No need to banish dessert as a “bad-for-you” food. In fact, researchers compared eating dessert with breakfast when eating fewer calories with no dessert at all. Both groups lost an almost identical amount of weight during the “diet” phase. But, here’s where it got interesting: After the dieting phase ended, those who ate dessert with breakfast lost an average of 15 additional pounds while those who restricted sweets regained 22 pounds. In other words, you can have your cake and eat it, too. There are plenty of ways to get your sweet fix in a healthy way — it just takes a little inspiration and innovation. We’re breaking down everything you need to know about guilt-free desserts, from easy ingredient swaps to simple recipes you can try at home.
What Are “Healthy Desserts”?
Definitions may vary, but it typically includes sweets that are lower in sugar, tailored to unique dietary needs (hello, gluten-free!), and made without (or very little) artificial ingredients or harmful fats. Other ingredients like dark chocolate and fruit can add a healthy boost, too.
In fact, Dr. Walter Willet, head of the nutrition department at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, calls the perfect healthy dessert a combination of the “Three Pleasures”—nuts, fruit, and (dark) chocolate. You could also add the fourth pleasure—a spirit like port—for the over-21 crowd.
How to Make Healthy Desserts
It’s not just buttercream frosting and dense cakes anymore. Thanks to a greater availability of versatile ingredients and a deeper understanding of specific health needs, as well as cookbooks and blogs that specialize in these kinds of guilt-free desserts, there are ways to make desserts fit into your lifestyle, no matter your goals.
Guilt-Free Sugar Replacements
Trying to reduce your sugar intake? That doesn’t mean you have to say so long to sweets. There are a variety of alternatives, but because sugar does more than just add sweetness — it also leavens, browns, and draws moisture from ingredients — it’s important to play around until you find the right sub.
Its thick texture is right for ice cream, pudding, and caramels. If your recipe calls for creaming — like when butter and sugar are blended — you can opt for evaporated maple syrup, which comes in granule form like sugar.
The consistency is similar to maple syrup, but honey dries out quicker than refined sugar. Use it in cookies, cakes, and quick breads. Since it’s sweeter than sugar, aim for a generous 3/4 cup of honey for every cup of sugar. It also comes in a variety of flavors, so you can find the profile that works for your taste buds.
Add a date to your blender when making almond milk (see below!), chop them up for brownies, or boil them down to honey-like consistency to create date syrup. Use 2/3 cup of date syrup for every 1 cup of sugar.
Cookies, frosting, and shortbread can benefit from coconut sugar derived from coconut blossoms. It’s on the dry side, so make sure to even things out with moisture-rich companions like mashed bananas or applesauce.
Healthy Desserts: Dairy Swaps
If you can’t tolerate dairy or are just looking to scale back, try these milk swaps:
Considered one of the closest substitutes for dairy milk, this alternative offers a creamy texture and subtle nutty taste. And oat milk isn’t just a great coffee creamer, it works in cakes, muffins, breads, and more. Use it as a 1:1 swap.
You can use the same amount of almond milk as you would dairy milk, but since the former’s water content is higher, your baked goods may rise and set a little faster. You also might want to go for a lightly sweetened version (as opposed to zero sugar) to align with the natural sweetness in cow’s milk.
Thanks to a similar protein profile, soy milk is an easy, mild-flavored sub for dairy milk when you want to go nut-free.
Does your recipe call for heavy cream? Reach for canned coconut milk, a rich, dairy-free replacement loaded with protein and satiating fat. Once you pop open the lid, make sure to mix the thick cream at the top with the more watery portion to get the perfect consistency.
Guilt-Free Desserts: Gluten Swaps
A new league of gluten-free flours has opened up versatile subs for refined flour. Keep in mind that if your recipe calls for all-purpose or wheat flours, replacing it with one of the gluten-free options below may take a little trial and error to achieve the right texture:
A mild flavor and 1:1 ratio make this gluten-free option an easy swap for all-purpose flour.
It’s loved as a low-carb option, but because it’s extremely absorbent, pay attention to portions. In general, use ¼ – ⅓ of a cup of coconut flour for every 1 cup of regular wheat flour.
Made from the root of the cassava plant, this gluten-free flour has a fine texture and nutty flavor that make it great for breads, muffins, brownies, and pizza dough. While many call it a 1:1 swap, since cassava flour is more absorbent, it’s a good idea to reduce the amount you use. This is one you’ll probably need to experiment with.
This cornstarch alternative — sourced from the starches of various tropical fruits — can help thicken up gluten-free recipes and give desserts their shape.
Guilt-Free Desserts: Superfood Swaps
Chia and Ground Flax Seeds
In addition to touting protein and fiber, these seeds are a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are crucial to brain health. Try them in a vanilla chia seed pudding and energy bites. Flaxseed meal is also a great substitute for eggs.
The higher the percentage of cocoa, the greater the antioxidant benefits (and the less the sugar). If you’re making brownies or chocolate chip cookies, swap in dark chocolate chips that are 70% cocoa or higher.
Banana “soft serve”
No need for pints. Blend frozen bananas with a splash of full-fat coconut milk for a potassium-rich alternative to ice cream and soft serve.
Quick Healthy Desserts
Craving something sweet in a pinch? These handy guilt-free desserts are low on effort, high on flavor:
Chocolate-covered almonds, a spoon of peanut butter with cacao nibs, dates paired with dark chocolate, diced fruit drizzled with honey, and unsweetened coconut flakes.
Enjoying Sweets Without Guilt
Instead of deprivation, you can give desserts their space in between all those vegetable-focused, protein-packed, whole grain-loaded meals. The important thing is to be thoughtful with your choices. Instead of downing a sleeve of store-bought cookies, try baking your own healthier cookies with dark chocolate chips and cacao nibs. Craving something creamy? Blend frozen bananas and top your bowl with chopped dates. And if you need something in a hurry, having a few staples on hand — peanut butter, chocolate-covered nuts, or dark chocolate squares — can be just the sweet, satisfying pick-me-up you need.
Want more healthy dessert inspiration? Sign up for FitOn PRO for access to personalized meal plans and delicious recipes, including desserts made with healthy swaps for every taste. From fruit-forward to rich and chocolatey, there’s a delicious option no matter what your dessert preference is.