I wish I could be one of those chic women who "never crave sweets" and find total satisfaction in, like, a hollowed-out cantaloupe with a scoop of cottage cheese. I am a sugar head. For me, the day is not complete without something sweet. (Maybe I could learn a thing or two from going sugar-free for 10 days like this woman did.)
But since I know sugar is pretty much toxic for your health and isn't great for your waistline either, I try to find ways to minimize the harm my sweet tooth causes me. That means on good days, I aim to restrict myself to only one dessert and instead reach for fruit or flavored seltzer other times I have a craving.
Then I started wondering: When should I eat dessert? Is it better to eat sweets after lunch, since that gives me a chance to work off the extra cals before bed? Or is it better to snack after dinner, to offset the odds that a single taste of the sweet stuff will send me down a dessert rabbit hole?
So I asked the experts. The general consensus: after lunch is best. "If you indulge in the afternoon, you'll have the opportunity to burn off the calories throughout the rest of the day," says Kristy Rao, a nutritionist and health coach. She suggests eating dessert about an hour after lunch. "If eaten directly after your last meal, you could become bloated and uncomfortable," she says. "But you also don't want to eat sweets on an empty stomach, since your body will absorb it faster and lead to a bigger blood sugar spike—and a bigger crash a few hours later," she adds. (Check out these Healthy Desserts Sweetened with Natural Sugar.)
Dawn Jackson Blatner, R.D.N., agrees that post-meal is best. "Having dessert after a balanced meal allows you to get the benefit of the nutrients in the meal to stabilize your blood sugar from the sweets. Psychologically, it's also better to eat it after a meal," she says. "When dessert is 'attached' to a meal, it signals doneness, so it's less likely to trigger a bunch of mindless snacking."
Other ways to have your dessert and enjoy it too (without ruining your wellbeing): Get up and get moving after eating it, even if you just walk for 10 minutes; chug plenty of water before and while eating the dessert to help keep you from overindulging; and stick to a single portion, suggests Alexandra Miller, R.D.N., a corporate dietitian at Medifast, Inc.
Blatner recommends trying to follow the "social sweets" rule. Instead of eating at home or at your desk, commit to only indulging in dessert when you're out with friends or coworkers. "A piece of cake at home feels guilty and overindulgent. That same piece of cake with others feels fun and celebratory," she says.
What you eat matters too. Blatner says that dark chocolate and a cup of tea is the ideal health-conscious dessert. (See: The Best and Worst Chocolates for Your Body.) "The tea helps you slow down and savor dessert-time," which boosts satisfaction, she says. Sometimes, she adds, the tea alone is enough. "Most of the time we want dessert just for the 'taste transition' after a savory meal. And you can get a similar transition with peppermint or flavored tea. It doesn't taste like cake or cookies, but once you get into the new ritual of tea after meals, it'll help you forget your dessert obsession."
I don't know about "forget," but swapping my before-bed candy or ice cream for a post-brunch or lunch hunk—I mean square—of chocolate sounds doable to me. (Or maybe I'll try one of these 18 Healthy Chocolate Dessert Recipes instead.)