Is Healthy Dessert Even Possible?

by | May 15, 2013

Photo by roygbivibgyor

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the dangers of sugar, and one reader asked:

So if you bake things from scratch with things like unsweetened apple sauce instead of sugar and whole grains and seeds etc… can they still be considered healthy? Like are healthy muffins or banana breads possible?

The reason this is hard to answer is because “healthy” is not a black and white word. Instead it is a fuzzy word with many shades of gray. That is because health is not made or broken by any single food, it reflects your daily choices and habits. Health is a pattern, not an event.

Adding less sugar or more nutritious ingredients may indeed move an item a few degrees in the healthy direction, but it won’t change the fact that a muffin is a muffin and will always contain some sugar and flour, and never be an example of healthy eating.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t eat a muffin and continue to be healthy.

The problem with a “healthier” muffin is a philosophical one, because the reality is we do not eat muffins for health. We eat them for enjoyment, which is arguably as important as health when considering your quality of life.

So is it worth sacrificing the pleasure you get from eating a muffin to make it slightly closer to something it will never be?

I think this answer will be different for everyone. For myself, it is definitely no. I’d rather eat fewer (or smaller) tastier muffins than any lesser version of the same.

But muffins don’t mean much to me, whereas for some of you muffins represent a cherished time with your grandmother, a Sunday morning ritual with your child, or some other deep, meaningful activity worth continuing regardless of health considerations.

In these cases, maybe there is a place for the slightly healthier muffin. Or maybe there is another habit you have that can be made healthier, so the impact of the occasional muffin is less significant.

Foods like muffins mean something different to everyone because they must be considered in the context of the diet as a whole. A breakfast muffin is certainly a worse idea if you had a 7 layer cake the previous evening, or if there are nachos in your immediate future.

The challenge for us as individuals is to be selective about which of our food habits we prioritize, which we drop, and which we upgrade.

It’s up to you to make the call.

Lastly, just to be sure we aren’t getting too serious with all this philosophy today, here’s the venerable Betty White describing her own delicious muffin.

Do you try to make desserts healthier?

Originally published April 20, 2011.

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52 Responses to “Is Healthy Dessert Even Possible?”

  1. Do you try to make desserts healthier?

    Absolutely not. I try to make them taste as good as possible so that I’m satisfied with one normal-sized serving. And by “normal-sized” I mean not the two-pound wedge of “death by chocolate” cake some restaurants call a single serving.

    That’s also why I prefer dark chocolate to milk, pumpernickel to white, pastrami to bologna, etc. A little bit of good food is satisfying. All the bad food in the world never will be.

  2. TD says:

    I have been wondering about this same issue for a while now. What I struggle to do is find the right portion for baking. It’s great to imagine and even eat a smaller portion of a rich cake, but what happens to the rest of the cake I baked? Who is gonna eat that? My husband is super conscious and eats tiny bits, and most cakes I have baked go bad in under a week. I have stopped baking cheesecakes at home because I know we will over-indulge if I bake a 9″ cheesecake. So how do others get around this problem? If you are a family of two and most cake recipes are meant for larger family size servings, how do you find yourself a smaller portion without wasting food?

    • Eleanor says:

      We have only two in our household, so when I bake a cake or a batch of cookies I usually divide it and put half in the freezer. Sure, we could eat the whole thing, but I’d rather not. Most desserts freeze really well! Well, not cheesecake, but cookies, brownies, cakes, muffins, if you wrap them properly, they come out of the freezer tasting as if they were just baked.

    • Natalie says:

      I struggle with the same thing – I just off-load the rest of the goodies on my husband and I’s co-workers. They definitely don’t complain, and you’re spreading the love that went into making it!

    • Elanor, that’s a great suggestion. I have exactly the same problem as TD, and should have thought of just freezing half right away.

      Hmm, that gives me an idea though. I’m going to start working up recipes for smaller portions of things.

    • nonimultasz says:

      If you want smaller portions, then bake smaller portions! I’ve seen these tiny cake tins which serve two, maybe three people. You just have to calculate the portion for the smaller tin and you’re set. The other option is expanding the family 🙂

    • Jenny says:

      I bake weekly for just myself! I bake gluten free and since I am the only one that eats my baked goods, I freeze them. I slice up quick breads and wrap each piece individually and then put it all in a freezer food storage bag. I bake cupcakes instead of cakes and frost them and then freeze. I make brownies in square shaped cupcake pans. At any time, I have a variety of baked goods to choose from in my freezer. I can grab something and walk out the door knowing I have safe food to eat while I am out of the house. I also cook meals this way and freeze in individual servings so that I don’t have to cook everyday.

