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Your Guide to Healthy Ice Cream: Which Variety Is Actually the Best?

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Photo: Shaffer-Smith / Getty Images

Did you know that the average American consumes more than 23 pounds of ice cream a year? That's a lot of hot fudge sundaes.

With the plethora of options to satisfy that sweet tooth, how's a fit foodie like you supposed to choose between frozen yogurt, slow-churned ice cream, high-protein pints, and everything else?

First, know that you don't have to spend 20 minutes searching for the lowest-calorie option. "Instead of sweating over the nutritional content of ice cream, I recommend making your choice based on what sounds best to you," says Lindsay Stenovec, R.D., a certified intuitive eating pro. "That's why we have ice cream anyway, right? For pleasure!" Ask yourself if you want something fruity or chocolaty; smooth or with crunchy bits in it; in a cone, on a stick, or in a cup. When you're able to drop the guilt and make choices based on your body's preferences, you'll be present and enjoy the ice cream until you're satisfied instead of being distracted by regret or worried about being out of control," says Stenovec.

Needless to say, you can have the "real deal." And if you're like me and have a sweet tooth for just about anything frozen and sweet, then read on for your guide to spoon-worthy varieties of ice cream and related treats.

Ice Cream: Full-Fat, Reduced-Fat, Low-Fat, Light, and Nonfat

Defined as a mixture of dairy ingredients (milk and cream), egg yolks, flavorings, and functional ingredients (including stabilizers and emulsifiers), to be called "ice cream" a product must contain no less than 10 percent milk fat. And the "cool" part: "Ice cream's creaminess depends on the size of the ice crystals that form during freezing: The smaller the crystals, the creamier the texture, says culinary dietitian Julie Harrington of RDelicious Kitchen. "Fat is one of the main components that provide smoothness to ice cream and can range from 10 to 16 percent depending on the variety," says Harrington. "Higher fat content equals smaller ice crystals, creating a creamy consistency. Lower fat content equals larger ice crystals, creating an icier consistency." But if you want the real thing, you don't have to fear the fat content. "I am the biggest believer that all foods fit a healthy diet, especially when it comes to ice cream," says Harrington. "I want people to fall in love with food again and not make rigid choices based on categories, which leave them feeling unsatisfied."

For a brand to label an item as low-fat, reduced-fat, light, or fat-free, the following criteria must be met:

Reduced fat: Contains 25 percent less fat than the reference product (usually a similar product from a competing brand)

Low-fat: Contains 3 grams of total fat per 1/2-cup serving

Light or lite: Contains 50 percent less fat or 33 percent fewer calories

Nonfat: Contains less than 0.5 grams of total fat per 1/2-cup serving

Eat it if you know you won't be satisfied with anything but real ice cream. A full-fat variety will satisfy you at just a 1/2 cup serving, but with all the low-fat options available, you can also find something that tastes just as good and save you a few calories if that's what you're after. 

High-Protein, Dairy-Free, or Other Ice Cream Alternatives

A new category of ice cream has emerged during the last decade: High-protein, dairy-free, and otherwise alternative frozen treats. I'll first admit that as an R.D. I've consulted with many of these brands and grown to either love and despise them for different reasons. I've had my share of the pea protein varieties, monk fruit–sweetened options, and coconut milk types on the market—and I've found the options that satisfy my ice cream cravings are those made with real milk, cream, and whey protein. But while many of these trendy ice creams might be shockingly low in calories, the artificial sweeteners can irritate your stomach and cause bloating in your GI tract. (It's fair to say that alternative "ice cream" is a polarizing topic. One writer decided to break up with diet ice cream for good.)

If the high-protein, low-calorie fix isn't for you, there are many other brands getting into the alternative ice cream market. Breyers just launched a new line of low-calorie, high-protein flavors. These Breyers delights have 260 to 330 calories per pint and 20 grams of protein. Plus, Ben & Jerry's and Häagen-Dazs are rolling out dairy-free frozen treats so those with food sensitives can enjoy them, too.

