The guilt that follows everytime you eat a dessert can be really stressful. But lucky for us some studies are suggesting that having dessert every once in a while — the real, indulgent kind — may actually be a useful tool for eating more healthfully when used strategically.
According to a report in Time, a new study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied picking dessert first — instead of after a meal — is linked to eating less and chosing of healthier meals. They didn’t even have to eat the treat first; just knowing they had selected it was enough to trigger a change.
Co-author of the study Martin Reimann explaining this concept said, “If we choose something healthy first, then this gives us a license to choose something bigger later. If you turn it around and choose something heavier early on, then this license is already expired.”
Reimann and his team studied 134 university faculty, staff and graduate students who were eating lunch in the school’s cafeteria. On four different days, they offered four different dessert options in the food line: a healthy choice (fresh fruit) placed before the main and side dish options, an indulgent choice (lemon cheesecake) before the savory dishes, fruit placed after the main meal or cheesecake after the main meal.
Almost 70% of people who took the cheesecake first went on to choose a healthier main and side dish (chicken fajitas and a side salad, instead of fried fish and French fries), but only about a third of people who took fruit did so. All told, people who picked cheesecake first went on to eat about 250 fewer calories throughout the course of the meal, compared to people who selected fruit as dessert first. People who took cheesecake after choosing the rest of their meal ended up eating about 150 more calories than who picked it first.
The same concept held true when 160 adults were asked to put together a hypothetical dinner order online, and estimate how much of it they would finish.
People who picked an indulgent dessert (chocolate cake) before ordering the rest of their food said they expected to eat about half as many calories as people who chose a healthy dessert (fruit salad) first, but the difference was much less pronounced when they decided on dessert at the end of the order. Nearly 56% of those who started with chocolate cake went on to choose the lighter main dish (grilled lemon chicken over chicken cordon bleu), versus about 44% of the fruit-orderers.
The study isn’t the first to suggest that the timing of your dessert matters, both physiologically and psychologically. Some experts recommend having dessert after a workout, since the body needs sugars to recover from intense activity and can thus put treats to better use. Foods that combine simple sugars and protein, like peanut butter cups, aid in recovery.
A strategically consumed sweet can even change your overall eating habits, research suggests. One 2012 paper found that people with obesity who followed a diet plan that included desserts like chocolate, cookies or donuts with breakfast later experienced fewer junk food cravings than people who ate a low-calorie, low-carbohydrate morning meal. The study authors suggest that this type of well-timed dessert may help with weight loss and management over time.
Moderate indulging may also help people avoid sugar binges. Research has shown that deprivation can spark cravings, potentially causing people to eventually eat more of the foods they were trying to avoid. So if you’re trying to reduce your sugar intake, a small helping of dessert may actually help you stick to that goal — at least at first.
Over time, if you reduce your consumption little by little, it is possible to retrain your brain and tastebuds to crave sugary foods less. And when you do want to indulge, do so strategically so you can satisfy your sweet tooth without feeling the guilt.