are anti-inflammatory and are more likely to increase vitality instead of diminishing it. Also for the record, it's not recommended to bake or cook with fats high in omega-3 fatty acids such as flax oil because those oxidize at temperatures much lower than your oven or stovetop's heat. An oil oxidizing indicates that it's gone from being anti-inflammatory to pro-inflammatory if overheated, so it's best to save those low temperature oxidizers for dressings and drizzles.
There are more factors that can make a treat more or less healthy, but it depends on the individual who's eating it and the nature of the good itself.
When I get to baking, I typically use high fiber flours like almond, oat, or whole wheat on occasion. I avoid processed sweeteners and mostly use dates, apple sauce, and maple syrup, and if I can use a flax or psyllium husk egg instead of the real deal, I take the opportunity to add even more fiber and move that treat down on the glycemic index to help keep blood sugar stable. There are plenty more tricks than these, but the ones mentioned here are my easy go-to's.
Here are two of my favorite nutritionist-approved cookie recipes. One was created by yours truly back in the day when I lived in a ProMaster Camper Van and used to create recipes for folks who also lived the VanLife. The other was created by chef extraordinaire & fellow NUNM alum, Johanna Glaser of Gather Around Nutrition, a professional cheffing company operating in Portland, OR that caters to folks who follow therapeutic diets.
I often make double batches of these cookies and store them in reusable, silicone bags in the freezer so they're always there when a craving hits. And since they're in the freezer, there's no rush to eat them as they can last about a month in there.
2 nutritionist-approved cookie recipes
Healthier Choco Chunk Cookies
1 c almond meal
¼ c coconut flour
¼ tsp baking soda, heaping
2 tbs avocado oil*(see recipe notes)
3 tbs nut butter
¼ c + 2 tbs (or 6 tbs) date paste**
½ tsp vanilla extract
½ a bar of dark chocolate chopped
optional: a handful of nuts***
Preheat oven to 350F.
In a small bowl, whisk together almond flour, coconut flour, baking soda, & salt.
In a bigger bowl or standup mixer, combine oil, nut butter, date paste, & vanilla extract. Mix until smooth.
Add the dry mix a bit at a time to the bigger bowl with the wet ingredients, stirring to integrate the two, but don't overmix.
When almost fully combined, toss in chocolate chunks and nuts (if using).
Line a baking sheet with silicone. Use your hands to form dough balls about 1″ in diameter, & press them into cookie shapes on the sheet. They won’t spread or change shape at all while baking; don’t be afraid to pack them in pretty tight.
Bake for 10-12 minutes or until slightly golden brown.
Remove from oven, allow to cool for a minute or two on the baking sheet, and then transfer to a cooling rack.
Enjoy with a nice cold glass of hemp milk; eat within the week if storing in an airtight container in the fridge, or freeze in an airtight container (I use reusable silicone bags) for up to one month.
*can substitute with any oil that’s liquid at room temp or melt some coconut oil. I once made these with olive oil, & quite enjoyed how it balanced the sweetness.
**can substitute applesauce or liquid sweetener such as maple syrup
***pecans or walnuts are my favorites!
Cinnamon Tahini Cookies
(compliments of Gather Around Nutrition)
1 cup tahini
1/4 cup almond flour
1/3 cup maple syrup
1 tbsp ceylon cinnamon (saigon works too)
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 egg (or sub flax, chia, or psyllium husk egg*)
sesame seeds for sprinkles, optional
Preheat oven to 350F, & grease a cookie sheet or line with parchment paper or silicone baking mat.
In a large bowl, mix ingredients together in the order listed, except for sesame sprinkles.
Take ~1.5 tbsp of batter, shape into a ball, and place on cookie sheet, keeping each batter ball about two inches away from each other to allow room for spreading while baking. Sprinkle each ball with sesame seeds if using.
Bake for 10-12 minutes, or until just slightly browned. Allow to cool for a couple minutes; then transfer cookies to a cooling rack.
Enjoy immediately, store in an airtight container in the fridge for 3-4 days, or freeze for up to one month.
*To make an egg substitute, use 1tbsp ground flax seed, chia seed, or psyllium husk + 2 tbsp boiling water per egg. Simply combine the two, mix immediately, and allow to set for 5-15 min before using.
1. Bruce L, Ricciardelli L. A systemic review of the psychosocial correlates of intuitive eating among adult women. Appetite. 2016;96:454-472. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2015.10.012