Raise your hand if you like a bit of something sweet now and then.
Good news! That’s okay, even if keeping your arteries clear is a priority. Even if you have diabetes.
People used to think of “heart-healthy” eating as being all about what you avoid – low-fat, low-sodium, low-calorie. Add to the mix low-carb and low-sugar and we’ve got a sad tale of deprivation!
But there’s more good news… Today’s heart-healthy eating pattern is more about what you do eat: Foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish, legumes, and nuts.
Can we use some of these in a sweet treat? Absolutely! Do we have to avoid sugar/sodium/carbs/joy? No! Heart-healthy eating does mean not having too much of those things, but it might not be as restrictive as you think.
And the reality is that ironically, when people try to avoid something like sugar completely, most studies find that they crave it even more.
Interestingly, the Intuitive Eating approach suggests that if we give ourselves “unconditional permission to eat” anything we like, the power of that food ultimately withers, and we can enjoy it and go on with our day. Or not. No big deal. (Easier said than done by the way, to unravel years of “diet” thinking, but it’s worth trying.)
In following with the Intuitive Eating philosophy, not everything you eat has to be nutritious, so if you really feel like an Oreo or a slice of pie, that’s okay! It’s not the end of the world, in the grand scheme.
But if you want to build up your repertoire of “sweet spot” desserts — tasty, satisfying, and building in those cardioprotective foods — here are a few fun ideas, in order of time to table:
Boring, right? Not necessarily! All by itself, a tub of fresh raspberries is a real treat. Or sprinkle a teaspoon or two of sugar. Yes really! The amount of sugar that has been shown convincingly to have negative health impacts is an order of magnitude greater than this. (More like what you’d find in a can of pop.)
If you want to quickly jazz your fruit up a bit, try slicing and microwaving a couple of apples until they’re soft. Or bake a few pears while you’re enjoying dinner. Or drizzle a teaspoon of nutella on slices of banana. (Or make the homemade chocolate spread in #6 below.) Or try frozen grapes or blueberries… somehow more satisfying than their room temperature cousins.
Fruit can be fun!
2. Dark chocolate
There’s a bit of evidence around dark chocolate and heart health, but it’s not that strong, so just have it if you like it! Higher cocoa content means more potential benefit and less sugar, but as I said, not super-compelling evidence, so just go for the highest cooca content you actually enjoy.
Either way, you can nibble on that dark(ish) chocolate alone or mix a few chocolate chips with a bit of oatmeal or a few almonds. You can melt it (gently) to drizzle over your fruit, or make a chocolate bark (as in this recipe from dietitian Holley Grainger).
3. Blueberry-Ricotta Swirl
If you want something different, but still simple, try mixing ricotta cheese with just a little sugar to taste, and then combining with blueberries as in this recipe, or raspberries and chocolate, or pumpkin puree and cinnamon. The possibilities are endless! This is one with a bit of protein and calcium, so I like to use it after dinner if we’ve had a vegetarian meal.
(You can use light ricotta but you don’t have to. I think it tastes fine, but if you prefer full-fat ricotta, it’s not that different, nutritionally.)
4. Chocolate Peanut Butter Fruit Dip, from dietitian Shannon Crocker
This is currently one of my kids favourite treats. Shannon has a way with peanut butter and chocolate. It takes just a few minutes to mix together, and combines beautifully with a variety of fruit: Berries, apples, bananas, or even frozen mango!
I stash it in the fridge labelled “chocolate dip,” and the kids dig in, not even realizing the calcium and protein they’re getting. (Shhh…)
5. Subversive DIY Chocolate Spread
This is like a dark chocolate variation on Nutella… less sugar, more nutrition. The base is cashew butter, which is unfortunately pricey, but works better than peanut butter for this, thanks to its neutral taste. Mix with cocoa, maple syrup, and a few other things, give it a good stir, and again, a lovely partner for a variety of fruits.
6. Blood Pressure Friendly Berry Tart
This one is kind of like a quick bread, like banana bread, but made with whole wheat flour and berries. (I usually use frozen berries.) It takes just 5-10 minutes to put together, but then another 30-40 minutes in the oven.
If you have diabetes and are looking to keep your carbohydrates consistent across meals, pair this with a lower carb main meal, like a salad with a protein.
7. Chickpea Chocolate Chip Cookies, from dietitian Cristina Cavanaugh (Begin Within Nutrition)
When I first tried these vegan, flourless chocolate chip cookies, I couldn’t believe how good they were! They’re made from blending peanut butter, chickpeas, maple syrup, and a few other ingredients in the food processor, then adding chocolate chips. No eggs, no flour, it’s quite magical!
(The chocolate chips don’t have to be vegan, unless that’s important to you personally.)
8. Heart-healthy French Toast Berry Cobbler
This recipe is another way to use frozen berries, as well as bread crusts, if you’re like my family and don’t like to eat them. It takes a bit longer to put together, but once you’ve done if a few times, it’s pretty quick – 20 minutes or so.
I usually keep the sugar level low on this and use it for breakfast with yogurt. If you’re serving it as dessert you might want to add a bit more sugar, depending on the sweetness of your berries.
9. Fruit crisp
Who doesn’t love a good seasonal fruit crisp? Always a bonus if you can work oats into dessert! You can use whatever fruits are seasonal or on sale… apples, berries, even pears. I adapted our family’s favourite recipe by adding walnuts and cutting back on sugar and butter… still delicious, honestly.
10. Chocolate Chia Pudding, from “The Simple Veganista”
Finally, thanks to Ellen in the Sweet Spot Heart-Healthy Cooking Club Facebook group for sharing this recipe! A neat way to use chia seeds and get a little soluble fibre and omega-3 fat boost with dessert.
Like other chia puddings, it takes only a few minutes to put together, but has to sit for four or more hours. The hardest thing about chia pudding for me is remembering to make it early enough!
What do you think? Anything in there you’d like to make this weekend? What would you add? We’d love to hear about your favourite “heart-healthyish” sweet treats over in the Sweet Spot Heart-Healthy Cooking Club.