So I love the surprise on their faces when I share I eat everything, including an abundance of carbs (it’s our body’s preferred fuel source, after all) and dessert on the regular. In fact, I recommend my clients and others do the same. Here’s why.
Full permission to eat all foods, including dessert, helps us take our power back from diet culture and develop more trusting relationships to our bodies and selves
Diet culture is an oppressive system that wants to keep us small and disconnected in every way. Consider how much space there would be for more meaningful conversations, ideas, and endeavors if no one was concerned about their body size or rigid food rules. So, one way to take our power back and connect to ourselves is to grant the permission to eat all foods, which includes desserts (except if you are allergic to an ingredient or truly do not prefer something).
“Diet culture sets you up to blame yourself for enjoying a simple pleasure in life; you lose confidence around your food choices and what you could and should be having,” says dietitian Patricia Kolesa, MS, RDN. “Giving yourself permission to enjoy all foods allows for a more mindful approach and more flexibility in your food choices.”
If we are following food rules set by external forces like diet plans, food lists or “lifestyle” plans (aka diets-in-disguise), we are not able to hear our body’s needs, cues, and guidance. Often, we end up feeling addicted to, or going overboard with, sweets if we make them off limits repeatedly.
Some of my clients imagine themselves feeling out of control around desserts if they have full permission, and there is often a “honeymoon period” of having more desserts. However, once the novelty wears off, they can trust and listen to their bodies, and they settle into enjoying a peaceful, relative balance of nutritious and fun foods like desserts.
“By giving yourself permission to eat a dessert, you eat it and you move on while knowing it will be there whenever you're craving it again,” Kolesa says.
Not having dessert can promote more physiological stress than eating it
Food rules, including dessert ones, create stress in our bodies and minds, and chronic stress is linked to illnesses like depression and conditions like heart disease.
“If white knuckling your way through that post-dinner dessert time is causing you to feel stressed, overwhelmed, and more restricted, you may actually benefit from allowing yourself to eat the desert instead,” says Caroline Thomason, RD, CDCES, a northern Virginia-based dietitian who helps women stop dieting and find confidence with food.
Putting rigid conditions on eating desserts is a form of disordered eating, which comes with food preoccupation, social isolation and increased anxiety.
“Reality is, the mental and emotional stress that can result from depriving yourself of dessert can actually cause more harm than any one food you could eat,” says dietitian Kristi Ruth RD/RDN, CNSC, LDN. Dessert rules can also backfire when we go for the “healthier alternative” versions of our favorites (like Halo Top over Ben & Jerry’s) and end up eating way beyond what our bodies’ fullness cues.
“Some people might find themselves eating more of the dessert-alternative thinking that it isn't as ‘bad’ for them,” Kolesa shares. “Some people finish off the low-sugar, low calorie ice cream containers and end up eating more compared to what they would have with regular ice cream.”
Additionally, Kolesa points out that sugar-free dessert options typically include sugar alcohols that can cause gastrointestinal stress for some people (like bloating and gas).
Eating dessert regularly normalizes them and takes them down from their diet culture-built pedestal
Once we restrict ourselves of something like dessert, it gets put in a place of power where it does not belong. Yet eating desserts regularly, which may mean daily or weekly, and may change from month to month or season to season, helps put them on neutral ground with all other foods.
“So often, I hear from clients that restricting foods makes them want those exact foods more often,” shares Thomason. “By giving yourself permission to eat dessert regularly, you take these foods off of the ‘bad’ list and normalize them as a regular part of a healthy diet.”
It also helps us to slowly remove unwarranted guilt and shame that often comes when we have that forbidden brownie sundae. Food gets to be good, and a cookie gets to be a cookie — nothing more — and we are not “bad” for eating it or “good” for skipping it. “By giving yourself permission to eat all foods, this can help with food neutrality and removing the moral value of food,” Kolesa adds.
Plus, Ruth points out that eating dessert regularly sends a positive message to those around us, including children, friends, and family members, “that enjoying dessert. without guilt while also caring about your health is possible.”
Desserts typically include essential nutrients from a range of food groups
Believe it or not, all desserts offer us some type of necessary nutrient (and often more than one). I never look at dessert foods primarily through the lens of nutrients but love to demolish the erroneous belief that desserts provide us with nothing nutritionally.
In fact, they are often good sources of the three macronutrients our bodies and brains need several times per day to function and thrive — carbohydrates (from dairy, fruits and grains), fats (from oils and butter) and sometimes protein (from nuts and dairy). They also commonly provide us with essential vitamins and minerals like vitamin D and calcium, as well as fiber and antioxidants (think dairy, dark chocolate, fruit grains and nuts).Plus, According to Kolesa there is good news for chocolate lovers — emerging research shows associations between chocolate consumption and improved depressive symptoms.
From cookies to cake, every dessert we love offers us at least one type of nutrient, and some offer us much more than expected. “Pairing your cookie or brownie with milk is one way you can get more vitamin D, protein, and calcium in your diet,” shares Kolesa. “If you're intolerant or allergic to dairy, crushed walnuts are an easy add-on, especially for brownies.”
Personally, one of my favorite desserts is fruit pie, crisp or crumble because it is warm, comforting, and satisfying, and it reminds me of my mom who passed down her recipe for apple crisp. Plus, nutritionally it provides me with energizing grains and fruits, along with satiating fats. Of course, I love mine warm with a side of ice cream (the real deal stuff, too!), another good source of bone-strengthening calcium and vitamin D.
Eating a delicious dessert is one way to experience pleasure in life—food is nourishment on physical and emotional levels
In my work with my clients, healing their relationships to food often means inviting pleasure into their lives for the first time since they were a kid. Somewhere along the way, they internalized diet culture’s messaging that enjoying one of the greatest pleasures in life—delicious food, especially dessert—is a no-no, and doing so often results in feelings of shame and guilt.
The thing is, we are not bad for enjoying food, including sweets—we are simply human—and we all deserve to take pleasure in eating. “Joy can be experienced from memories that accompany certain foods,” Ruth says. “You might have a relative who hums as they took a bite into a piece of pie or you may share the same love of chocolate with a grandparent.” For me, some of the most joyful memories of my life are of times when I sat around a table and ate a delicious meal that always ended with a mouth-watering dessert.
“Food is so much more than just calories and macronutrients. It is also connection with others, it helps with our emotional coping, and it is just fun,” Ruth shares. “I don't know about you, but I get pure joy out of having something chocolatey, especially when it's paired with coffee.”
In my own healing process, and in watching my clients, I believe embracing pleasure in eating, including desserts, can often have a domino effect into the rest our lives. We can more naturally give ourselves permission to enjoy other parts of being a human, like making love, taking in a sunset, having a slow Sunday morning or reading a novel — all for the pleasure of it.
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