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It happened just like that. You sat on the couch, spoon in hand, to enjoy a few spoonfuls of your favorite ice cream. Suddenly, you were staring down the barrel of an empty carton, with remnants of Rocky Road splattered on your chin. “Not again,” you cried. As you pondered a return trip to the freezer, you wondered, “Is ice cream bad for you, really?”
We’ve all been there (some of us more times than we’d like to admit). Ice cream is so creamy, and cold, and comforting. And delicious. It’s literally irresistible once you’ve downed that first spoonful. Yes, ice cream’s full of sugar and it’s high in fat, but you push those nutritional caveats aside as it’s melting in your mouth.
Is ice cream bad for you? Is it possible to enjoy it, at least now and then, guilt-free? Yes and yes.
Why Is Ice Cream Bad for You?
Warning: This section may be depressing for those of us who hanker for a tub of mint chocolate chip at the end (or beginning or middle) of the day. That said, it’s important to know what we’re putting in our bodies, so here’s the ugly truth about our favorite creamy escape.
Ice cream has a pretty substantial downside. Between those high sugar and fat contents and an ingredient that can cause potentially fatal gastrointestinal issues, this sweet treat should be enjoyed only in moderation. With that in mind, here are the details behind the bad news.
Just a half-cup serving (105 grams) of Ben & Jerry’s Caramel Chocolate Cheesecake Ice Cream Truffles contains 300 calories. How about a whole pint, which contains four servings (which we all know is easy to wolf down)? That would be a whopping 1,200 calories. Since you should be aiming for 2,000 to 2,500 total calories a day, that’s more than half of your daily intake.
That same Ben & Jerry’s ice cream contains 19 g of fat in a single half-cup serving, and 10 g of that is saturated (the “bad” kind, which raises our levels of LDL cholesterol). The American Heart Association recommends we limit our fat levels and cut back on saturated fat, making sure it doesn’t exceed more than 5 to 6 percent of our total calories—that’s about 16 g of saturated fat daily for someone on a 2,000-calorie diet. So one serving of our chosen sample exceeds that total.
Nothing good comes from sugar, except for taste. It rapidly boosts our glucose levels, causes us to absorb fewer vitamins and minerals, and can leach calcium from our bones. Plus, diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and osteoporosis are all made worse by sugar consumption. The American Heart Association recommends a daily limit of 24 g of added sugar for women and 36 g for men. One serving of ice cream contains about 23 g of sugar. (To learn more about sugar’s downsides, read our post Why Is Sugar Bad for You?)
Ice cream is high in carbs, which can be stored as fat if we don’t work them off right away. Consuming too many carbs can also wreak havoc on our glucose levels, putting us at a higher risk of diabetes.
This artificial sugar acts as both a sweetener and texturizing agent, claims Dr. Francis Collins of the National Institutes of Health. It also “depresses the freezing point of food,” he says in a blog on the NIH site, making it a useful addition to ice cream. Problem is, trehalose has been linked to a rise in potentially fatal infections from Clostridium difficile (C diff), a common bacterium found in our guts. According to Collins, some store-bought ice creams contain trehalose concentrations of up to 11 percent.
A bacteria that can cause serious illness, especially in those with weakened immune systems, listeria has been found in ice cream products at a rising rate.
LIGHT ICE CREAM: DOES IT HELP YOU LOSE WEIGHT?
“Light” ice cream may be lower in fat and calories, but it’s often chock-full of sugar to make up for their lack of taste. A review published in BMJ found that a person’s sugar intake was directly correlated with his or her overall weight.
Light ice cream also lacks the levels of protein and fiber found in regular brands—two things that help us feel full. The result: We eat more because a) We’re fooled into thinking it’s healthier and b) We aren’t satiated. Plus, our blood sugar levels spike due to the excess sugar, leading to more cravings. Frozen yogurt may not be much healthier.
Benefits of Eating Ice Cream
All of the above factors provide compelling reasons to swear off ice cream. After all, a smart diet is key to staying fit and healthy. But if the thought of forever banishing this cold treat from your menu seems harsh, we have a loophole or two that may enable you to indulge without (much) guilt. It’s important to be realistic, after all—although we’ll still preach “moderation.”
First, consider that eating ice cream can make you happy (no shocker here). The act of indulging in this treat can increase serotonin, a neurotransmitter sometimes referred to as the “feel-good hormone.” It’s thought that the carbs have something to do with this process.
Another bonus: “Although ice cream is calorically dense, it does offer some nutritional value,” says Laura Hartung, a Boston-based registered dietitian and nutritionist.
- Ice cream contains calcium, potassium, and magnesium, which help maintain healthy blood pressure levels. As we all know, calcium is also essential to strong teeth and bones.
- A half-cup serving of ice cream also boasts 5 g to 9 g of protein, which can help us feel full for longer while boosting energy levels.
- Other nutrients found in our fave frozen treat include vitamin A, thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin B6, and phosphorus.
Let’s be honest—we’re not going to break the nutritional bank by downing a pint of Chunky Monkey, but it’s enough to make you forget, momentarily, the question “Is ice cream bad for you?”
Eating ice cream can also improve our calcium absorption. In a small study, Dutch researchers offered 16 volunteers two types of calcium-fortified ice cream and milk with breakfast (sign me up for the next study, please!). Their goal was to determine whether fortifying ice cream would help increase a person’s absorption of calcium. Their findings: Calcium was as easily absorbed from the ice cream as it was from the milk. In other words, as the researchers wrote, “Ice cream may be a good vehicle for delivery of calcium.” Woo-hoo!
WHICH ICE CREAM SHOULD YOU CHOOSE?
“Choose the ice cream that has the fewest ingredients and follows a recipe you could make at home,” suggests Boston-based Laura Hartung, a registered dietitian and nutritionist. “As I search up and down the ice cream aisle at the grocery store, I’m overwhelmed by the selection and the ingredients lists.” Many of them, she notes, contain a ton of unhealthy ingredients, including trans fats, glycerin, erythritol, artificial colors, and gums such as cellulose, which is often made from cotton seeds or wood pulp. Yuck! She also recommends choosing an organic brand to avoid genetically modified ingredients.
Can I Still Eat It?
So can we ever eat ice cream guilt-free? “Yes, of course,” says Hartung. “Half a cup of ice cream can be worked into a healthy day of eating. Enjoy with friends. Focus on ice cream’s sweet, rich flavors and amazing sensory properties.”
As with everything, though, moderation and portion control are key. While some may be able to absorb that half-cup into an overall balanced diet, those of us who struggle to put down the spoon may need to limit this dessert to once or twice a week. “One serving, one pint, one day of eating ice cream isn’t going to ruin you,” Hartung says. “It’s what you’re doing on a regular basis [that matters].”
That said, if eating ice cream causes you to binge or leads you to suffer from guilt or depression, it may be healthier to opt for a different treat.
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This article was originally published in 2018. It is regularly updated.