As a natural foods chef who also loves to bake, I often get asked about “healthy desserts.” Do they even exist? Which is best: whole wheat banana bread, a raw date-nut cacao truffle, or a baked apple? I say, choose whichever sounds most appealing to you. What I’ve found is when eating “healthy desserts,” the relationship we have with food is just as important as the ingredients. So before you read the nutrition label, check in with your own label first. I’ve broken it down into three ways we can improve our relationships with sweets physically, emotionally, and holistically.
Physically: Reset your palate
- Cut back on the white stuff. This may be obvious but, if you haven’t already, wean yourself off white sugar (even if it’s organic). I once heard the taste of white sugar described as “an entire orchestra playing one note,” which is hauntingly accurate of its harshly sweet taste. It’s also incredibly addicting, so cut back gently. If you like your coffee sweet, instead of switching to black, gradually reduce the amount of sugar you use over the course of a week or so. It takes only 10 days to reset the human palate and your body will soon appreciate the more nuanced, natural sweetness found in real, whole foods.
- Increase the amount of whole grains and cooked starchy vegetables in your diet. Not only do they provide sweetness, but their complex carbohydrate and B-vitamin content make them extremely comforting and relaxing to the body, which decreases the desire for sugary desserts like cupcakes. Grains to consider include oatmeal, polenta, and whole wheat pasta; vegetables include yams, winter squash, and beets.
- Use natural sweeteners. The complex flavors of maple syrup, honey, and maple sugar are all naturally satiating, meaning that after the flavors hit your palate, the body pretty quickly registers that it’s had enough and doesn’t want more food. That “one-note” taste of white sugar provides no satiety, so our bodies crave more and more.
Emotionally: Honor desserts for what they are – a treat to celebrate life
- Desserts are meant to be tasted and enjoyed, not eaten for nutritional sustenance. Don’t cram kale and protein powders into your desserts so you can justify having cookies for lunch. In order for the vegetables to be properly digested, your taste buds need to detect their inherent bitter and astringent flavors. These flavors stimulate digestive juices, and if we don’t taste them, our bodies don’t release the hormones needed get the metabolism going. (I won’t even get started about protein powders; one of the biggest causes of sweets cravings is from inadequate protein intake. Eat balanced meals with whole grains, beans, responsibly-raised animal protein, and good-quality fats, not just green juice, carrot sticks, and salads.)
- When you do have dessert, own it. Practice choosing food from a place of power, rather than feeling like a victim to your cravings. Sit down, breathe, pour yourself some tea, and savor every bite. Pay attention to your thoughts – are they full of pleasure and gratitude (“Mmm! This is heavenly.”), or of shame and guilt (“Ugh, I have no self-control, I shouldn’t be eating this.”)? The energy you put into your food is going to be reflected in how your body absorbs it. Stress raises cortisol, the hormone responsible for increasing inflammation and visceral fat, while feelings of joy and relaxation decrease it.
Holistically: Look at the big picture
- Taste the sweetness of life. Indulge in the pleasures of life by spending time outdoors, enjoying the company of friends, and doing what you love. Spoil yourself by taking a warm bath or buying yourself flowers.
- Take care of yourself. Get enough sleep and keep hydrated. It doesn’t matter how well you eat, you can’t feel great if you are tired, dehydrated, or stressed.
- Listen to your body. What does it really want? Do you feel fulfilled in your life, career, relationships, living arrangements, and daily schedule? Cravings are a sign of imbalance. Ask yourself the big questions and trust your body’s answers.