When your goal is stable blood glucose, traditional desserts present a challenge.
First, sweets are high in simple sugars. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about processed white sugar or a “natural” sugar like maple syrup or coconut sugar. In any case, the body easily breaks these sugars down into glucose, triggering blood sugar spikes. In the long run, excessive sugar consumption may lead to a slew of health concerns, including insulin resistance, Type 2 diabetes, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, cardiovascular disease, cognitive dysfunction, and even mental health and mood conditions.
The other problem with desserts? Along with sweeteners, they’re typically made with nutrient-devoid refined grains and processed oils. Any food containing a large quantity of wheat-based flour (including both all-purpose white flour and whole-wheat flour) is likely to spike blood glucose. And processed seed oils may contribute to insulin resistance.
“When you eat dessert, try to eat healthier, low-sugar alternatives that incorporate beneficial nutrients like fiber and unsaturated fat.”
In sum, desserts don’t offer much for us nutritionally.
If you eat an otherwise healthy diet, a single glucose spike is not something to feel guilty about. What you want to be mindful of is how often these spikes occur. Regular fluctuations in blood sugar wear on your body and can eventually lead to metabolic dysfunction. Additionally, eating a dessert after a large meal will release hormones (like insulin) that will change how your body processes that meal, potentially causing more of it to go towards fat storage.
A Better Way to Have Dessert
When you eat dessert, try to eat healthier, low-sugar alternatives that incorporate beneficial nutrients like fiber and unsaturated fat. Preparing your own nutritious desserts is an excellent way to ensure they aren’t laden with unhealthy ingredients. A few guidelines for making desserts that are better for metabolic health include:
- In place of white or whole-wheat flour, use lower-carb almond flour, cashew flour, coconut flour, or a mix of these flours. Or look for flourless recipes that use nutrient-rich ingredients like beans as the base.
- As much as you can, skip table sugar, brown sugar, honey, molasses, agave, and maple syrup. A little—such as what’s in 88% dark chocolate—is OK, but most recipes call for far too much.
- Natural non-nutritive sweeteners like allulose, monk fruit, stevia, and yacón syrup don’t appear to spike blood sugar levels. (Artificial sweeteners do have metabolic consequences; best to avoid.)
- Prioritize whole-food sweeteners such as dates, unsweetened applesauce, and bananas in limited quantities. Consider starting with less than what a recipe calls for, then taste and see if your taste buds desire more sweetness.
- Choose unrefined fat sources like nut butters, coconut milk, and avocado instead of oils when possible. When using oils, avoid ultra-refined seed oils in favor of avocado oil, coconut oil, olive oil, ghee, and grass-fed butter.
Ready to try your hand at some low-sugar desserts? The following recipes are a good place to start.
Unsweetened applesauce and dates provide all the sweetness you crave, as well as fiber, which helps slow glucose absorption to minimize spikes. The star of the show is black beans, which provide even more fiber and a little protein. Use dark chocolate chips or stevia-sweetened chips to keep the added sugars low.
Blend chickpeas, natural nut butter, and almond flour with vanilla and a touch of maple syrup to cookie dough consistency, then stir in dark chocolate chips, and you have a tasty treat that also provides fiber and protein. Try swapping in blueberries in place of the chocolate for extra nutrients.
Perfect for your next birthday celebration, this dessert sandwiches rich cashew-caramel frosting between layers of fluffy chocolate cake sweetened with dates. Be sure to use unsweetened almond milk to avoid extra sugar.
You would never guess this thick, creamy treat is made with avocados, a great source of healthy unsaturated fats and fiber. Start with three dates and taste, adding more dates one at a time if you’d like a little more sweetness.
For an easy yet decadent dessert, chop up a bar of 88% or 90% dark chocolate. Combine with a bit of coconut oil in a bowl and microwave, stirring occasionally until melted. Dip in strawberries and chill the fruit until the chocolate sets.
Not only are these sugar-free, to make them, you only need three ingredients: peanut butter, an egg, and monk fruit. This natural sweetener has zero calories and only half a gram of carbohydrate per teaspoon.
Trade sugar for monk fruit and refined flour for almond flour, and you have a cake that tastes like the traditional recipe. There’s also an option for monk fruit-sweetened cream cheese frosting.
Make this for dessert or breakfast. Rich coconut milk is also full of slow-digesting fats to support healthy glucose levels. And chia seeds and raspberries are both good sources of fiber.
A Nutritionist’s Healthy Holiday Desserts
The following recipes pair seasonal flavors and very little sugar. Recipes created by Matthew Kadey, R.D.
The best part of pumpkin pie is the filling, so toss the crust and make this decadent custard. Thick Greek yogurt is brimming with protein and, along with heavy cream, provides some fats to balance the carbs in pumpkin. No need to add sugar; a dash of vanilla and some spices bring out the pumpkin’s natural sweetness.
- 3/4 cup pumpkin puree
- 2 tablespoons maple syrup
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ginger powder
- 1/4 teaspoon cardamom
- 1/8 teaspoon cloves
- 1/4 cup heavy whipping cream
- 1 1/2 cups plain unsweetened 2% Greek yogurt
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Stir together pumpkin, maple syrup, and spices. Place whipping cream in a cold metal bowl and whip to soft peaks with an electric mixer or hand-held metal whisk. Gently fold in yogurt, vanilla, and pumpkin mixture.
Apple Dippers with Almond Yogurt
Make apples more fun—and blood-glucose friendly—for kids or adults by pairing them with a dip that contains fat and protein. Zingy lemon and ginger are balanced by the fruit’s natural sugars. You may not even need any maple syrup.
- 1 cup plain unsweetened Greek yogurt or unsweetened non-dairy yogurt
- 1/4 cup unsalted almond butter
- 1 tablespoon pure maple syrup
- 1 teaspoon lemon zest
- 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
- 1/2 teaspoon ginger powder
- 3 apples, sliced into wedges
Combine yogurt, almond butter, maple syrup, lemon zest, allspice, ginger powder, and a pinch of salt in a blender container. Begin by blending on low and work your way up to high speed until the mixture is smooth. Place yogurt dip in a serving bowl and serve alongside apple wedges. The dip is best served chilled.