Dessert: To eat it, or not to eat it? That is the question. Whether 'tis nobler to eat fruit-based desserts because they're the healthier choice seems dubious.
And yet, when it comes to what we eat, we restrict our diets with uninformed nutritional judgments all the time.
An acquaintance of mine recently posted on social media that his choice to eat an oatmeal raisin cookie over other types of cookies, such as chocolate chip, was a healthy one. I can only assume his rationale was this: Since oats and raisins contain fibre and essential vitamins, eating that cookie was the more nutritious way to go. His post was probably intended to be tongue-in-cheek, but I can't help thinking about what it implies.
When we consider the salutary benefits of fruit-based desserts, there's a lot to unpack.
For example, consider choosing between a slice of apple pie and a slice of chocolate cream pie. Does the nutritive value of the fruit in a slice of apple pie outweigh the potential drawbacks of eating the fat-and-sugar-laden crust along with it? Does fruit maintain its nutritional integrity once it's been cooked? Are we so gullible as to believe any dessert, regardless of its ingredients, could be considered healthy? Or are we just kidding ourselves?
I asked experts from a variety of backgrounds to weigh in on whether fruit-based desserts are really a healthier choice. Here's what they had to say.
With so many fad diets out there, we've gotten confused about the true meaning of nutrition
We appear to be a nation of dieters on a never-ending quest to achieve optimal health by having our cake and — literally, we hope — eating it, too.
In a recent survey on U.S. dietary trends by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation, over a third of the respondents said they followed a specific diet, many of which include some combination of eating more protein, fewer carbohydrates, no sugar and fasting intermittently. However, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention research shows the average American consumes almost three times more than the recommended amount of sugar per day.
The U.S. diet seems to be all over the place. What gives?
Well, there's really no consensus on the best diet to follow or what it means to eat healthy. "That's the problem right there," says Dr Kima Cargill, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Washington-Tacoma and author of "The Psychology of Overeating: Food and the Culture of Consumerism".
Scientists and government experts can't agree on what qualifies as a healthy diet, she says, and people are less trusting of research results because of the frequent reversals on what's considered good for you. This may explain the increasing popularity of anecdotal evidence in the form of blogs and social media influencers for advice on healthy eating.
"Healthy dessert is almost an oxymoron," Cargill laughs. "Let's just say it's not healthy ... what makes dessert a dessert is sugar, and if you look at the research on sugar, [which has] been correlated to cancer and Alzheimer's; it's not healthy. It's wishful thinking, and marketers know that. They know people want the idea of a healthy dessert."
Marisa Moore, a registered dietician nutritionist based in Atlanta, takes a slightly different approach to defining a healthy diet. "I think you always have a choice about how you nourish your body," she explains, "which is important because it's about how you feel. But I realise carrots are not a substitute for chocolate. The goal is to look for foods that actually make you feel good, mentally and physically."
In terms of dessert, she urges moderation over strict elimination. "When I'm working with someone, I'm really looking at their entire lifestyle," she says. "When we talk about desserts, let's remember they're a part of life. I don't ever want anyone to feel like they can't ever have dessert. Go for it, but, try to have a smaller slice [of pie] and make moderate choices."
She focuses more on helping her clients reduce their total sugar intake by limiting their daily added sugar to six teaspoons for women and nine teaspoons for men, based on the American Heart Association's recommendations.
The cookie paradigm
According to the USDA's Food Composition Databases, the amount of sugar, fat, fibre and calories is practically the same in an oatmeal raisin cookie compared to a chocolate chip cookie of the same size and weight.
Paul Adams, senior science editor for Cook's Illustrated, told me via email that there's really only one scientific way to determine whether fruit-based desserts are healthier for you:
"By doing a longitudinal study where one population of people eats fruit-based desserts for years, and another population of people eats non-fruit-based desserts for years, and apart from that their diets and lifestyles are the same, and you look at the ultimate health outcomes."
"It's very tempting (and very common) to think of us as deterministic, like a car: put in a certain fuel blend and expect a certain result," he adds. "But we don't have the kind of understanding about how humans work that would allow us to state that a particular food or a particular nutrient has a particular health effect."
Regardless, we tend to think that way about our diet.
Psychology plays big-time mind games with our food choices
Melissa Bublitz, who has a Ph.D. in marketing and is the assistant professor of marketing at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, says that when it comes to deciding whether a particular food is healthy, we typically go one of two ways.
The first is to make an automatic and unconscious decision based on heuristic cues. As consumers, we do this all the time when we equate food labelled natural or organic as being good for us. This is often referred to as the halo effect, and marketing plays a huge role in leading us to believe this.
The second way we decide what to eat and why is by making deals with ourselves through motivated reasoning and moral licensing. In simple terms, yes, sometimes we are fooling ourselves.
"When we talk about something being more healthy than the alternative," Bublitz explains, "to mitigate the guilt we feel eating a fruit-based dessert – even if in our brain, we rationalise, 'it's a cookie, I shouldn't eat it' — feels like a slightly better choice."
Social motivations are yet another aspect of food decision-making.
"Some of us are more susceptible to trying to fit in than others," says Bublitz. "Sometimes this includes changing what we want or would normally eat. ... If you really want to order dessert and no one else orders it, you might feel self-conscious about doing it."
Another aspect of this is making your choices public, such as the earlier example of the oatmeal cookie post on social media. Bublitz thinks it can be an important tool for some dieters. "Making something like this public when you are dieting puts you on the hook to stick to your goal. It may even create internal pressure to not let yourself down."
We make some pretty weird assumptions about nutrition in the name of self-deception
The generous explanation for why we engage in these types of behaviour is that we genuinely don't know enough about health and diet, so we end up relying on assumptions. Cargill points out that the average consumer does not have a high level of nutritional literacy. But, she adds, we're also very good at self-deception.
"Rationalisation is one way we defend our choices," she says. Another is the practice of undoing, which is essentially participating in a certain behaviour (choosing the oatmeal raisin cookie) to cancel out another perceived bad behaviour (eating dessert).
Consumers may also experience analysis paralysis. "The abundance of scientific research can be so overwhelming, you can't make sense of it and put it into a few rules, so you end up eating whatever's there," Cargill explains.
"That's what cognitive psychologists call decision fatigue. You're trying to weigh all this evidence and variables and maximise the best choice, but you'd need a computer to calculate it all, so you just give up and get what looks good. I don't think people are in a great place in feeling confident in food choices. At a certain point, we realise whatever we actually do is the best thing."
As for whether any dessert, especially a fruit-based dessert, could be considered healthy, the experts all seem to be in agreement.
"Dessert is something we eat for pleasure, and pleasure is critical to good health," Adams concludes. "Stress and unhappiness are factors contributing to poor health. In general, I think that the 'X must be better for me' way of thinking is in itself not terribly healthy. If you're trying to micromanage the nutrient levels of each course you eat, you're probably not having a delightful time."
"Everything in moderation, of course," he adds, "but in my opinion, the healthiest choice is to eat the most enjoyable dessert. The stress of agonising over 'healthy eating' and settling for something that doesn't really satisfy you is more detrimental than any pie."