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DessertSweets, tarts, pies, puddings, pastries - we all know what's coming at the end of any good meal. For most diners it is an anticipated and celebrated indulgence, a sweet treat that triggers the pleasure centers of the brain and leaves its patrons sighing with happiness. But for dieters and healthy eaters it can be another obstacle on the road to healthful living.

It's nearly impossible to resist at least one bite of a perfect pie or chocolate torte, no matter how dedicated you are to a healthy lifestyle, but what starts as a single bite can often lead to an empty plate. Some strict schools of dieting recommend beefing up meals with extra fruits and veggies and avoiding dessert altogether, and in theory, that's a good plan, but only in theory. The reality is that dessert is the course that contains some of the greatest culinary pleasures a
diner can experience, and a true meal without it is incomplete.

Sweet things play a role in society, and have, at the very least, a symbolic value in meals. They welcome people into the
home, express gratitude, and are the centerpieces of many cultural celebrations (cutting into a wedding salad just isn't as romantic). In many cultures, sending guests off into the night without a little treat is considered downright rude; additionally, deprivation in dieting has been proven to lead to damaging binges later down the road. So while keeping sweet things around your home on a daily basis should be avoided, you'll be faced with dessert eventually if you ever plan on leaving the house. Luckily, there are many ways to navigate these deliciously treacherous waters:

Keep the nutrients. Dessert doesn't have to be "unhealthy", and many of its elements (fruit, nuts, eggs) are considered
healthy when utilized without the addition of excessive fats or sugar.

Don't peel fruits unless the recipe calls for it, most of their beneficial nutrients are in the skin.
  • When baking, substitute whole-wheat or oat bran flours and pastry crusts for added protein and fiber while cutting back on processed starches. Try double chocolate cake or warm banana bread with whole-grain pastry flour, and bring back classics like old fashioned oatmeal cookies.

Ditch the bad stuff. Many recipes are loaded with fats or the wrong fats (trans and saturated).

  • Look for recipes that limit fats like butter, cream, or shortening and find richness from outside sources, like yogurt or pudding. Foam based cakes (angel food, chiffon, sponge, etc.), which get their airy fluffiness from beaten eggs or egg whites, often have less fat than butter based varieties, like devil's food or red velvet. And pick butter over margarine: studies have shown the spread to be loaded with damaging trans fat.
  • Remember that fruit is a healthy substitute or addition to table sugar; cut back the white stuff and sweeten cookies and loaves with mashed banana, or choose recipes that feature fruits, rather than buttery dough, as toppings for pies or cakes.
  • Try fruit plates, baked apples or pears with toasted nuts and cranberries, chocolate dipped strawberries, or fruit based sorbets and granitas.
  • Mediterranean diets are notoriously heart healthy, take a page from their book and serve reasonable portions of high-quality plain yogurt topped with drizzled honey, chopped nuts, and fresh fruit like sour cherries or blueberries in place of sugary custards or panna cottas.

Pay attention to portions. The first few bites are usually the best, they set flavors on the palate and turn on all the little pleasure centers in the brain. Everything after those first few bites is superfluous, and in the case of many restaurant portions, just plain greedy.

  • Help yourself to slivers of cake or pie, and small scoops of frozen desserts.
  • When given a pre-set portion, like at banquets or restaurants, eat half of what you are given; share with a friend, or simply throw the other half away.
Be a gracious guest. Most hosts won't be offended if you take just a small taste of what they serve last, especially if you attribute being full to the success of the meal they've just served. You can also offer to bring dessert to return their hospitality, but don't offend friends by showing up with non-fat carob cookies. Search for healthier versions of classic recipes, or make small portions of the both the good and the bad, and let hosts choose for themselves.
Eat slowly. Taking the time to savor every little bite makes the most of smaller portions. Remember that the human body often doesn't register fullness immediately, and can take up to half an hour after you're full to send you the message. Slowing down your eating gives your body more time to recognize it's had enough.

Skip what's not worth it. Decide to treat yourself to slice of something that looks great but turns out disappointing? Put down the fork and let it go, and save those calories for something better. And always save the truly decadent stuff for
special occasions, that's what makes it special.

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