    • melissa says:

      There are recipes where you just make it in a mug. Chocolate seems to be popular this way.

  3. Ashley Z. says:

    I’ve found that, with where I am with my “healthstyle,” I don’t crave sugary desserts anymore. Sugar isn’t a reward, but the way I feel when I don’t eat it is, if that makes sense (I’m more alert and active with my healthier choices).

    That being said, I do make myself good snacks in case I’m hungry after dinner, and fruit generally satiates any remaining sweet tooth I have. In fact, I crave the healthy things now, when before I would have craved sweets. That’s what really transformed my “diet” to a lifestyle, when I realized that I was loving the healthy foods and genuinely desiring them.

  4. Heli says:

    I loved this sentence: “The challenge for us as individuals is to be selective about which of our food habits we prioritize, which we drop, and which we upgrade.” It really rings true for me. I’ve eaten lowcarb for ~15yrs and I de-carb (upgrade) recipes all the time: taking breadcrumbs out of meatloaf, not adding sugar to anything, mashing cauliflower as a satisfying alternative to potatoes. But I don’t spend any time trying to create lowcarb baked goods. If I want a cookie (and I mean if I REALLY REALLY want a cookie–it doesn’t happen often), I make sure that it’s the best flippin’ cookie I can find, or exactly what I’m craving. And I eat extra carefully the rest of that day, and probably the next.
    There’s a new Ben & Jerry’s flavor I’d been dying to try. My evil/sweet husband brought some home, so I had a serving last night. It was exactly what I wanted, and it was delicious, but most of all, it satisfied that specific desire. The price I paid: I’m hungrier than usual today & have a slight sugar detox headache, no big whoop.

  5. Eve says:

    I was in a coffee shop this morning when a woman came in and asked for a cup of tea and “your healthiest muffin.” Oddly, the two young women staffing the shop had just been talking about a muffin one of them had made in which she’d been able to replace almost all of the fat with applesauce.
    I can only shake my head.
    Why try to change something that’s made of flour, sugar and, (best case, in my opinion), butter, into a supposedly healthy substitute? Sugar’s sugar. And whole wheat flour is still a refined grain.
    Like Ashley, I’m less inclined in general towards sugary things. But when I do want to eat a dessert, or bake a cake, I want it real, which means white sugar, white flour and really good chocolate.

  6. Nate says:

    Darya; I’m new to your site and I’m truly enjoying and learning from it.

    I teach pressure cooking classes and I like to find sites that have info I can talk about in class.

    I find your ideas on “healthy muffins” to be one of the most sensible and thoughtful takes I’ve read about trying to make things “healthy”. I will use these thoughts in classes, and refer people to your site.



  7. Peggy says:

    I’ve always lived by the “in moderation” view of dessert. I wasn’t blessed with a sweet tooth, so I don’t eat dessert often, so I feel that when I actually do eat dessert – it’s okay to splurge on something I really like (i.e. creme brulee and tiramisu)

  8. Jenny says:

    I’ve been modifying my scone recipe by substituting some of the all purpose flour with soy flour and a bit of oatmeal. I also use soy milk. But there is no getting away from butter and sugar (3Tbs) to make for a tasty scone.

  9. I think this also totally depends on your health history! I used to be a total carb/ sugar junkie and as a result have extremely tempermental blood sugar. I can eat a proper sugar laden dessert after a large protein heavy meal (christmas!!) without feeling too bad, but any other time I just get the massive jitters.
    For me therefore, eating cookies made with whole wheat and sweetened with maple syrup/ blended dates etc is a wonderful option because I still LOVE the way they taste but they dont make me feel terrible. However, I still eat those cookies as a treat – I dont regard them as a daily indulgence and I definitely dont eat the whole batch if I bake them. If you are using ‘healthier’ recipes as an excuse to eat more than its a terrible idea… but if you are subbing like for like amounts wise I cant help but feel its a better option. I know there are big debates as to how much better whole wheat flour/ maple syrup etc really are – but they do have SOME more b vitamins/ minerals etc and if my tempermant afterwards is anything to go by, have a much less detrimental effect on blood sugar. And therefore waistline :).
    With food I believe in balance first, quality second, moderation third, ‘healthy ingredients’ fourth… cover all bases and you’re laughing!

  10. Alice says:

    The pit too many people fall into is replacing their food crutches with things they think are healthy and then they eat too much of the “healthy” version because they think it’s OK because it’s “healthy.” Sweetening muffins with applesauce is replacing one kind of sugar with another. It’s still sugar, and many of us don’t do well with sugar at all, whether it’s in the traditional cane sugar form or as fructose.

