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Is Ice Cream Healthy...Ever? Let's Chill and Discuss

A few days ago, an article title caught my eye. The article, published online on Daily Meal, was titled The 20 Unhealthiest Ice Cream Pints On The Market. The author details twenty varieties of ice cream and their noteworthy nutrient contents to tell us readers that due to their indulgent makeup they are bad for our diets.

I told an acquaintance about this article, and she immediately laughed. I asked her why she was laughing, and she responded with my exact thoughts. Ice cream is not meant to be a health food.

Ice cream is meant to be a dessert food. A food that we eat for hedonic reasons. No one confuses ice cream to be a health food...right? I had to do a bit of my own research. Let's see if I can find ice creams that are trying to convince us they are nutritious.

Before beginning that search, I need to lay out some information. There is a legal definition for ice cream. To be called ice cream, a frozen treat must contain certain amounts of milk fat, milk solids, and have a specified minimum density. Ice cream-like products claiming to be healthy probably will not meet those criteria, so I will use the term ice cream how it is used colloquially. I will look for both ice creams and ice cream imitators.

scoop of ice cream

"Healthy" Ice Creams

Is ice cream healthy if it is made by a supposed healthy brand with supposed healthy ingredient? Do calories matter? What about types of sugar? Let's take a look at some brands that market themselves as healthy.

One of the first ice cream brands I found in my search is called Enlightened. If the brand name isn't enough to tell you their intent, they also label the front of their packages with calorie content and claims such as net carb amount. They use monk fruit extract, stevia extract, erythritol, and sugar to make various of their products sweeter, and they are made from skim milk to keep them lower in calories. Their products range from 390-650 calories per pint.

A popular brand with many flavors is Halo Top. To sell you on the "health" of their ice cream, the largest writing on the package is the calorie content. Their ice creams range from 290-360 calories per pint. They are sweetened with sugar, stevia, and erythritol and also made with skim milk.

Breyers has two product lines that purport to be healthy. The No Added Sugar ice cream caught my eye with their package implying that no added sugar means it is healthy. These ice creams are 330-390 calories per pint and sweetened with maltitol, acesulfame potassium, and sucralose. Their CarbSmart™ ice creams are sweetened with maltitol, acesulfame potassium, sucralose, and sugar and are 330-390 calories per pint.

Skinny Cow is a brand whose name itself is trying to give you a message. These products advertise calorie amounts on the package front and are sweetened with corn syrup and sugar. Although they come as sandwiches and premade cones rather than tubs, when the math is done to convert the serving into pints, they are about 500-625 calories per pint.

To bring in one more category, we will look at the organic ice cream brand Alden's Organic. Their package states they are USDA Organic, Non-GMO, and gluten free--all claims that many people associate with healthfulness. These are sweetened with sugar and tapioca syrup and made from milk and cream. These are 550-700 calories per pint.

Comparison "Regular" Ice Cream

Brands and products that do not pretend to be healthy are typically made with milk and cream, sweetened with sugar, and contain 750 to more than 1000 calories per pint. These are not advertised with healthy sounding phrases and words. While at first thought, you may say fewer calories equals healthier, let's take a deeper dive into this.

What Makes a Food Healthy? Is Ice Cream Healthy?

What is the definition of a healthy food? Or an unhealthy food? This question has no clear answer, but examining the aspects of different products can help you make a decision about what is most important to you in a food. All cow's milk based ice creams will contain some protein and calcium--nutrients we all need. An extra benefit of protein is that it helps us stay full after eating. Along that vein, fat in foods also helps with satiety, so that gives points to the full fat ice creams. It is reasonable to wonder about calorie content, and while the regular ice creams are higher in calories than the "healthy" ice creams, neither are particularly low in calories. Clearly, there are many factors that can give a food points in terms of health.

Food for Pleasure

When counselling patients, I talk about the two cups we have to fill when eating. There is the satiety cup and the pleasure cup. Unless both cups are adequately full, you will walk away from the meal feeling lacking and are more likely to come back to eat again soon. For many people, the "healthier" ice creams do not fill their pleasure cups as efficiently, and it therefore ends up being less satisfying.

How to Enjoy Food

Whenever you eat, and especially when you eat foods whose main purpose is for pleasure, it is so important to experience that enjoyment from food. Sit down, take a spoon and serve yourself some ice cream in a bowl, and put one spoonful in your mouth. Savor the sweetness as the ice cream softens to the shape of your tongue. Enjoy the smooth mouthfeel as you move the ice cream to the back of your mouth and swallow.

Often, when you can slow down and really enjoy your food, you will fill your pleasure cup quicker and think about food less between eating occasions. Which ice cream you choose becomes less important.

A Note on Binging

I think the nutrition challenge with ice cream stems from it being a food that is frequently part of binges. It gets a bad reputation from the guilt people who binge associate with ice cream. My patients who binge celebrate when they can eat ice cream--or any food really--and have the eating experience be calm, pleasant, relaxed, devoid of guilt, and intentional.

Bottom Line

I think we should choose ice cream based on our taste preferences. Ice cream was never meant to be a health food. It is meant to be a pleasurable food--a food eaten for enjoyment. So when you choose an ice cream, have that in mind. And when you eat it, give yourself the time to really enjoy it. This way you can get out of the ice cream what it was intended to give you.

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