Ice cream is a popular dessert logged by MyFitnessPal users — and for good reason. It’s hard to imagine summers or special occasions without a scoop of your favorite hard-packed flavor or a soft-serve cone. Still, you’d be hard pressed to find an ice cream shop, social or truck where you don’t hear at least one person lamenting about how they “shouldn’t,” will need to “burn it off” or are going to “be bad” just this one time.
As a non-diet, “all foods fit” dietitian, this drives me mad and tugs at my heartstrings. It’s not you or the ice cream that is bad or unhealthy, it’s the diet culture promoted through warped messaging from the media.
Here, a look at ice cream’s nutritional benefits, why it should be put on a neutral playing field and how it can play a role in a healthy diet.
Ice cream has energy, or calories, which we need on a daily basis from a variety of food sources like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and yes, fun foods like ice cream. Depending on the type, it also has a bit of protein (around 2 grams per 1/2 cup) and some fat (about 7 grams per 1/2 cup), which helps slow digestion and keeps us satisfied. Ice cream also contains calcium, which promotes strong, healthy bones and small amounts of other vitamins and minerals like vitamin A and magnesium.
Still, we also know ice cream contains sugar, which, when consumed in large amounts, can have negative health effects.
Despite some of the positives listed above, ice cream is often vilified for being “bad” or “unhealthy.” This black-and-white thinking diet culture wants you to associate with food — good or bad, healthy or unhealthy — does nothing but evoke feelings of shame or guilt around food. It can even lead people to associate morality with eating (i.e., thinking “I am bad because I ate ice cream”), which can lead to binge eating, yo-yo dieting and other negative impacts on your relationship with food and quality of life.
We can start to change this by thinking about food in a neutral way — not as black and white but as gray. Focus on including a variety of foods in your diet and add foods that may have been on your “bad” list gradually and occasionally. If one of those foods is ice cream, take yourself out for a scoop on a relaxed afternoon and savor it for what it is — a cooling and delicious sweet treat — then enjoy the rest of your day while holding onto those positive feelings. This can be much easier said than done, and working with a non-diet dietitian can also be extremely helpful.
Yes, ice cream can be part of a healthy lifestyle. Eating ice cream in moderation, if you enjoy and desire it, indicates a healthy relationship with food and gives you a lot more brain space to focus on other important things in your life. I often tell clients the stress caused by avoiding certain foods, like ice cream, because they are perceived as “bad” is a lot more harmful in the short- and long-term.
Let’s recognize that while vitamins and minerals are important, health is about the big picture. That means getting quality sleep, focusing on self-care, regularly moving your body, finding ways to support mental health and more. The foods that truly nourish you in a holistic sense can and should change on a daily basis. Sometimes that food is ice cream, and that is OK.