You now have a guilt-free excuse to chow down on that chocolate cake. Here's why dessert can be good for you, according to science.
It's a (somewhat) healthy breakfast staple
When mom said you couldn’t have dessert until you finished your veggies, she was wrong! Researchers at Tel Aviv University surveyed about 200 adults on low-calorie diets; half ate a 600-calorie breakfast that included a cookie, slice of cake, or donut, while the other half were given a 300-calorie meal packed with protein, including tuna, egg whites, cheese, and milk. Those who ate the sweets reported fewer cravings and less hunger throughout the day. And get this: both groups lost weight, but the sweets subjects kept on losing it even as the low-carb dieters gained back what they had shed. Experts believe this is because eating more calories in the morning provides your body with energy to last the entire day, limiting unhealthy snacking. You’ve never had a better excuse to chow down on those chocolate-chip pancakes—but don’t do it every day, since they’re still packed with loads of fat and sugar that affect more than your waistline.
It lowers your blood pressure
A few bites of chocolate each day could decrease your risk of cardiovascular disease down the line. A 2011 Harvard study found that eating a small square of dark chocolate every day lowered blood pressure in all 1,106 participants. They believe this is because chocolate rich in cocoa (as found in unsweetened or dark chocolate) packs a high concentration of flavonoids, an antioxidant with huge anti-inflammatory and immune system benefits.
Dessert can put you in the mood for romance
Some desserts pack double the aphrodisiac punch for men and women alike. Take pumpkin pie, for example: pumpkins contain zinc-packed seeds shown to increase testosterone levels. Plus, just the scent of baking pumpkin pie could be a libido booster; a study from the Smell and Taste Treatment Research Center in Chicago found that pumpkin pie increased penile blood flow for men and lowered anxiety levels in both men and women. The smell of vanilla was found to have much the same effect. For women, dark chocolate seems to especially do the trick; a study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found that women who indulged on a piece of chocolate every day enjoyed a more active sex life than those who didn’t. Try more aphrodisiac foods proven to spark romance.
You could lose weight (really!)
Even if you enjoy a decadent dessert, science says that if you pay attention while you eat it, you could still drop pounds. One study asked participants to first choose a healthy or unhealthy snack, and then count how many times they swallowed while eating it. Researchers found that even among dieters who chose the unhealthy snack, all of the subjects felt satisfied more quickly when they counted the number of swallows they made. So savor every last bite of that chocolate cake, and you could actually start slimming your waistline.
It protects you from strokes
It's worth repeating: dark chocolate is really good for you. In a study of Swedish men aged 45 to 79, those who ate 10 grams per day (or about one square) were 17 percent less likely to suffer from a stroke than those who cut it out entirely. "The key message to take away here is that these studies focus on the intake of dark chocolate," says Heather Calcote, a registered dietitian and a program manager at Corporate Wellness Solutions, told Men’s Fitness. Opt for the kind containing 65 to 70 percent cocoa or more, and check the ingredient list to gauge the sugar and milk content.
It will satisfy your cravings
If you absolutely must have your cake and eat it too, that's fine, Nyree Dardarian, director of the Center for Integrated Nutrition and Performance Coordination at Drexel University, told TIME. “When you put rules and restrictions on something, you’re only going to want it more,” she says. This can lead to unhealthy binge eating when you finally let loose. Instead, focus on portion control, which means avoiding that generous slice of pie or devouring four or five cookies in one sitting; eight ounces of any dessert should do the trick. Put the box back in the pantry or freezer after you remove your select portion to keep you from reaching to grab more later on.
It can limit your sugar and fat intake
Store-bought treats are loaded with extra calories, chemicals, and sugar that will make your blood sugar skyrocket. But if you make your own goodies at home, you can substitute other ingredients for butter and oil, reduce the amount of sugar added, and even toss in healthy additions like nuts. Homemade desserts can “satisfy your dessert craving in healthier ways,” Rachel Johnson, PhD, chair of the American Heart Association’s (AHA) nutrition committee, told TIME, “if you’re thoughtful about it and willing to put in a little effort.”
It will inspire you to be active
“The number-one thing I love about dessert is that what you see is what you get. When I reach for a piece of chocolate, I'm making a conscious decision to have a treat,” registered dietitian Jaclyn London told Good Housekeeping. Since you know what you’re eating when you indulge, you can also make the conscious decision to work it off afterward. If you can't live without dessert, one way to balance your sugar intake is to stay active during the day and maintain a diet low in other added sugars, suggests Johnson. Taking a stroll during lunch or hitting the gym after work can lead to a whole bundle of other health benefits, too. So what if you had that brownie after dinner—you deserved it!