What to know before replacing your go-to ice cream tub with a low-calorie option.
By Annie Hayes
If you’re trying to lose weight or make healthier food choices, you might have considered swapping your favourite frozen dessert for low-calorie ice cream. In the freezer aisle of most supermarkets, you’ll find an entire shelf dedicated to lighter pints that claim to be low in calories, saturated fat and sugar, and high in protein.
If ice cream already features prominently in your diet, replacing your go-to tub with a low-calorie ice cream could be a smart move. But that doesn’t necessarily mean indulging in low-calorie ice cream is good for you. Many brands are highly processed and filled with sweeteners and artificial flavours.
We spoke to Tamara Willner, nutritionist for NHS-backed healthy eating plan Second Nature, and Priya Tew, specialist dietitian at City Dieticians, about the pros and cons of low-calorie ice cream, how to choose the healthiest options and tips on making your own delicious ice cream at home:
Is low-calorie ice cream good for you?
Low-calorie ice cream is usually made with low-fat dairy or milk alternatives to slash its calorie content, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good for you. ‘Judging foods purely on the basis of calorie content is not the healthiest or most sustainable way to make dietary choices,’ says Willner.
‘From a biological point of view, it makes sense that if we have more calories than we need, our bodies will store that energy,’ she says. ‘The excess energy either gets stored as glycogen in your muscles or as fat. However, this idea assumes that all calories are digested the same way and have similar effects on our body, which isn’t the case.’
For example, 300 calories of low-calorie ice cream has a different nutritional profile to 300 calories of fruit, and therefore has a different effect on your health. ‘Tracking calories encourages us to look at all food in the same way, when in reality each nutrient – like carbohydrates, fat, and protein or vitamins and minerals – offers us a variety of benefits.
Judging foods purely on calorie content isn’t the healthiest or most sustainable way to make dietary choices.
While it may not contain as much table sugar as the regular stuff, low-calorie ice cream usually relies on sugar substitutes to provide sweetness. These include natural sweeteners, such as honey and agave syrup; sugar alcohols, such as erythritol and xylitol; and artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame and sucralose.
Each affects your body in different ways. Consuming too much added sugar in your diet, even in the form of natural sweeteners, can lead to health problems. That’s because they’re often closely related to sugar. For example, honey and table sugar are nutritionally alike – both contain the carbohydrates glucose and fructose, which spike your blood sugar levels.
While sugar alcohols (also known as polyols) are also carbohydrates, your body doesn’t totally absorb them, so their effect on your blood sugar is less pronounced. However, when eaten in large amounts, they’re known to have a potential laxative effect, causing symptoms like bloating, gas and diarrhoea. Sugar alcohols are less sweet than sugar, so tend to be combined with artificial sweeteners.
Artificial sweeteners are associated with long-term weight gain and an increased risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, according to a review by the University of Manitoba. They alter the composition and function of your gut microbes, the Weizmann Institute of Science found, triggering harmful metabolic changes.
Choosing a healthy low-calorie ice cream
You don’t need to avoid low-calorie ice cream to be mindful of your health (or waistline). Consider each of these factors to pick the healthiest choice next time you’re in the supermarket:
Remember, ingredients are listed from highest to lowest by weight, so the first three will usually make up the majority of the product. ‘In general, the fewer the ingredients, the less processed the food,’ adds Willner. ‘The main ingredients to look out for are sugars and sweeteners.’
🍦 Serving size
Checking the serving size can be helpful for comparing different products, says Willner. ‘Make sure you’re comparing the same serving size, as this differs between brands. For example, some brands show you values for one serving, while others show you values for two servings.’
🍦 Added sugar
Consuming too much added sugar increases your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers. ‘Sugar content is one of the key factors to look out for on food labels,’ says Willner. ‘Sugar can be disguised as a number of different things, including – but not limited to – maltose, honey, molasses, high-fructose corn syrup, dextrose, and rice syrup.’
🍦 Saturated fat
Including too many saturated fats in your diet can raise ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol in your blood. While all saturated fats may not be created equal – different types of saturated fats have different effects on cholesterol levels, one study found – it’s generally recommended to limit your intake from sugary, fatty foods like ice cream.
What is the healthiest alternative to ice cream?
Rather than buying expensive low-calorie ice cream, why not make your own healthy alternatives at home? Frozen treats are easy to make and they’re more likely to deliver a potent nutrient boost that lasts. Plus, you’ll have full control over the ingredients, so no hidden nasties.
‘Consider alternatives that are less processed and will keep you feeling satisfied for longer, says Willner. ‘That way, you’re much more likely to achieve your health and weight loss goals in the long term, and eating foods you enjoy occasionally will become part of your lifestyle.’
Try the following homemade healthy desserts:
🥄 ‘Nice cream’
For a sweet hit with added vitamins and minerals, why not try whizzing up frozen fruit? You just need frozen bananas, a dash of milk (or plant-based milk) and some extras of your choosing – cacao nibs, peanut butter, berries, shredded coconut, whatever you fancy.
You can’t beat the creaminess of Greek yoghurt for a healthy, quick fix. ‘Consider having a few spoons of full-fat, natural yoghurt topped with a handful of berries or some crushed nuts,’ says Willner. ‘The healthy fat and protein will help to keep you fuller for longer.’
🥄 Frozen yoghurt
Go one step further and make your own frozen yoghurt. You don’t necessarily need an ice cream maker, just a little elbow grease to keep stirring the yoghurt as it slowly freezes. You could add raw honey, vanilla essence, pureed fruit – the choice is yours. ‘Freezing yoghurt with fruit in moulds can be a nice alternative,’ says Tew.
🥄 Regular ice cream
Sometimes, there’s no substitute for the real thing. ‘If you really want some ice cream, have it,’ says Willner. ‘Just manage your portion size and make sure you enjoy it mindfully. This means pre-portioning the amount you’d like into a bowl and eating it distraction-free while engaging all your senses.’
The bottom line
Enjoyed in moderation, low-calorie ice cream can be a part of a healthy, balanced die – just like regular ice cream. No single food is inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’, it just has a different nutritional composition.
‘It’s a case of how much and how often we eat them,’ says Tew. ‘So if you like low-calorie ice cream, that’s totally fine! But if you actually would prefer another type of ice cream, have that and really enjoy it. Ice cream is there to bring pleasure and satisfaction.’
N et Doctor