At a party, or almost any social situation, when people find out that you study nutrition you instantly become a resource to answer burning questions about the most recent health headlines or dietary controversy. I appreciate this, but I also find it frustrating that nutrition seems confusing and controversial to so many people because, at its most fundamental, what we can say about nutrition so far is pretty simple (borderline dull!): eat a variety of minimally processed foods in reasonable amounts; avoid tons of sugar and manufactured foods; and (this is my own philosophy that has yet to be scientifically proven, but I’ll put it in for good measure) allow yourself to enjoy what you’re eating, taking some time to savor it.
That said, one of my favorite “party tricks” is to share some tasty scientific morsel about a nutrient in a particular food so that we can pretend it’s a healthier choice than it probably is (some of the foods I scientifically justify are, indeed, healthy choices, but they’re still not super-duper-amazing-cure-all foods, even if their labels or some tag line in a women’s magazine claim they are). One of my friends once told me that one of her favorite things about me was the way I could justify eating ice cream or a bacon cheeseburger with a flourish (I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this being considered one of my best attributes, but that is as it is…) Don’t worry, I then try to put the food back in context, which is more than the headlines usually do. So, as part of this blog, I plan on sharing some of my favorite “cocktail party nutrition-bites”, and without further ado I’ll begin with one of my favorites: ice cream.
Did you know that ice cream is actually a healthier dessert choice than cake or cookies? I once read a study looking at weight gain (especially around the belly, which is the more dangerous kind), markers of chronic disease risk, and diet in older adults. It found that amongst other differences, older adults who gained excess weight were more likely to consume cakes and cookies while those who maintained a healthy weight were more likely to include ice cream! The reason, the researchers speculate, is because ice cream has a lower glycemic index than cakes and cookies. Glycemic index is a way of measuring how fast a food you eat gets converted into sugar in your bloodstream, or blood glucose. White bread is pretty much straight up glucose and is absorbed really quickly, so it has the highest glycemic index (GI). Foods with more fiber, protein, and fat have lower glycemic indexes. The reason GI may matter is, the faster and higher blood sugar goes up, the more insulin – the molecule that allows cells to use glucose – is released into the blood stream. Chronically high insulin levels are linked to all sorts of diseases including obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and others. Another measure, related to GI, that you may hear about is glycemic load. The glycemic load for a meal is basically just a combination of the GIs of the food you eat and how much you eat in a sitting.
Now, I absolutely love ice cream. I think it’s my second favorite food (right behind whipped cream and ahead of butternut squash). But unfortunately, it is now my sad duty to tell you that even though it has a relatively low GI, it is not a health food. It’s too loaded with sugar to ever be “good for you” – and the size of the scoops at most places these days is enough for two or three people. It’s a dessert, a treat to save for sometimes, and that’s all there is to it. In the study that mentioned ice cream, the ice cream was a small part of an overall lower GI diet that also happened to be a diet high in vegetables, fruits, fish, whole grains, and so on – basically your standard ‘healthy diet’ we’re also supposed to be shooting for. But, what this also means is that there is some room in a diet to eat ice cream and still be healthy. Hurrah! Living life should mean having a treat now and then, and when it does, bring on the ice cream!