Dietary devotees might shun the idea of indulging in a sweet treat. But the data doesn’t lie: if you’ve got a bit of a sweet tooth, it might work out in your favor. One recent study has found that planning to eat dessert could actually allow you to make healthier food choices overall, proving that everything really is better in moderation.
According to University of Arizona research, choosing your dessert first can promote healthier eating habits. It makes sense when you think about it; if you’re going to end your meal with something that contains more sugar and more fat, you can balance it out by choosing healthier foods and ingredients to enjoy beforehand.
The study’s results, which were published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, showed that participants consistently consumed fewer calories and chose healthier meals when they picked out a decadent dessert at the beginning of their meal. They didn’t have to eat the dessert first, but simply being aware of their selection was enough to make more nutritious selections during the rest of the meal.
The methods researchers used were quite fascinating. In the university cafeteria on four different days, researchers offered four different dessert selections physically placed in the food line. Fresh fruit placed before the main and side dish options; lemon cheesecake placed before the main and side dishes; and then both options placed after the main meal and sides. Approximately 70% of people who chose the cheesecake first made healthier choices when selecting their main meals and sides (in this case, chicken fajitas and a side salad, rather than fried fish and French fries). Only one-third of people who selected the fruit made healthy meal choices. Overall, those subjects who selected the cheesecake before choosing their meal components consumed roughly 250 fewer calories throughout the course of the meal as compared to those who selected fruit first. Not surprisingly, the people who chose the indulgent dessert last ate approximately 150 more calories than the people who chose it first.
The results were also replicated off-campus in a separate situation that involved adults putting together a hypothetical dinner delivery order. When those participants chose the chocolate cake first, they were much more likely to opt for a lighter entree (grilled lemon chicken versus chicken cordon bleu). The results were a bit less pronounced than those that were experienced during the in-person portion of the experiment, but they were still significant enough to support those initial findings.
So although U.S. Dietary Guidelines encourage us to eat at least 2.5 cups of fruits and veggies per day to reduce cardiovascular risk, it seems that selecting fruit first — and trying to frame it as dessert — might actually make us make worse choices (and eat more of them).
Prior studies have found that how we consume our desserts can make a huge difference in how likely we are to sustain healthy habits and maintain weight loss. Research from 2012 found that people classified as obese who followed diet plans that included desserts as part of breakfast actually experienced fewer junk food cravings than those who stuck to low-calorie, low-carb breakfasts. Other data has found that deprivation can, of course, lead to intense cravings that can cause dieters to end up eating more of the foods they were trying so hard to refrain from eating.
So if you’re a chocoholic and you want to decrease your overall sugar intake, you might want to indulge your craving just a little bit and taper off over a longer period.
In addition, you might swap out a calorie-laden dessert for one that will satisfy your urges without allowing you to go overboard. While milk chocolate contains 10 to 20% cocoa solids, dark chocolate is typically lauded as a more nutritious substitute that can actually provide some health benefits. If you make some desserts at home that contain dark chocolate and healthy add-ins like almonds (or even avocado!) and plan to eat them after your meal, you’ll probably end up making healthier meal choices and rewarding yourself with a taste of sweetness after. That way, you’ll have control over all the ingredients but won’t feel like you’re depriving yourself.
While these study results don’t mean that automatically choosing a rich dessert will improve your health or help you lose weight, the data is encouraging for those who might feel like they can never enjoy “bad” foods when they’re trying to embrace a healthier lifestyle. By prioritizing balance, rather than setting unrealistic expectations for yourself, you will likely be able to achieve your goals and enjoy what you eat.