Is Ice Cream Really That Bad For You? The Answer May Surprise You.

If you play by a few rules, this could work out very well for you.

When it comes to flavor and satisfaction, ice cream is a clear 10 out of 10. But it’s also packed with sugar, calories and sometimes artificial additives, so from a health-conscious perspective, it feels like something you should only eat once in a while ― and certainly not every day.

What if you did eat ice cream every day, though? Would it actually destroy your health? We asked some registered dietitians, and here’s what they had to say.

Is it ‘bad’ to eat ice cream every day?

Tamar Samuels, a registered dietitian and co-founder of Culina Health, is hesitant to label any food (or the frequency with which one eats it) as “good” or “bad.”

“Doing this can trigger feelings of shame, guilt and fear, potentially leading to an unhealthy relationship with food,” she said. Plus, everyone has their own nutritional needs that can vary wildly from person to person.

Maggie Michalczyk, a registered dietitian and founder of Once Upon a Pumpkin, had a similar take.

“I don’t like classifying one type of food as ‘bad’ or that you are ‘bad’ if you eat XYZ, but as we know, there are more nutritious foods and less nutritious foods out there,” she said. “Ice cream is a calorie-dense, high-sugar, high-fat food that can be enjoyed in moderation in a healthy diet.”

Incidentally, that's way more than one serving.
MmeEmil via Getty Images
Incidentally, that's way more than one serving.

There are many ice creams on the market with many different nutritional profiles, so it’s always important to read labels. But for the sake of generalising, know this: One 2/3-cup serving of Häagen-Dazs vanilla bean ice cream contains 32 grams of sugar and 13g of saturated fat. The American Heart Association’s recommended daily limit for added sugar intake is no more than 36g for men and 25g for women. And as far as saturated fat goes, the AHA recommends no more than 13g per day for someone on a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet. So that one serving of ice cream pretty much takes up your whole day’s worth of both sugar and saturated fat.

But that’s not necessarily a reason to banish ice cream entirely.

Registered dietitian Edwina Clark says that while it’s true that ice cream is high in saturated fat and sugar, it can be a daily part of a healthy diet. Actually, it has some health benefits.

“A scoop of ice cream every night in the context of an otherwise healthy diet is unlikely to ruin your health,” she said. “Moreover, ice cream is a source of calcium, magnesium and B12, and often provides enjoyment and nostalgia, which are important functions of food.”

Let’s hear some more about those benefits

No, you didn’t read that wrong: Unlike many other sweet treats, ice cream actually comes with some health upsides.

“The protein and fat found in ice cream can help slow the absorption of sugar, which is better from a blood sugar standpoint than something like gummy bears, which are almost exclusively all sugar and will spike your blood sugar more,” Michalczyk said. “You are also getting a little bit of protein and calcium when you eat ice cream.”

Additionally, Samuels noted, milk and cream are a good source of vitamin A, an essential nutrient for promoting eye health and supporting immune function.

“These dairy products also provide choline, which plays a vital role in early brain development and metabolism,” she said. “The higher fat content of ice cream may also lead to increased satiety compared to other desserts that are mostly high in sugar and refined carbohydrates.” (Of course, this all depends on the fat content and dairy source of the ice cream you buy.)

Recent research also shows that despite their high saturated fat content, consuming whole-milk dairy foods doesn’t increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. It’s worth noting, however, that the research on this topic mostly looked at whole-milk dairy foods that are considered a bit healthier than ice cream, like milk, cheese and yogurt.

What about non-dairy ice cream?

Do the same rules apply to non-dairy ice cream? Michalczyk emphasised that it’s not necessarily better.

“Non-dairy ice creams are still typically high in sugar and fat,” she said. “One thing to note is that a lot of additional ingredients can be added to non-dairy ice cream to make it taste just like the real stuff. Some may contain artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols, preservatives, thickeners and additional additives.”

Clark noted that the nutrition composition of non-dairy desserts will vary widely depending on the base.

“The base can be almond, cashew, soy, oat or coconut milk,” she said. “Similar to ice cream, non-dairy frozen desserts are typically high in saturated [fat] and sugar, making them more of an indulgence than a dietary staple.”

Size matters

Whether you’re going for non-dairy ice cream or the real thing, all three dietitians emphasise that if you’re going to eat ice cream every day, the most important thing to be mindful of is portion size.

“A single serving, [which is often a] half-cup, per day is the maximum I recommend for most,” Clark said. “That said, there are certain situations where more than that can be helpful ― for example, when someone needs to put on weight or has extremely high-calorie needs.”

It’s also important to look at your diet as a whole. If you’re eating a bunch of sugar throughout the day, adding ice cream to the mix probably isn’t the best idea. Finally, Samuels said, do your best to choose whole ingredients, when it comes to dairy and non-dairy ice cream alike. “Stick with products that contain whole food ingredients you recognise, like sugar and vanilla,” she said.

Still ― did we just get news from three dietitians that eating ice cream can be a part of a healthy diet? It certainly seems like it. That’s something to celebrate!