If you are like me, “dessert” conjures up positive happy thoughts, feelings and emotions of pleasure and satisfaction. However, it is not unlikely that these feelings are also accompanied by feelings of guilt, in the short term, and regret, in the longer term. Guilt and regret are probably the two most self-destructive emotions we can have. So, what might you do to create a healthier physical and emotional life with dessert? Here are my structured thoughts about dessert and how I interact with it, and suggest ways for you to have your cake and eat it too!
Why do you want dessert?
The reasons you feel pleasure from dessert are simple – carbohydrates and fat! Your brain needs a steady stream of fuel to stay alive and function. And your body still thinks you are a caveman or cavewoman and its natural instinct is to store every bit of fat and carbohydrate you feed it. This primal survival mechanism is good but only within reason. We saw in a previous blog why things go awry when you eat too many carbs at the wrong time.
OK, so that was a simple biological perspective. But, what about cultural anthropology? Dessert has become an important part of many cultures. As we have transitioned from being agricultural to sitting around in office chairs, while our bodies are basically still like that of cavedwellers, instead of dessert becoming extinct like the use of spears and hunting clubs, sweet and fattening desserts have become more elaborate, more dangerous, and more avoidable.
And, never mind dessert, I have heard sedentary office workers in Mumbai protest when I am aghast to find sugar or jaggery in their daal (lentils) and vegetable curries – “it’s part of my culture, what can I do?”. So, while I can only shudder at the thought of what they call “dessert” (perhaps, “more sugar with less daal”?), I can appreciate why Mumbai is the diabetes capital of the diabetes capital [sic] of the world.
What can you do about dessert?
The first layer of choices are usually quite general! For example, if it’s dinner with friends, you might be presented with the following set of choices.
Even to overcome what you cannot control, you can be better prepared by simply following the rule “make/order/buy less than you think you need”. The key power of dessert that you must seek to leverage off is that “less is more”. Even if there’s less per person to dish out, the likely lasting memory of those that dined will be “that dessert was amazing, if only we could have had more”. And anyway no one actually goes home hungry!
Getting slightly more detailed, we could tackle the who, where, when, why, what questions!
I can be a little extreme at times and specifically try to avoid eating out with friends who clearly make unhealthy food choices. I don’t avoid the friends, just eating with them! I talked about learning to say no in an earlier blog.
When there’s a choice between eating out and eating at home, I always prefer home cooked food – whether at my own home or that of a friend. Although it’s not easy to criticize and avoid dessert made by a friend, the way to proceed might be to take a tiny serving happily (reduces the threat response in them) saying “it looks yummy, I’m stuffed, but I’d love to try it”. If you make sure that the first serving is tiny, you could take a second similar sized serving without doing any damage to yourself and at the same time pleasing your host!
Other than emotional reasons, a special event, a childhood favourite, there may be times when it might be OK to eat dessert. It’s usually not when you’ve just had a heavy meal. My wife no longer bothers even offering me dessert after dinner.
She’s more likely to ask, “Puru, I’ve kept some of that chocolate tart in the fridge for you to have in the morning after your run, would you like one slice or two?”.
If you’ve been mindful when eating dessert, you will have noticed that there’s a decreasing returns to scale with dessert consumption. The marginal pleasure from each additional bite goes to zero fairly quickly. The momentum of our greed takes a little longer to slow down. And, in general, it is good for you to be very aware of the fact that there’s about a 20 minute lag between you actually being full and your brain telling you that you are. It’s the main reason that children or adults who eat slowly, are rarely overweight.
If too much of a good thing is bad, things that are bad don’t get better the more you get of them. Remembering the idea of the jigsaw puzzle in a previous blog, it should be clear that sizes of dessert servings should be kept small in order to get the right balance of the various nutrient groups.
What should you eat?
All you need to do is Google “healthy dessert recipes” to come up with a range of possible desserts that will vary in their true healthiness. It is up to you to be intelligent about the dessert you pick. (One simple example off a supermarket shelf might be the bold marketing line “fat free fruit yoghurt”. Yes, it may have 0% fat. But, it’s likely to be extremely heavy in sugar (which is a carbohydrate, not a fat). Choose intelligently!)
If the key dangers of desserts are sugar, butter and refined flour, look for (or invent) recipes that have healthier replacements. For instance, fruit/dates instead of sugar, almond butter instead of butter, or quinoa flour instead of refined wheat flour.
If you are diabetic, or pre-diabetic, or suffer from other lifestyle diseases like hypertension, you will need special attention from your healthcare professional. One of the things to do to ensure that you don’t reach that stage in the first place is to think harder when faced with the question – what about that dessert? Then, you can have your cake, and eat it too!
Dr Purnendu Nath is a health and fitness guide with broad and detailed understanding of how rest, exercise and diet interact with motivation to prepare busy individuals and sports enthusiasts to achieve their life goals.