When the temperature is soaring outside, nothing cools you inside better than an old-fashioned ice cream cone. Unfortunately for those watching their weight as well as the weather, splurging on high-fat, high-calorie calorie ice cream isn't exactly recommended on a regular basis.
"A half cup of ice cream is like a glass of milk and three pads of butter," says Lisa Dorfman, MS, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
But experts say most people's diets can accommodate more moderate indulgences, such as the bevy of new reduced-fat and low-calorie frozen treats arriving now in grocery stores, such as low-carb ice cream, low-fat frozen yogurt, and fruit juice bars. And with a little creativity, you can stock your freezer with healthy, homemade treats to get you through the dog days of summer.
Compare Labels in the Freezer Aisle
With a growing array of frozen desserts and ice cream substitutes that promote themselves as "healthy" or good for people trying to lose weight, nutrition experts say it can be confusing for people to find products that meet their own nutritional needs.
Dawn Jackson, RD, says you can't assume that just because a product is touted as low-carb, low-fat, or "diet" that it's good for you or will fit into your weight loss plan.
"You really can't use outside marketing or advertising of these products to make the decision for you on if you should buy it or not," says Jackson, who is also a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "You really have to flip to the nutrition facts panel on the back."
"The predominant, overriding factor of choice is calories since most people are choosing these products to maintain a healthy weight," says Jackson. "It has nothing to do with how many carbs or how much fat is in it."
"Oftentimes, if you get a product that is fairly low in calories and fairly low in saturated fat, all the other things fall into place," says Jackson.
Dorfman, a registered dietician who lives in Miami, knows a thing or two about beating the heat as a marathon runner. She says when choosing between an item that's low in fat but high in sugar and one that's low in sugar but high in fat, it may be safer to splurge on the one that's higher in sugar and lower in fat if you want to cool off without piling on the pounds.
"The fat is going to stay with you because you're not using as much energy. You move more slowly in the hot weather," says Dorfman. "Fat takes time to use. You've really got to be out there burning away to use a fat source."
"You want to eat easily assimilated food that's easy to metabolize and digest, which means food high in carbs," says Dorfman. "Sugars digest the fastest, that's why they're called simple sugars."
"If people following a low-carb diet are going to eat sugar at any time, summer is the time to do it," Dorfman tells WebMD.
Testing the Treats
But a treat is not a treat unless it tastes good and satisfies your cravings.
So in the name of science and relief from the summer heat, WebMD's editorial staff conducted an informal taste test of a variety of low-carb and low-fat ice creams and frozen yogurts.
The test revealed that low-carb ice creams earned praise for their creaminess, no doubt thanks to their much higher fat content. But some found the taste "a bit off."
The low-fat items got lower marks for texture and mouth feel, but redeemed themselves with their sugary sweetness.
Jackson warns that some people may be sensitive to the sugar alcohols, such as mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, and other polyols, that are used in producing low-carb ice creams and can cause diarrhea or bloating.
"With sugar alcohol molecules, part of the molecule is going through your system undigested. Some people are sensitive to this and should use high caution when they see sugar alcohols listed in the ingredients," says Jackson.
Put the Freeze on Portion Control
One of the biggest issues in preventing an occasional cool treat from derailing your diet is portion control.
Contrary to popular belief, a pint of ice cream -- no matter how healthy it may be -- is NOT intended to be eaten at as a single serving in front of the TV. Those nutrition facts printed on the side are based on a single, half-cup (4-ounce) serving, which translates to four servings per pint.
"I don't know how many people that live in America that can go into a container of, whether it be light ice cream, fat-free ice cream, frozen yogurt, or a low-carb dessert, and pull out a half of a cup," says Jackson. "Most of the time there is a crater on the side so you want to clean up and eat that, or there's some on the lid so you have to eat that. It's very difficult to control portions yourself."
That's why it's usually better for people who are watching their weight to keep things in the freezer that are already portion-controlled, such as frozen fruit bars, ice cream sandwiches and cones, or small ice cream cups.
"As much as you can opt for things that are in a sandwich, a bar, or something that's already been portioned, you're going to be far more likely to eat a portion-controlled item than one you [scooped] yourself," says Jackson.
If you want to eyeball a half-cup serving of ice cream, Jackson recommends visualizing half a tennis ball, which isn't a portion widely served in scoop shops unless you order a kiddie cone or make a special request.
Homemade Heat Busters
It's not unusual for low-carb and low-fat ice creams to cost significantly more than plain old ice cream. But that doesn't mean that your pocketbook has to suffer for the sake of your stomach.
Jackson and Dorfman recommend stocking the freezer with these low-cal and healthy homemade treats to take the edge off even the hottest days:
- Frozen unsweetened fruits: Blueberries, grapes, strawberries, and raspberries are great by themselves or topped with a little low-fat yogurt.
- Homemade fruit and cream pops: Fill small, Dixie-style, cups or a Popsicle mold with a blend of fruit and low-fat vanilla yogurt.
- Banana chips: Slice and freeze bananas, 12 slices to a bag, to enjoy a cold, creamy treat.
- Chilly chocolate chips: A tablespoon of chocolate chips has about 70 calories and offers a cool, quick chocolate fix.
- Cold S'mores cups: Place a graham cracker, one large marshmallow, and a few chocolate chips in a small cup and microwave for a few seconds, then freeze.
- Diet-friendly floats: Mix a scoop of low-fat vanilla ice cream with diet root beer for a root beer float.
- Coffee Coolers: Blend ice with coffee, cocoa, and low-calorie sweetener to taste for a 15- rather than 500-calorie coffeehouse-style cooler.
Experts say that it's important to allot yourself a small, 100- to 150-calorie treat occasionally when you're trying to lose weight. If you don't, constantly depriving yourself may come back to haunt you.
"If you deprive yourself, somewhere down the road -- if not that day later that week -- it's going to blow up and sabotage you," says Jackson. "So absolutely, chocolate craving, ice cream craving, go for it but just downsize and enjoy."