Can Desserts Be Healthy? 8 Tips for a Healthier Sweet Tooth, Plus 2 Recipes

5 years ago
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Can desserts be part of a healthy diet?

Yes, they can! When talking about desserts, I’m generally an advocate of eating small portions of whatever dessert you want, infrequently. The concept of “healthy dessert” is usually uninspiring. (It brings to mind the only batch of chocolate cookies I made in college that nobody wanted–-I used all whole-wheat flour and low-fat butter. I don’t recommend it.) However, as part of my day job as a physician, I was asked recently to teach a healthy desserts workshop for a group of patients with high blood pressure. Some of them need to lose weight, others not, but all of them are working on adapting healthier lifestyles.

Images: Courtesy of Linda Shiue

So I took the challenge. I thought about the healthy cooking principles I teach, and applied them to dessert. Here are my tips on how to include sweets as a (small and occasional) part of a healthy diet. And don’t forget to allow yourself the occasional “non-healthy,” decadent dessert for special occasions such as your birthday and major holidays. (Disclaimer: This post is not intended as medical advice. Please consult your doctor if you have any health conditions or special dietary requirements.)

Dr. Linda Shiue’s Tips for a Healthier Sweet Tooth

1. A perfect piece of fresh fruit in season is the best dessert.

2. As an occasional treat, enjoy whatever dessert you wish--in moderate portions and savored slowly.

3. Be mindful. You’ll get more enjoyment out of a few small bites eaten slowly rather than a whole portion eaten quickly.

4. Do the “dessert flip”--instead of a large dessert with a little fruit garnish, have a lot of fruit with a small piece of very good chocolate or a tiny piece a cake. (Idea from Mollie Katzen.)

5. Boost flavor with herbs and spices. Cinnamon is an example of a spice that adds a lot of sweetness without sugar.

6. Serve on small plates.

7. Use contrasts in texture, color, and temperature.

8. Share! Consider sharing one serving with someone else. If you’re making dessert, share it with your neighbors, or freeze some for another time.

Healthier Baking Substitutions

1. Grease pans with nonstick spray instead of butter.

2. Substitute at least some of the butter in recipes with healthier fats: olive oil, canola oil, Earth Balance spread. 50:50 is a good starting point.

3. Applesauce or prune puree can be used as an oil (but not butter) replacer in baked goods—reduces fat, calories and adds fiber.

4. I prefer to use natural sweeteners (sugar, honey, agave) rather than artificial sweeteners.

5. Substitute white whole wheat flour for at least half of the flour called for in a recipe.

6. Nuts are a good addition for fiber and vitamins.

Hidden Sugars—Look Out for Sugar Synonyms on Labels

anhydrous dextrose, lactose, brown sugar, malt syrup, confectioner’s/powdered sugar, maltose, corn syrup, maple syrup, molasses, nectars (peach, pear), fructose, pancake syrup, honey, sucrose, invert sugar, cane juice, evaporated corn sweetener, fruit juice concentrate, crystal dextrose, glucose, sugar cane juice

Class is over now! Now, for dessert:

Secret Ingredient Brownies

You might be skeptical at the ingredients in this brownie recipe, but you’ll be a believer once you taste them. The “secret ingredient” of black beans adds moisture and reduces fat and calories in these brownies, making these a less-guilty treat. Have fun with your guests and don’t share the secret ingredient until they’ve gobbled them up. They won’t believe it!

Makes 20 Brownies


1 15-ounce can no-salt-added black beans, drained and rinsed

3 large eggs

1/3 cup melted unsalted butter, more to grease the baking dish

1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (I prefer Ghiradelli’s)

1/8 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons cane sugar

1 cup plus 1 tablespoon dark chocolate (70% cacao) mini chips or chunks (Whole Foods 365 brand)


1. Preheat oven to 350°F

2. Butter an 8-inch baking pan.

3. Place the black beans, eggs, melted butter, cocoa powder, salt, vanilla extract and sugar in the bowl of a food processor and blend until very smooth.

4. Remove the blade and gently stir in the chocolate chunks.

5. Transfer mixture to the prepared pan.

6. Bake the brownies for 30 to 35 minutes, or until just set in the center. Cool before cutting into squares.

Adapted from Whole Foods’ “Flourless Brownies." (I’ve substituted more dark chocolate chunks for the nuts in the original recipe.)

Banana Cardamom “Ice Cream”

This is truly a guiltless dessert. If you can eat a banana, you can enjoy this ice cream substitute! It’s a great way to use up over-ripe bananas and a cool treat you can whip up in no time. You can make this without any spices, but I love the combination of bananas and cardamom, which brings a touch of sophistication that turns this from a humble frozen banana into dessert.

Makes: approximately 3 cups, or 6 servings


3 very ripe bananas, frozen and then sliced into 1/4 inch slices

1 /2 teaspoon ground cardamom (may substitute cinnamon, ground ginger or other spices, as preferred)

optional: 1 tablespoon of milk (any type), if needed

optional garnish: shavings of dark chocolate (use a zester or vegetable peeler)


1. Place frozen banana chunks in a food processor. Add cardamom. Grind until light and smooth—it will be just like ice cream.

If it seems difficult to process, add a tablespoon of milk.

2. Serve immediately with shavings of dark chocolate, if desired.

Nutrition Facts: 52 calories; 0 g fat; 0g sat fat; 0 mg cholesterol; 13 g carbohydrates; 1.5 g fiber; .5 g protein; 0 mg sodium; 211 mg potassium.

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