  11. I don’t believe in healthy dessert…I believe in desserts that are lovingly made from scratch with high quality ingredients that are then shared with family and friends on special occasions. As for muffins, I bake them with real flour and sugar and butter on Saturday mornings, enjoy them with homemade Greek yogurt smoothies (for some protein), and then burn off the extra calories going for long walks and playing in the park with my baby boy later in the day.

  12. I eat desserts very occasionally, but when I do, I try to make them more healthful. The main reason is that I am pretty sensitive to refined sugars and flours, so when I eat a lower quality desserts, I feel like hell afterwards. I definitely notice a difference physically after I eat a dessert made with higher quality ingredients, especially in the sweetener department. But in no way am I deluded enough to think that means I can overeat it or that I am getting nutritional benefits from it. In fact, I acknowledge that even desserts with “natural” sweeteners will still perpetuate any addictions to sugar.

  13. Joe says:

    Taste buds are malleable, so we can always slowly reduce the sweetness of things bit by bite.

    Also, use a good sugar substitute. Stevia and Xylitol come to mind

    But beware what Dr. Mercola calls the neurotoxins; namely Aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal and Sugar Twin brands) and the new toxic kid on the block, Neotame

  14. Sarah says:

    I think it’s possible to train yourself to attain the same level of enjoyment from foods with lower quantities of sugar. But as always, even things that are healthy can become unhealthy depending on how it’s used.

  15. Dee says:

    Oh why oh why….did they invent dessert? …. The nemesis to my waistline….

  16. Patricia says:

    I want to share with you an amazing website that has offered some healthy alternatives to my desire to having sweets as well as other foods that can be fixed to accomodate for those who require a gluten free diet. Amy has also named other websites that offer healthy alternatives. My hope this will be useful in providing a better options or choices. My favorite is the carrot cupcakes! :)(

  17. Christina says:
    This is the best article I have read in a while on sugar.

    • Darya Pino says:

      Agreed! Thanks!

    • Jacqueline Nehama says:

      I agree with the author that we should never put the focus on one ingredient as the scapegoat. But I have read and listened to Dr Lustig’s work. As a physician, I find his arguments that sugar has played a central role in the rise of obesity in this country are compelling. And as to his calling sugar poison, I think he is exaggerating but doing so in order to emphasize how bad large amounts of added sugar is harmful. One of the best videos I saw on how to raise healthier kid was a 5 minute one from him giving the following advise:1.Feed your child a protein rich breakfast and do so daily 2.Keep sweets to an infrequent treat- he mentions in his family that is usually once on the weekends, otherwise dessert is a fruit 3.Have everyone wait 20 minutes before giving second portions. It takes that long for the satiety hormone to be released. 4. Have them earn their screen time eg.TV,computers etc with activity time. His advice seems incredibly sensible and I am trying to incorporate them into my families life and healthstyle.

  18. Dee says:

    Dessert to me, the very nature…. Sinful, smooth, decadent, soft, just sweet enough, pleasurable, usually laced with chocolate, sometimes alcoholic desserts, mudslides etc…. The one shot you take of that pleasure is never enough…especially if there is more or you have been served a big portion… Dessert is one of the reasons for my weight gain (along with KFC) all too often….making it healthy would remove those properties, then it would no longer be dessert… It would be food

    • Nancy says:

      “The challenge for us as individuals is to be selective about which of our food habits we prioritize, which we drop, and which we upgrade.”

      Well said.

      For me, right now, I want to eat foods that have the biggest nutritional bang for my buck. I also want dessert. I want it taste amazing.

      Impossible, you say.


      Chocolate-Covered Katie has literally saved my sanity along these lines.

  19. Julia says:

    When I was a kid, in the 70s, my mom went through a health-food phase (lots of people were back then) so we ate lots of home-made granola, home-grown alfalfa sprouts (which I actually love now) and cookies made with half whole-wheat flour and carob chips. But the worst was my brother’s first birthday cake — she made a carob cake with sour cream frosting that I think was also made with some whole-wheat flour. I’m not sure why carob was supposed to be so much healthier for you than chocolate back then. And it tastes nothing like chocolate. Anyway, the cake was so terrible, none of us could eat it. Fortunately my brother was too young to remember. But I think that’s when she realized that it was okay for desserts to be bad for you. And I’m firmly in that camp – I no longer have much of a sweet tooth but when I do have a little dessert I want it to taste good!

    • Darya Rose says:

      Hahaha, that’s horrible. My mom used to make these disgusting whole wheat cookies that we would inevitably end up having slingshot wars with out in the yard.

