If sweet treats are frequently on your mind, you're not alone. Dietitians also love dessert — and they have some helpful tips for finding healthy desserts that fit into your life.
"There is absolutely nothing wrong with having dessert every day," Emma Laing, Ph.D., clinical professor and director of the didactic program in dietetics at the University of Georgia and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells TODAY.com
“If you prioritize foods that are nutrient-dense most of the time, there is room in your eating pattern to prioritize desserts, as well,” Laing explains.
Theresa Gentile, a registered dietitian in New York City and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, is also a fan of dessert — especially chocolate. “Not a single day goes by that I don’t have something sweet," she tells TODAY.com.
Regardless of their nutritional content, desserts can be part of a healthy eating plan, the experts say. And desserts frequently provide so much more than just their nutrients.
"What we eat is of course important to health," Laing says, "but so is the connection, pleasure and cultural significance that comes from food — in addition to its nourishment."
Still, some desserts may work better for your nutritional goals than others. Here's what to look for and how to choose a healthy dessert, according to experts.
What makes a dessert "healthy"?
Some dessert foods naturally provide more nutrients than others. There's filling protein and fat in cheesecake and ice cream, for instance, and a berry crumble comes with all the fiber and antioxidants in those fruits.
“Incorporating desserts into your eating pattern that contain protein, antioxidants and healthy fats not only supports your health but can also help keep you feeling satisfied for longer,” Laing explains. “I turn most foods into a dessert if there’s a way to add chocolate or peanut butter to them.”
In other cases, you may find it helpful to swap out ingredients or add other elements to your favorite desserts to boost the nutritional content. Making brownies with black beans adds a big dose of heart-healthy fiber and a dense, fudgy texture, for example.
But food doesn't necessarily need to be nutrient-dense to be part of an overall healthy diet, the experts say.
"When we limit our view of food to merely a source of fuel, as a mechanism to curb hunger or as a tool to change our body size, we minimize its other important roles that also support health," Laing explains. "A delicious dessert can unite us with others, satisfy our taste buds, celebrate our cultures and traditions and reconnect us with treasured memories."
Think of a slice of your favorite cake on your birthday or a nostalgic family recipe served during the holidays. When viewed this way, an occasional dessert can be just as important and healthful as your weekday veggie-packed salad.
Meanwhile, restricting "bad" or "unhealthy" foods may backfire, the experts say, and can lead to overconsumption of those foods later combined with feelings of guilt or shame. The key is to maintain a mindful balance about what you're eating.
"There’s certainly room for dessert, but I also like knowing that I’ve met my nutritional requirements for the day," Gentile says. “I don’t eat treats mindlessly. ... I really try to appreciate and savor them because I also really firmly believe in balance."
Eating nutrient-dense foods most of the time will have far more of an impact on your health "versus a single dessert that might offer few nutrients but satisfies an emotional need," Laing says.
If you do find yourself feeling guilt, shame, anxiety or other negative emotions around eating, it may be worth examining those feelings with your doctor, a registered dietitian or mental health professional, Laing adds.
Healthy dessert ideas from dietitians and doctors
Oatmeal raisin cookies
Making cookies yourself is a good way to control the ingredients you include and it can also be a fun, creative outlet.
That’s why Whitney Linsenmeyer, Ph.D., assistant professor at Saint Louis University and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, always has homemade frozen cookie dough balls in the freezer. She often takes out just one or two at a time and bakes them fresh, Linsenmeyer told TODAY.com previously.
Any dessert with whole grains, like those found in rolled oats, can be beneficial for heart health, the experts say. And a classic oatmeal raisin cookie is the perfect vehicle to add oatmeal.
Oatmeal raisin cookies are also a good opportunity to experiment with alternative flours, like almond flour, which will add more protein and a denser texture, Linsenmeyer explained.
Ice cream with seasonal fruit and honey
On its own, whole milk ice cream contains a surprisingly hefty amount of satisfying protein and fat. And you can boost the nutritional content even further by adding fresh, in-season fruit on top.
