If you’re sampling sweets every night—and you aren’t super disciplined during the day—then yes, dessert is that bad for you.
Of course, there are different types of desserts. Dark chocolate, nuts, fruit and mishmashes of those ingredients generally aren’t a problem. Knock yourself out. But we’re talking about the oldies and goodies here: Cake. Ice Cream. Cookies.
“Combinations of sugar, white flour, butter and trans fat are diabetes on a plate,” says Dr. Walter Willett, chair of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. Studies have linked these ingredients to obesity and increased rates of type 2 diabetes. So if you’re eating dessert most nights, you’re asking for trouble, Willett says.
Of course, when it comes to anything diet related, there’s always a gray area. And for dessert lovers, that gray area exists if you’re very active during the day and you generally eat a diet low in added sugars, says Dr. Rachel Johnson, a professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont and chair of the American Heart Association’s (AHA) nutrition committee.
It’s important to clarify what Johnson means by “added sugars.” These are the sugars that don’t exist naturally in the foods you consume. For example, most dairy products and fruits contain sugar in the form of fructose and lactose. But when you buy a fruity drink or flavored yogurt, those natural sugars are supplemented with more of the sweet stuff. A lot more, in most cases. And those “added” sugars are the ones studies have tied to elevated blood pressure, out-of-control inflammation, abnormal blood lipids and heart disease, Johnson says.
The AHA says women should eat no more than six teaspoons—or about 100-calories' worth—of added sugars per day. For men, that jumps to nine teaspoons or 150 calories, Johnson says. Most dessert foods contain that much sugar, or a whole lot more. And unless you’re making all of your own meals from scratch, you’re probably hitting or vastly exceeding that daily sugar allotment way before you reach for your evening ice cream. “Everything from ketchup and salad dressing to soups and bread will contain added sugars,” she says.
Illustration by Peter Oumanski for TIME
Johnson says super-active adults can eat a little more sugar without worrying. But even if you’re an exercise fiend, sugary dessert calories are still “empty” calories—meaning they’re not doing your health any favors even if they’re not hurting you.
Ok, you get it. Desserts aren’t good for you. (Surprise!) But if you love them and look forward to them all day, go ahead and have some, says Nyree Dardarian, director of the Center for Integrated Nutrition and Performance Coordination at Drexel University. “When you put rules and restrictions on something, you’re only going to want it more,” she says, which might be why recommendations to eat dessert just once a week or on special occasions often fail.
Instead of denying yourself the object of your affection—and thereby stoking its appeal—focus on portion control and breaking bad dessert habits, Dardarian says. You may be used to slicing pie generously or inhaling four or five cookies. But you’d probably feel just as satisfied having much less. “Don’t get in the habit of always having the same dessert," or the same portion, she says. And don't just eat out of habit: you may find there are nights when you’re not that interested in dessert.
And make it as cumbersome on yourself as possible to grab seconds, Dardarian recommends. If you put the cookies or cake back in its package and into the cupboard or fridge before you start eating, you’re a lot less likely to go back for more.
Johnson also recommends making your own desserts. The stuff you buy at the store is typically overloaded with sweet stuff (and chemicals.) But if you bake your own treats at home, you can substitute healthier oils, remove much of the sugar and toss in healthy additions like nuts.
“There are ways to satisfy your dessert craving in healthier ways," Johnson says, "if you’re thoughtful about it and willing to put in a little effort."