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Ice cream: Creamy comfort food or diet damaging dessert?

Go for the cold

Ah, ice cream. Some scream for it, and some run screaming from it. No other food recalls childhood, long summer vacations, and the just reward for cleaning one's plate quite like this cool creamy treat. However, as an adult, you can't help but worry about the health and ecological impacts of dairy. What about the fats, calories, points, carbs, glycemic indexes, GMOs and the carbon footprint of this dessert? If you have sworn off ice cream, read on to see if it is possible to simply enjoy your favorite childhood dessert again.

Woman Eating Ice Cream

Moo medicine

Dairy is, by nature's design, a "comfort food." Mother's milk, whether from a human mother or bovine mother, contains the protein casein, which breaks down into opiates in your digestive tract.

This unique effect of milk drives the survival instinct, since it encourages infants to keep eating, growing, and gaining weight. Opiates in milk also create a relaxed state and help the bonding process because babies learn to associate mommy and eating with pleasure (No wonder dairy is so good!). Dairy is like a drug, but at least it's a natural high.

Beware, Dairy

However, dairy is also a common allergen. It's one of the "big eight" foods that account for 90 percent of all food allergies, along with eggs, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, seafood, shellfish and soy.

Dairy allergies often manifest as headaches, acne and skin irritation, congestion, immune disorders or digestive problems. Lactose, a milk sugar, is responsible for minor symptoms such as nausea, bloating, cramping, gas and diarrhea.

Thirty to 50 million Americans are lactose intolerant, including 75 percent of African Americans and 90 percent of Asian Americans. Additionally, current research links dairy to cancer, diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol, heart disease and fertility problems.

The dairy eco-impact

The white stuff is hardly green. Dairy farming takes an environmental toll, including water pollution, soil pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from manure and other waste. Further, dairy farming uses large volumes of water and food crops needed to raise the livestock.

A lactating cow drinks 25 to 50 gallons of fresh water and needs 90 pounds of food daily. These are resources that could be put to use feeding hungry people, instead. And as recent investigations have uncovered, there is reason to be alarmed by the health and welfare of animals raised to provide food.

What about soy ice cream?

For the dairy-averse, there are soy-based ice creams that offer none of the bad karma or guilt of dairy consumption. These substitutes have become so popular and mainstream, they can now be found at any supermarket, not just the health food co-op.

Soy is a great food with some awesome health benefits if you're not into getting cancer, heart disease or osteoporosis, or want to ease menopause symptoms. However, faux foods like ice cream substitutes often contain too much sugar and long lists of ingredients you may not want, such as high fructose corn syrup, and a dizzying array of stabilizers, emulsifiers, and texturizers that don't really sound like food.

Soy is not care-free

Although touted as having a bounty of health benefits, there is also a dark-side to soy. Like dairy, soy is another common allergen, especially in children. Soy intolerance can take similar forms as dairy allergies or lactose intolerance, and people with thyroid conditions or immune disorders, or a family history of either, may want to avoid soy because of its estrogenic properties. Soy isoflavones can trigger symptoms like fatigue, weight gain, mood swings and depression.

There is legitimate concern about the proportion of soy we get in our diets relative to other foods, namely our over-reliance on it as a crop, the massive amount of pesticides and herbicides used in its cultivation, and GMOs.

However, if you know your ingredients, avoid highly processed foods, don't have allergies, and are choosy about organic soy, there is little reason to avoid enjoying it.

Whole comfort foods

Today, the ever-expanding universe of ice cream includes whole food-based desserts made from ingredients like nuts or coconut milk. Jeff Rogers' popular cookbook Vice Cream supplies home chefs with ice cream recipes starting with a variety of plant-based sources, including raw cashews, almonds, and hazelnuts. While not broadly available in markets yet, nut milk shows promise.

Coconut is a super food for health and the environment

Although tropical fats and oils got a bad rap in the 80s and 90s, coconut is making a comeback. Ecologically, coconuts are a very important crop worldwide. Cultivation of coconut presents a unique opportunity for economic stability in Asia and tropical latitudes, but as with any produce, it's important that it be organic and sustainable.

Many nutritionists, doctors, and naturopaths now believe coconut oil is the healthiest oil for human consumption. Naturally rich, cholesterol-free coconut milk is packed with lauric acid and medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). While saturated, these fatty acids are radically different than the long-chain fatty acids found in animal sources that increase cholesterol and lead to obesity, heart disease and cancer. Studies show that MCTs actually reduce the risk of heart disease and raise "good" HDL cholesterol.

Unlike other fats, MCTs break down very quickly in the body and are converted into energy almost immediately. There is evidence that they speed up the pace the body burns fat for fuel, thereby helping us lose weight, instead of pack it on.

Recent books touting the benefits of coconut, including its use in weight reduction programs, include The Coconut Diet by Cherie Calbom with John Calbom, and Eat Fat, Lose Fat by Sally Fallon and Mary Enig.

Coconut milk, oil and meat contain antimicrobial, antiviral and antifungal properties, and boost skin health, which is why it appears in cosmetics and moisturizers quite frequently. Weight loss, improved skin, and no allergic reaction: that's not asking too much from ice cream, is it? For the ultimate coconut ice cream experience, try Luna and Larry's Coconut Bliss, premium ice cream with no dairy, soy, or sugar and made from organic coconut milk.

And if you can't get enough coconut, try these Coconut Lovers Recipes or for recipes to make your own ice cream, try these easy homemade ice cream recipes.
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