Eat it if you want more protein or suffer from dairy intolerance. You'll that you're getting another boost of post-workout protein but just be mindful of falling for the whole pint. Some brands are filled with artificial sweeteners that can cause tummy troubles when consumed in excess. Plus, the dairy free varieties can often pack more fat and sugar. 

Gelato

Despite what you might have guessed, this creamy Italian treat differs from ice cream in that it typically has less milk fat (around 4 to 8 percent). It is made from only milk, cream, and sugar—you won't find any emulsifiers or stabilizers. Fun fact: Gelato is traditionally eaten about 10 degrees warmer than ice cream, which means no "brain freeze."

What's more, thanks to its rich, creamy texture, you'll save yourself some sugar and total fat by helping yourself to a smaller portion. Talenti, a popular gelato, for example, tastes indulgent enough to satisfy you with just a 1/2-cup portion for a sweet after-dinner treat. (Plus, if Anna Victoria is eating gelato, it must be good, #balance.)

Eat it if portion size isn't that important to you, but trust me, you won't feel deprived when eating gelato.

Frozen Yogurt

A combination of dairy ingredients, cultures (aka probiotics), flavorings and sugar, froyo has taken America by storm with DIY dessert bars popping up everywhere. Traditionally lower in fat than ice cream, it also packs in probiotics. With the emphasis on gut health these days, it's important to consider adding more probiotics to your diet. Just remember to be mindful of your serving size and the number of toppings you pile on, as the calories and sugar from both can quickly add up. To add a little crunch and increase your satiety, try adding a tablespoon of crushed nuts. The healthy fat will help keep you full, too.

Many national brands such as Blue Bunny have their own lines of frozen yogurt, so you can make your own concoction at home and have full control over the bowl size and extras. Try one of these frozen yogurt combinations to curb whatever craving strikes.

Eat it if you want to ramp up your gut health with a little dose of probiotics. If you want to save some calories, frozen yogurt will generally be less than gelato or full-fat ice cream, but remember how quickly that can change if you pile on crush Oreos and caramel sauce. 

Frozen Custard

Frozen custard uses a minimum of 1.4 percent of egg yolk solids in addition to the 10 percent milk fat of a traditional ice cream. While this is responsible for custard's creamy, thick texture, it does equate to higher calories than a frozen yogurt. On the flipside, it also has 1 to 2 more grams of protein, and you'll get an added dose of biotin because this frozen treat keeps the yolk in the mix. By adding the egg yolk, the custard stays cooler for longer while also creating a smoother texture. There is significantly less air in a frozen custard than ice cream, making it more dense and compact.

Eat it if you want something denser than regular ice cream. You won't save calories here though, so be mindful of serving sizes. 

Sorbet and Granita

Make no mistake: If you want ice cream, this is not it. But, heck, these icy desserts aren't trying to replace your mocha java chip, but rather fill a need for a lighter frozen treat that pretty much anyone can enjoy. Sorbets and granitas are often considered the most "natural" and diet-friendly option of the ice cream relatives. if you've never had the pleasure of trying a granita, it is basically the Italian version of sorbet but its texture is what makes it different. While sorbet is often smooth, granita is flakier, like a shaved ice. All are made with only nondairy ingredients, including fresh fruits, sugar, water, and optional flavorings, you can grab something from the store (such as Ciao Bela's line of sorbetto) or make one of them at home for a refreshing frozen treat that's perfect in the summer heat. (Discover these other nine frozen snacks that will instantly cool you off.)

Eat it if you want something icy instead of creamy. Sorbets and granitas are lower in fat and calories, but some of the store-bought varieties can have substantial amounts of added and/or artificial sugar, so consider making your own naturally sweet recipe at home like this Pineapple Cup Pomegranate Granita.

Bottom line: There is no one ice cream variety that trumps them all. Just like anything else you eat, ice cream is personal. For me, I prefer to save the real deal for when I'm eating out, like after a date night with my husband. But it's important to make your ice cream choice based on what's best for you—do you have food sensitivities? Are you trying to lose weight? Are you satisfied with only a small scoop, or are you more of a double-scoop-with-sprinkles kind of girl? All of these factors will determine the best ice cream choice for you. The only wrong choice you can make? No ice cream at all.

 

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