Frances Largeman-Roth, a registered dietitian, likes to have her fruit and ice cream with a little drizzle of honey on top, as well.
Homemade sorbet or "nice cream"
Nice cream can be made simply by blending frozen fruit, like bananas, into a sorbet-like treat. You can also add other ingredients to modify the taste and creamy texture, like vanilla extract, chocolate chips, peanut butter or milk.
“It’s a way to get a whole other serving of fruit into the diet and it’s nice and refreshing — especially in the summer," Dr. Stephanie L. Gold, a gastroenterologist at Mount Sinai Hospital and an instructor of medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, told TODAY.com previously.
She's made great versions of this dessert with cantaloupe, plums and berries, and encourages people to use whatever fruit happens to be in season. “Anything that is ripe and delicious is fantastic,” Gold says.
Many of the health experts TODAY.com spoke to list chocolate — be it milk, dark, plain or with crispy mix-ins — as their favorite sweet treat, often eaten simply on its own.
Chocolate and peanut butter smoothies
Smoothies are the perfect opportunity to blend a bunch of tasty, nutritious ingredients together with some Greek yogurt or even ice cream.
For Laing, a chocolate, peanut butter and coffee ice cream smoothie is a consistent favorite. "If I have fruit, yogurt or spinach on hand, I will throw these into the blender (as well)," she explains. "The fruit and yogurt will create variable flavors and textures and I am not able to taste the spinach at all."
She'll also add some milk or dry milk powder to provide an extra bit of protein.
Once you've made your smoothies, don't forget to save a portion of the mixture to freeze in a popsicle mold for later, Grace Derocha, registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told TODAY.com previously.
She loves a classic green smoothie with kale, spinach, fresh fruit and Greek yogurt. But she'll also make a chocolate and peanut butter smoothie, too. And Derocha adds chocolate chips or peanut butter chips when freezing that one to change up the texture a little more, she explained.
Easy mug cakes
"Because of my busy schedule, I like microwave or no-bake dessert recipes," Laing says. "Chocolate cake in a mug that is microwaved with a bit of vanilla ice cream added on top is scrumptious."
Gentile likes to make a similar mug concoction with pumpkin puree and spices. Just pop it in in the microwave and "you've got yourself a little pumpkin souffle," she says.
Frozen yogurt bark
Gentile, Laing and Derocha all list frozen yogurt bark as an easy, go-to healthy dessert.
To make it, you'll spread out Greek yogurt on a sheet pan and sprinkle it with a selection of your favorite toppings, which can include things like pumpkin seeds, chopped nuts, fresh berries, chocolate chips and a drizzle of honey.
Once the mixture is frozen, you can break off pieces for crunchy yet creamy treat.
Nostalgic soft serve ice cream
Soft serve ice cream from longstanding chain Tastee-Freeze, is a family favorite for Largeman-Roth that reminds her of childhood.
“I always order a chocolate and vanilla twist with cherry dip,” she says. While it's not particularly nutritious, "I love it," she says, "and the whole family can’t wait for our annual stop for cones.”
Fruit crumbles, tarts, crisps and pies
This is a large category that's full of possibilities. As long as the dessert includes fruit, you'll get some nutrients.
For Gold, apple crisps and pear crumbles are fall favorites that feature in-season, nutritious fruits. And Dr. Elizabeth Comen, a medical oncologist treating breast cancer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, told TODAY.com previously that she always looks forward to her mom's plum tart.
Frozen yogurt with fruit and nuts
As with ice cream, frozen yogurt is a perfectly protein-packed base for fresh fruit and nuts. Together, the combination will feel satisfying and sweet thanks to the protein, healthy fats and fiber.
Dr. Mona Bahouth typically sticks with fresh fruit for dessert. But when she wants something more filling, she'll use fruit and berries as the topping for frozen yogurt.
“I like to maximize the benefit of the frozen yogurt by adding a few nuts and a couple of strawberries,” Bahouth, associate professor of neurology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told TODAY.com previously. “Together, this tastes terrific, has a lower sugar content and fills me up quicker.
