Sure, your refined white sugars can spark an energy crash, and ice cream might be as addictive as crack. But the sweet stuff has some virtues—for your heart, diet goals, and even libido. Here are the top five ways eating dessert can actually do your body good.
It protects you from strokes.
A few bites of chocolate each day could decrease the risk of stroke down the line. In a study from Neurology, 37,000 Swedish men aged 45 to 79 recorded their diet over the course of 10 years. Those who ate the most chocolate (62.9 grams per week in this case) were 17 percent less likely to suffer from a stroke than those who nixed the treat entirely. "The key message to take away here is that these studies focus on the intake of dark chocolate," says Heather Calcote, a registered dietician and a program manager at Corporate Wellness Solutions. "Typically this is marked on the package by something containing 65 to 70% cocoa or more. Note that some brands that sell dark chocolate often include milk in their mix. Check ingredient lists and either stick with cocoa powder or selectively choose your dark chocolate."
It's healthy for breakfast (maybe).
Forget what mom always said about breakfast. Earlier this year, researchers at Tel Aviv University claimed that eating cookies and cake in the morning could actually help you lose weight. The study, published in Steroids, looked at about 200 adults on low-calorie diets. Some ate a large, 600-calorie breakfast topped off with a cookie, slice of cake, or doughnut. The others were stuck with a 300-calorie, protein-packed meal of tuna, egg whites, cheese, and milk. Those who lucked out with sweets said they were less hungry and had fewer cravings throughout the day. Moreover, they kept on losing weight in the second half of the study—the low-carb dieters gained back much of what they had shed. Calcote worries that adding a slice of cake or other refined sugars to breakfast could result in a crash a couple hours of later, so she suggests finding more natural ways to sweeten your morning meal. "Having something sweet for breakfast could be as simple as adding honey or agave to oatmeal, topping yogurt with granola or having a frozen berry smoothie," she says.
Chocolate lowers your blood pressure.
Another excuse to buy a candy bar: The same flavanoids that lower the risk of stroke reduce blood pressure, albeit slightly. A review from the Cochrane Collaboration found that in 20 different studies, those who ate between 3 and 100 grams of dark chocolate or cocoa powder each day lowered their blood pressure a little bit, usually from 2 to 3 mg Hg. As always, a bar of dark chocolate is the superhero here. "Having dark chocolate as part of a dessert often means you’re enjoying it alongside saturated fats and sugars," Calcote says. "While these foods don’t take away the benefits of dark chocolate, they’re not doing you any favors."
You'll be better in bed.
Pumpkin is doubly effective: The squash's zinc-packed seeds are known to increase testosterone levels, plus the scent of baking pumping pie could be an aphrodisiac in its own right. A study from the Smell and Taste treatment Research Center in Chicago found that pumpkin pie increased penile blood flow by about 40 percent—and lowered anxiety, to boot. Even if you don't buy the aroma argument, the Thanksgiving staple is a wise choice as far as calories and nutrients go. "Pumpkin pie typically only has about 300 calories per slice, with a hefty dose of Vitamin A, and some fiber, calcium and iron," Calcote says.
You could lose weight.
Simply thinking about how much you're downing while eating bad-for-you foods could stave off love handles. Participants in a study from University of Minnesota's Joseph P. Redden and Texas A&M's Kelly L. Haw were asked to choose a snack, either virtuous or not, and count how many times they chewed while eating. Most dieters felt more satisfied—and therefore exercised more self control over the junky stuff—when they counted their bites than when they munched mindlessly. "This is similar to the approach that the modified Weight Watcher’s program now follows; fruits and vegetables do not count for any 'points,' so dieters can theoretically eat as many fruits and vegetables in a day as they want," Calcote says. "I love that fruits and vegetables are starting to be recognized for nutrients, not sugar or 'healthy' fat content and calories." Translation: have dessert, provided you savor the sugar—and eat your greens, too.