Is Ice Cream Healthy?

Published: 2023-05-29 00:00:00

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What is ice cream, exactly?  According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there is a specific formulation for ice cream that differentiates it from gelato, sorbet, sherbet, or plant-based non-dairy alternatives.  By definition, ice cream is made from milk, cream, or some combination of those and it must weigh a minimum of 4.5 pounds to the gallon.  At least 20% of its weight must come from milk solids, with at least 10% of that being from milkfat.  

During the 1980s, Harvard researchers began collecting food frequency questionnaires and medical data from thousands of health care workers.  Harvard's first observational study of Type 2 diabetes and dairy came out in 2005 and was based on data collected between 1986 and 1998.  The researchers claimed that a higher consumption of low-fat dairy products was associated with a lower risk of developing diabetes.  According to the results, men who consumed two or more servings of skim or low-fat milk every day experienced a 22% lower risk of diabetes.  Interestingly, according to the same study, the men who ate two or more servings of ice cream per week also had the same results.

Dr. Mark Pereira, an epidemiologist and community health professor at the University of Minnesota, found that dairy-based desserts such as ice cream were associated with a heavily reduced chance of developing insulin- resistance syndrome, a precursor to diabetes, among overweight people.  However, these alleged health benefits were not publicized.  Rather, scientists focused on the supposed health benefits of yogurt.  According to Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, cardiologist and professor of nutrition at Tufts University, the effects of yogurt and ice cream were fairly similar.  He said, "Within the realm of statistical uncertainty, they're identical."

In 2018, a Harvard doctoral student named Andres Ardisson Korat was led to a strange conclusion during one of his studies: for those with diabetes, eating half of a cup of ice cream per day was associated with a lower risk of heart problems.  While his study was not the first to produce such results, he said, "There are few plausible explanations for these results."  Harvard's nutrition team has continued its search for answers by looking at prior studies, considering new hypotheses, and performing dozens of tests.

One thing to consider is that ice cream's glycemic index (a measure of how rapidly a food boosts a person's blood sugar) is lower than that of brown rice.  "There's this perception that ice cream is unhealthy, but it's got fat, it's got protein, it's got vitamins.  It's better for you than bread," Mozaffarian said. "Given how horrible the American diet is, it's very possible that if somebody eats ice cream and eats less starch - it could actually protect against diabetes."

You can also use ice cream as a reason to eat other nutrient-dense foods.  If you top your ice cream with foods like antioxidant-rich berries or protein-packed nuts, you will get a serving of these healthy foods that you wouldn't otherwise.  Toppings such as strawberries, bananas, walnuts, and peanut butter will level up the texture and flavor profile of your ice cream - and you'll be getting extra vitamins, minerals, fiber, and protein!

The Guardian reported that neuroscientists observed that when people ate ice cream, it stimulated the orbitofrontal cortex, described by one researcher as the "happy zone of the brain."  Other health experts point to a similar notion in the way ice cream can prompt your body to release endorphins, which are neurotransmitters that relieve your body from stress and physical pain.  

Dr. Duane Mellor, a senior lecturer and dietitian at Aston Medical School, said, "So, overall we should not be considering ice-cream as a health food, only something which can be enjoyed in small amounts as part of an overall health dietary pattern."  Choose your flavor wisely and eat responsibly.  But don't feel guilty for the occasional scoop - it is summer, after all!

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