Dessert can mean different things for different people, or even different foods for the same person on different days. Either way, it tastes great and it’s like a reward — you feel good when you get to eat something sweet as a treat.
But desserts are high in sugar and carbs — there’s no getting around that stereotype. You might think that you need to say goodbye to it when you're training, since sugar and white flour aren’t healthy and can make you feel more lethargic and bloated. So, do athletes actually need to ditch dessert?
“When training, dessert can still be a normal part of your eating pattern," Kelly Jones, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, says. "Depending on your personal digestive system, you may need to pay attention to the composition and quantity eaten around difficult training sessions, and back off of certain sweet foods right before a race.”
You can keep dessert in your diet as an athlete, just in a healthy way. Here’s how.
What Is a Good Dessert for Athletes?
Desserts That Aren't Super High in Saturated Fat
“In general, dessert foods that are very rich in saturated fat or those that are fried may impact the digestive tract and therefore your workout later or the next day," Jones says. "So if you train in the afternoon or evening, I'd advise almost anyone to skip dessert after lunch and plan to have it after dinner instead."
However, if you typically have a treat at night, you need to weigh out how tomorrow's workout looks. For example, ice cream may cause moderate bloating for some people, because it is high in saturated fat, sugar, and carbs.
“If you're craving ice cream one night but don't have a tough workout in the morning, you may just enjoy what you're craving since you have some time for your digestive tract to calm down before you train again,” she says. “However, if you have an important training session or a competition the next day, you may skip it, or choose a smaller portion of a dairy-free option that you know doesn't impact your digestive tract."
It Doesn’t Always Seem Like Dessert, but It's Naturally Sweet
However, if — to you — dessert often looks more like some yogurt with berries and granola, have at it!
“So long as it's a protein-rich yogurt option, this could actually be a great evening snack to supply carbs and protein for nighttime repair processes,” Jones says.
Dark chocolate with almond butter, or maple oatmeal with a ripe banana and nut butter may also satisfy nighttime cravings for many people. You can even try a healthier mug cookie or muffin.
“But don't try to convince yourself that these more nutrient-rich dessert options are what you enjoy if you're really craving something else," she says. "That can ultimately lead to binging on the dessert that you're actually craving, which could impact your digestive function and mood for days. Therefore, it is way more detrimental to training or competition than if you just enjoyed a smaller portion of the food that you like in the first place."
Pay Attention to Cravings and Indulge When They Appear
If you notice that you have strong cravings for sweets every night rather than randomly desiring dessert at various times, it may be a sign that you aren't eating enough calories or carbs, or that your meals are poorly balanced in macronutrients (meaning they are low in any of the following: carbs, fiber, protein, or fat).
“In that case, satisfy your craving in the moment, but then try to eat more earlier in the day for several days to see if your evening sweets cravings become less regular,” she says.
If you truly want dessert, enjoy it. But you don't need to start eating it if you'd rather just have balanced mid-morning, afternoon, and evening snacks.
“If you like to enjoy dessert at night a few hours after dinner and you're in a heavy training period, evaluate what you're getting out of that dessert and consider adding something with it so you're providing more recovery nutrients,” she says.
For example, if chocolate chip cookies are your favorite dessert, consider enjoying one or two with Greek yogurt to add protein, which will stabilize blood sugar and improve muscle repair and strength.
“For those with daily training sessions lasting longer than an hour or even two-a-day workouts, don't worry so much about sugar and instead focus on bringing balance to your snacks,” she advises.
If sugary candy is your favorite thing to snack on, add some fat in addition to protein to stabilize your blood sugar response and also offer more nutrients for recovery. It’s easy to combine ingredients and increase fat and protein count on naturally-sweet, portioned-out desserts.
“That may even look like a spoonful of natural peanut butter, or making a healthy strawberry milkshake,” she says.