Make your own frozen yogurt cups with granola and peanut butter.
A bowl of berries, chocolate and nuts
For cardiologist Dr. Helene Glassberg, a small bowl of antioxidant-rich berries and salted nuts balances out the sweetness and sugar of her favorite treat, chocolate.
“I’m not really a dessert person, but I usually want something a little sweet after I eat — and I’m a chocolate person,” Glassberg, director of the pre-operative cardiac clinic and associate professor of clinical medicine at Penn Medicine, told TODAY.com previously.
Grilled fruit with spices
In the summer months, many of the experts TODAY.com spoke to opt for grilled fruit as a post-dinner sweet. Try grilling pears, peaches or apples with cinnamon and serve them with a scoop of vanilla ice cream or a dollop of whipped cream or Greek yogurt. Or eat them on their own with just a drizzle of honey.
Chia seed pudding
One of Derocha's favorite snacks, breakfasts and desserts is the endlessly versatile chia pudding. This dish, which can be made in the fridge overnight, provides a whopping 9 grams of fiber per serving from the chia seeds. You can make it more savory with a peanut butter recipe or on the sweeter side with fresh or frozen fruit and chocolate chips.
Cheesecake (with optional substitutions)
As a dairy-based dessert, cheesecake naturally contains a good helping of protein that will keep you feeling satisfied. But if you feel like mixing things up, you can swap in some Greek yogurt or cottage cheese, Largeman-Roth says.
Black bean brownies
This falls into the category of "don't knock it 'til you try it," Gentile says. While black beans may not be an obvious choice to add to your chocolate brownies, the beans provide an exceptional serving of fiber, which is beneficial for gut health, heart health and blood sugar levels.
Chocolate, fruit and quinoa clusters
Adding toasted or cooked quinoa, which becomes crispy, to clusters of melted chocolate and dried fruit will give you a delightful mixture of textures, nutrients and flavors, Gentile says.
Beets are full of heart-healthy nutrients like folate and potassium, Laing says. So if there's any way to incorporate them into a dessert, it's worth the effort. One way is to blend beets into brownies, which adds some of the root vegetable's signature earthy sweetness to the flavor.
Banana oat cookies or balls
Another great way to pack the goodness of whole grains into a dessert is with banana and oat cookies, Gentile says. Both of those ingredients provide healthy soluble fiber.
You can also add peanut butter to the mix, which provides a bit of protein and some healthy fats. With the peanut butter, they'll also be easy to mold into a more portable shape, like a ball.
Fruit and Greek yogurt parfaits
Greek yogurt contains filling protein, and combining it with fresh fruit feels natural. You can sprinkle it with seeds or nuts for a little salty crunch or add some honey or chocolate chips for more sweetness.
Along those lines, Laing keeps small containers of vanilla Greek yogurt and pitted prunes in her office. "Adding these together is both sweet and creamy, and will satisfy my sweet tooth after lunch or as a late-afternoon snack," she says.
Tofu is a great source of vegetarian protein and the main ingredient in a sweet, silky tofu pudding. Derocha is partial to taho, a Filipino tofu pudding that's served with a sweet brown sugar syrup.
Made almost entirely out of egg whites, a light, delicate pavlova can be a way to get a little extra protein in your dessert, Linsenmeyer says. Have it with fresh fruit and chopped nuts to add more fiber and healthy, filling fats.
Red bean desserts
Desserts that feature red beans, like red bean buns and sesame balls you find at dim sum restaurants, can provide some protein and fiber from the beans, Derocha says.
Largeman-Roth recommends this delicate French dessert, which is made in a skillet with eggs and fresh fruit. Her favorite version also includes fiber-rich apricots and chopped nuts, providing 6 grams of protein per slice, she says.
A classic cheese plate isn't always the flashiest or the sweetest dessert, but don't underestimate how satisfying it can be, Linsenmeyer says. The cheese, of course, will come with filling protein and healthy fats, and you can pair it with fresh fruit, jam, seasoned nuts or a bit of chocolate to satisfy your sweet tooth.