      • Kathryn says:

        I’m a 70s kid too – we had whole wheat cookies with tofu in them, everything carob, no soda pop, definitely no sugar. My mom put alfalfa sprouts on my peanut butter and honey sandwiches (just try to imagine the teasing at school)! While I fully appreciate that she was acting in my best interest, in the best way she knew how at the time, I have since embraced what – for me – is a more sensible and long-lasting healthstyle. And it does include occasional squares of dark chocolate, or really good natural vanilla bean ice cream, because those are the desserts I truly enjoy.

      • Jacqueline Nehama says:

        Sorry that your moms whole wheat cookies were so bad, but I make a mean whole wheat chocolate chunk cookie either with wonderful grass fed butter or with olive oil that my kids go nuts for. I found that certain recipes actually benefit from whole wheat flour because it gives an additional nutty flavor that is delicious. I do find though that you need to use quality ingredients. All whole wheat flours are not the same. I found that King Arthurs organic white whole wheat is amazing and can pretty much replace all purpose flour in most recipes except for very delicate desserts. The same goes for all my baking ingredients- I try to get the best quality (good dark chocolate,organic grass fed butter,unrefined first pressed extra virgin olive oil,organic unrefined sugar etc) and if I can substitute a “healthier” ingredient without sacrificing taste, I do. After all a little extra fiber is not a bad thing.

        Im trying to instill a love of good tasting and good for you food in my kids. Recently I made a deal with my daughter that if we both avoid all sweets during the week, we will bake an extra special dessert on the weekends together. We have fun doing it together and she gets to see how good quality treats are made. We eat a portion during a family dinner and freeze the rest to have for a weekend when time is unavailable. Hopefully, we can instill the good habit of enjoying really good tasting treats and not needing just any old thing just as long as it is sweet.

      • Deborah says:

        Jacqueline, your whole wheat chocolate chip cookies sound delicious! I’m new to baking and am looking for healthy recipes using whole grains, healthy fat and natural sweeteners. Would you be willing to share your cookie recipe? Thank you!

      • Jacqueline Nehama says:

        I cant take credit for most of the recipes. A good guide is the book I started with which is King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking book. I got it at Barnes and Noble. I started baking our bread using their recipes as well as the cookies I mentioned. As I got a feel for whole grain baking I have altered some of them. As I said the White Whole Wheat flour can usually be substituted 1:1 for all purpose except for very fragile deserts. When I’m in a hurry I use Olivio spreadable butter since it is soft straight from the fridge and I don’t lose time softening butter and in all honesty for most things I cant tell the difference as it has a good percentage of butter in it and the rest is monounsaturated oils. Of course I wouldn’t use it for butter cookies- for that I use the best quality butter I can get. On the other hand some of the spice cookies and cakes, or quick chocolate cakes come out great using light olive oil (light flavored not light as in calories). Usually, after making the recipe as found if it asks for melted butter, I will experiment with increasing amounts of olive oil. I have been pleasantly surprised that some deserts actually taste better than if made with butter. The one trick I learned is that if you make cookies with oil it pays to put the batter in the fridge for 20 minutes after spooning them onto a baking sheet. They bake up without spreading too much.

        One very important tip is get a scale to weigh ingredients. It saves on cleanup and is much more accurate.

        My chocolate chip cookie can be mixed up in 5 minutes using the olivio or you can take the time to soften butter.It is adapted from the book I noted above.


        1/2 cup softened unsalted butter or olivio
        3/4cup or 5&5/8oz brown sugar(I use organic dehydrated cane juice because it tastes better)
        2 Tbsp orange juice (this helps change the whole grain flavor. It works dont know why)
        1/2 tsp baking powder
        1/4 tsp baking soda
        1/4 tsp
        1 large egg
        1 tsp Vanilla extract (the real deal)
        1&1/4 cup or 5 ounces Whole Wheat Flour
        1&1/2 cups semisweet chocolate chips or chunks or substitute any portion of the chocolate chips with pecans or dried cranberries.

        If you have a stand mixer put in all the ingredients except the flour, the egg and chocolate. Beat with the paddle until the mixture is smooth. Add the egg and scrape down the bowl and mix (may seem curdled thats ok). The add the flour and mix until barely incorporated. I like to do the last mixing by hand and add the chips/chunks at the end. I scoop out portions onto a baking sheet lined with parchment or a silpat liner. If I have time I refrigerate it for 15 minutes or so before baking in a 350 degree oven for 14 to 15 minutes. Consider turning the tray around at the half way mark for even baking. Let them cool on the tray for a few minutes and the cool completely on a rack.
        Having memorized the recipe I can put this together almost as fast as a box mix.

