What’s the skinny on low-calorie ice creams?

February 8, 2019 Providence Health Team

While low-calorie ice creams have fewer calories, less sugar, and lower fat than their traditional ice cream counterparts, dessert is generally not considered healthy.

When it comes to sweet treats, portion control is key.

Red Velvet, S’mores, Peanut Butter Cup, or Sea Salt Caramel? Yes, please!

If you’ve been in the frozen food aisle lately, you’ve probably seen some of your favorite ice cream flavors presenting themselves as low-calorie — and, therefore, healthy. Depending on the variety, an entire pint of low-calorie ice cream has between 280 and 360 calories. Halo Top, Enlightened, and Arctic Zero are popular options, but other top ice cream brands are also now offering low-calorie selections.

But wait just a minute. Ice cream is now healthy?

“Healthy is perhaps not the right term, because we are talking about dessert,” say Kari Ikemoto Exter, RD, CDE, a registered dietitian at Providence St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, and Alex Grove, a dietetic intern at the health center. These might be a good option for some people, they say, but others might be better off eating real ice cream that truly satisfies their dessert cravings.

“The big issue with low-calorie ice creams is behavioral,” says Exter. “People think that because these are ‘healthier’, it’s okay to eat more. But, for people struggling to find balance in their diets and navigate nutrition, this can send a really confusing message.”

Let’s break it down a little.

Calories. For individuals focused on limiting calories, this new ice cream trend certainly has the potential to be helpful. A half-cup serving of Halo Top Vanilla Bean, for instance, has a mere 70 calories, compared to Häagen-Dazs Vanilla, which has 250. However, before spooning in, consider whether you have the willpower to stop at just one serving.

Many of the low-calorie brands advertise the total calorie count for the entire pint right on the front of the package, sending the message that it’s perfectly fine to eat the whole thing. In other words, without some serious portion control, you might end up consuming more calories with the low-calorie ice cream, than if you’d chosen regular ice cream in the first place.

Protein. If you are under the impression that these ice creams are a good protein source, as their marketing often indicates, you might need to reframe this thinking. For comparative purposes, Exter typically recommends 21g of protein per meal. She also explains that the protein content of ice cream varies significantly brand-to-brand.

To put this in perspective, a half-cup portion of Halo Top Vanilla Bean boasts 5g of protein (Häagen-Dazs Vanilla, 4g), so the only way to obtain a decent-sized protein portion is to eat the whole pint – which, of course, is not actually healthy or recommended.

Fat. Low-calorie ice creams are generally lower in fat than traditional ice creams. Halo Top Vanilla Bean offers 2g; regular Häagen-Dazs Vanilla has 17g.

“However,” Exter adds, “Because real ice cream has more fat in it, it’s going to feel more satisfying.” She explains that the higher the fat content, the slower the digestion; in other words, traditional ice cream will quite literally stay with you longer.

Sugar. Low-calorie ice creams have less added sugar — 6g in Halo Top Vanilla Bean versus 20g in Häagen-Dazs Vanilla. Various sweeteners, such as erythritol and stevia, are used to replace real sugar. This might or might not be right for you.

“If you’re trying to control your cravings for sweet treats, consuming artificial sweeteners isn’t going to help,” suggests Exter. This is because sweeteners are even sweeter than sugar. Additionally, some people might experience stomach discomfort from sweeteners.

“People with diabetes must carefully watch their sugar intake because it increases the levels of sugar in the blood,” says Exter. “For people who do not have diabetes, I’d generally suggest using real sugar, but being mindful of how much added sugar you are consuming each day.”

Bottom line. Just because it’s relatively “healthy” doesn’t mean you should eat the whole pint. If you’re looking for dessert, you might be better off enjoying a small portion of something you really love, instead of choosing something that isn’t as satisfying.

“If I have a craving for ice cream, I eat Häagen-Dazs, and watch my portions,” says Grove. She suggests looking for a less-processed ice cream — with a short ingredient list — and remembering that portion control is important.

If you’re interested in giving low-calorie ice creams a try, Exter recommends Halo Top, which is most similar in consistency to regular ice cream. She also suggests trying other cold, creamy ice cream alternatives like frozen yogurt-based options, or making Banana (N)ice Cream.

Banana (N)ice Cream Recipe. This healthy sweet treat is all natural and provides fiber and potassium.

  1. Blend frozen bananas.
  2. Eat with a spoon!

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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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