When you're trolling the aisles of your supermarket, looking for a satisfying dinner that requires little-to-no prep time, the frozen meals section sure has plenty of microwavable options. But, let's be real: sometimes waiting five minutes for your dinner to zap is too much work, so you may end up buying a pint of ice cream and calling it "dinner." Not just any pint will do, though; you stick to the "healthy" ice cream that contains extra protein and barely any sugar.
If this thought process is all too familiar to you, or if you like keeping a pint of "healthy" ice cream in your freezer for dessert, then you might be wondering whether diet ice creams like this are too good to be true. How can something contain nothing and everything at the same time, plus taste like a delicious peanut butter cup? Well, the truth is complicated, and may make you re-think your go-to pseudo "dinner" option.
For starters, these "diet" ice creams aren't really ice creams at all. Traditional ice cream is made from milk, cream, and sugar, plus extra flavors and often eggs, says Jaclyn London, MS, RD, CDN, registered dietitian and author of Dressing On The Side (And Other Diet Myths Debunked). And technically, ice cream must contain 20% cream and 10% milk to even be considered "ice cream," per the US Department of Agriculture. So, diet ice cream is typically considered a "frozen treat." This distinction might seem pointless, but understanding packaging language is helpful when you're roaming the aisles of the freezer section.
Low-calorie, low-fat, low-sugar, high-protein frozen treats are made from similar ingredients to ice cream, but with some extra stuff to help it taste more like real ice cream, like added protein isolate, synthetic fibers, emulsifying agents, stevia, and sugar alcohols, London says. As anyone with a sensitive stomach and penchant for whole pints of ice cream knows, these ingredients can lead to uncomfortable gastrointestinal symptoms (like gas, bloating, abdominal pain and sometimes diarrhea) when eaten in high quantities, she says. "They may not 'do you in' from eating a scoop, but the more sugar alcohols you have, the more likely you are to experience that discomfort," she says.
I’d encourage any dessert lovers to remember that this is where we humans were meant to eat sugar — real treats.
Jaclyn London, MS, RD, CDN
Even if you can tolerate the ingredients just fine, you might not get what you're looking for from a dessert (and definitely not a meal) if you just opt for the diet ice cream, London says. A diet ice cream might seem like the ideal indulgence, but it could leave you with what London calls "full-not-satisfied syndrome." Basically, it's that feeling when you're physically full but still want something else, and it usually happens as a result of eating foods that contain some macronutrients but lack an important "satiety component," she says. You might find that a scoop of the diet version and a scoop of gelato, or a scoop of diet ice cream plus something more indulgent is your satisfaction sweet (sorry) spot, she says.
"Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with eating [diet ice cream], but I think it’s important to mention at the outset that there should be no self-expectations, here," London says. A diet ice cream is going to be lower in fat, so it'll be less satisfying than the real deal, "but I don’t think there’s something universally dangerous about that," she says. For some people who are more susceptible to overeating or have a history of binge-and-restrict tendencies, the concept of eating a whole pint in one sitting might trigger a binge — but everyone is different, she says.
And if the amount of sugar in regular ice cream is what generally stresses you out, London says relax. "I’d encourage any dessert lovers to remember that this is where we humans were meant to eat sugar — real treats, not your expensive juice drink, or breakfast cereal," she says.
TL;DR "When you swap in fake ingredients for the real ones, there’s the risk that you'll feel less satisfied — and wind up eating more overall than if you’d just gone with a smaller portion of the original stuff in the first place," London says. So, go for whichever version makes you feel more satisfied. "Just keep in mind that it’s still technically dessert, not a meal."