These 3 Pleasures Make Desserts Healthy and Enjoyable

People should not be asked to compromise their health at the end of the meal.
People should not be asked to compromise their health at the end of the meal. thinkstock

When I go out to eat, I ask the waiter if the restaurant has a creative chef. Of course, no one ever says no, so I make a simple request: Make me a dessert using only nuts, fruit, and dark chocolate, and present it in a creative way.

The resulting dishes have been fabulous, from simple, yet elegant bowls combining the ingredients, to beautiful works of art. The findings of this little experiment are clear: It is possible to make an elegant dessert out of three healthy items, which I call the three pleasures.

The three pleasures—nuts, fruit, and dark chocolate—were arrived at through extensive scientific research proving that these items are both healthy and enjoyable.

Fruit has long been appreciated for its nutritional value. It contains vitamins and phytochemicals, like carotenoids, which are found in large quantities in yellow and dark-orange fruits and have been related to lower risks of some cancers and dementia. Higher berry consumption has also been linked to lower risks of heart disease, diabetes, and dementia. Even in dried formats, when fresh fruit is not available, these foods are highly beneficial to consumers.

Though once considered unhealthy due to being high in fat content, research over the last 10 to 20 years has shown that almost all the fats in nuts are unsaturated, and healthy. They can reduce blood cholesterol levels and reduce heart disease risk, plus they add fiber, vitamins, and minerals to diets. 

Also, higher nut consumption is not linked to obesity. Despite the caloric content, nuts offer high satiety, meaning that consumers don’t need 6 ounces to feel satisfied, but rather just a small handful.

Dark chocolate, despite popular opinion, is a healthy substance. It does contain sugar, though in low amounts, and the higher the percentage of cacao, the healthier the chocolate. Chocolate also contains phytochemicals that reduce blood pressure, and it appears to nudge down the risk of diabetes as well.

When you put all three of these foods together, the resulting dish is a combination of three healthy ingredients, especially if you’re eating this instead of what’s usually on a dessert menu, which is usually made of sugar, white flour, and cream—three of the least healthy things you could eat. That tradeoff is hugely beneficial.

You want people to feel satisfied at the end of the meal, and they don’t need massive amounts of sugar and white flour in their diets. People don’t want to feel stuffed, but they want to feel satisfied, and they get this nice satiety with healthy foods.

Another advantage of the three pleasures is you can create an almost infinite number of ways to present them, so there is a huge amount of space and creativity for making them interesting and attractive. With many different kinds of nuts, each bringing its own flavor and texture, and so many different kinds of fruits and varieties of chocolates, possibilities for dessert options are endless.

People should not be asked to compromise their health at the end of the meal. We don’t need to put them in that position. There is strong scientific evidence to support that all three ingredients are healthy choices, and when you put all three together, you’ve got a super healthy dessert.  

Walter Willett, M.D., Dr. P.H., is chair of The Culinary Institute of America’s Menus of Change scientific and technical advisory council. He chairs the department of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, where he is a professor of epidemiology and nutrition. He is also a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.