        Two more tips: I usually make a double batch and spoon out equal portions using a small ice cream scoop (they come in different sizes and are great for making equal portions. I use the very small one for these cookies) and then I freeze them on a cookie sheet. I can then transfer them into a freezer bag or a tupperware and can bake a few at a time straight from the freezer (just add 2-3minutes baking time). That way in 15 minutes we have fresh from the oven cookies and just enough portion wise for that day. Helps with portion control and they are at their best flavor wise. My kids love them.

      • Deborah says:

        Jacqueline, thanks so much for taking the time to reply! Based on your comments re: light olive oil for spice cookies and chocolate cakes, I’m guessing butter or olivio is the only fat you’d recommend going with for this recipe? Ever sub out the brown sugar for honey? I’m willing to sacrifice some flavor/texture to avoid refined sugar and butter. Thanks again!

  20. Cathy says:

    I love this post because for me dessert is synonymous with enjoyment. If I have to tweak a recipe by using applesauce or a sugar substitute, it not only doesn’t taste as good as the original, I don’t enjoy it. Therefore, it’s not dessert.

    I grew up eating dessert every night after dinner, so I have happy, comforting memories of dessert. But today I’d rather eat one amazing dessert once a week than a mediocre or made-to-be-healthier one every night.

  21. Eric says:

    I guess that it all centers around our understanding of “dessert”. Does it refer to any post-meal nosh? Is it necessarily sweet/decadent?

    My favorite “dessert” is simply a spoonful of almond butter, an apple banana and a large pinch of coconut flakes. It finishes the meal really nicely. However, I would never describe it as sweet nor decadent. If I “need” sweet or decadent, I’ll make a pina colada.

  22. Jacqueline says:

    I know you are aware that there are a plethora of nutritional theories, and some of the beliefs contradict each other. Some of the comments here imply that butter is “unhealthy,” while others are promoting soy products as healthy; it wouldn’t take much searching to find research that negates both of these opinions. Coconut oil can be used in baking, and almond meal and coconut flour are wonderful grain-free alternatives to wheat flour. Gentler sweeteners such as maple syrup, honey, sucanat, date sugar, coconut sugar and others are available. Rolled oats are often used in toppings. High quality dark chocolate in small amounts should not be considered “unhealthy” in most circumstances. I have to disagree with you here, I do believe that healthy desserts exist.

  23. Phil says:

    Heard you on Dead to the World.

    Love love love the Betty White muffin video 🙂

    Thank you for your great insights and your humor.

  24. Asher says:

    Here’s a great “healthy” dessert that doesn’t have any grains or added sugar or sweeteners:

    Plain whole milk yogurt with raw almonds (or pecans) and some fresh chopped fruit (like an apple, strawberry, banana, pear, etc.).

  25. Mike says:

    About three years ago I started following a Paleo / Primal dietary lifestyle, but I was not about to give up dessert! I started adapting dessert recipes with a few simple criteria: No Grains, healthy fats, minimal added sugar and they had to taste great and retain the appropriate texture. I limit the sweeteners to honey, coconut sugar and maple syrup which are all raw and organic.

    You can find my adaptations at

    Enjoy in Moderation!

  26. fanny says:

    it’s all about the choices we make. for me, eating crêpes made by my belgian boyfriend is a wonderful thing. and for him, it means tradition, he makes them the way his grandma used to make them. but we’re not eating crêpes everyday.

  27. Catherine N. says:

    I do a mixture. If it can be made healthier and still tasty, I’ll do that. I don’t bake all that much, because it is just me. I do have a sweet tooth, but since most gluten-free desserts are not available in single sizes, I’ll have a good date, or a banana, or create something out of coconut milk. I have not had muffins in years… I used to like them. I’m a great believer in the art of moderation. But I do think it should be the best thing you can make. I suspect the label “healthy” makes us eat more of whatever it is…just like baked chips/ ‘healthy’ chips. And I think that is one of the biggest issues. My dad is on a low-fat diet. He used to come to the US, and binge on Enteman’s (sp) non-fat desserts. (They live abroad).

  28. Dave Taddeo says:

    it shouldn’t be a “healthy dessert” but more like a “better choice”. what do you figure?

  29. Chris says:

    If you want a healthy dessert then maybe you can choose to eat a slice of fruit in season. Although most muffins are not that “healthy” considering the amount of sugar in it, i think it’s ok to indulge yourself once in a whole. After all, moderation is always the key. 🙂

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