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Ice Cream: A Healthy Debate

Expert Advice

Ice Cream: A Healthy Debate

It’s officially the season of ice cream and Mass General’s Emily Gelsomin, MLA, RD, LDN, shares health information on a true New England favorite.

Emily Gelsomin, MLA, RD, LDN
July 12, 2022

July 17th is National Ice Cream Day, though this commemoration doesn’t seem necessary for New Englanders — we eat a lot of it. We are lucky to be home to so many excellent shops and creameries. While ice cream can bring joy, for some it is served dripping with guilt. If your feelings about the frozen dessert are complicated, read on.

First, let’s discuss what ice cream is not. It is not a health food, meaning our scoops and pints do not generally exist to reduce disease risk. This is okay. Ice cream does contain a moderate amount of calcium — about as much as a similar portion of steamed kale scooped onto a cone. Supporting bone health does not need to be a justification for consuming ice cream.

Did Someone Say Sugar?

If you are generally concerned about calories or sugar, it is helpful to remember these are inherent properties of ice cream. Modified versions marketed to be “healthier” are not necessarily preferable. By opting for light or low carb versions, you may sacrifice taste along the way. Sugar alcohols, like erythritol, are also often used in these products and they can cause digestive issues for some. As can the supplemental fiber added to improve texture or offset the carbohydrate content — eating multiple servings of some brands can deliver roughly half the recommended daily intake of fiber. Even if your digestive system is unfazed, we don’t have evidence eating fiber in this way is very helpful.

Plant-based options are also readily available. There are many reasons why someone may forgo dairy, but if reducing disease risk is the primary motivator, research supports opting for a handful of nuts or seeds instead. Plant-based ice creams can contain as much sugar as their dairy counterparts — and in some cases more. Studies show diets high in processed plant-based foods do not protect against chronic diseases, like heart disease.

What’s the Scoop on Portion Size?

As for the portion? Be wary of brands that encourage you to finish the pint, especially those promising a “guilt-free” experience. This is not nutrition advice, nor is it counseling — it is marketing. What we can do to make food feel less shameful is be mindful of how we talk about it. The way we view ice cream can ultimately influence consumption.

Labeling foods as “good” or “bad” can incite guilt and create a faulty moral highway between the food you eat and the kind of person you are. Avoiding foods you enjoy may also trigger deprivation, which can lead to eventual overconsumption, followed by guilt and feelings of failure. Repeatedly banging this drum can fuel disordered eating. None of this sounds enjoyable. And enjoyment is pretty much the whole point of ice cream.

The Conclusion

So what is “normal” when it comes to ice cream? It means sometimes eating ice cream when you are happy or sad or simply because it tastes delicious. It is also normal to skip ice cream, knowing it will be available another day. It is normal to occasionally eat more than you had planned.

But ice cream is just a dessert. It can’t fix your problems and it is not much of a therapist. So, when reaching for a cone, consider what you really want. Sometimes it might be human connection that you need. Other times, it could be the taste of black raspberry chip on a hot summer day. And that’s okay. The debate about ice cream is best focused on which flavor to choose — not on which option is “healthiest.”

Emily Gelsomin, MLA, RD, LDN
Emily Gelsomin, MLA, RD, LDN

Emily Gelsomin, MLA, RD, LDN, is a senior clinical nutrition specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital. As a registered dietitian, she counsels on medical nutrition therapy on an outpatient basis and is co-director of Be Fit, the hospital’s employee wellness program.

Jointly sponsored by The Clubs at Charles River Park and MGH Nutrition and Food Services, the 10-week program focuses on helping participants “Be Fit and Eat Right.” Every ten weeks, employees from different departments within the hospital compete with each other as they make a commitment to Be Fit. Through the creation of a social environment at the workplace, participants are supported to make progress in personal lifestyle changes with the help of a unique support system that includes a dedicated nutritionist and personal trainer.

Be Fit strives to create a milieu of wellness that extends beyond the 10-week curriculum by offering features to those who are not part of the intensive program. This includes the creation of Choose Well, Eat Well, a rating system designed to help both employees and patients increase awareness of healthy choices at retail eateries within the hospital. They also publish a timely nutrition tip each month.