The Margin: Should we all be switching to the ice-cream diet? Here’s the scoop on a controversial idea.

Put aside for a moment all that nutritional advice about eating fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins. Could one key to good health actually be a diet rich in … ice cream?

That’s the tantalizing question raised by a new story in the Atlantic, which states, “Studies show a mysterious health benefit to ice cream. Scientists don’t want to talk about it.”

The story, which seems destined to create controversy, is a deep dive into how nutritional science works — for better and for worse. It begins by looking at Harvard research from 2018 showing that diabetics who consumed half a cup of ice cream a day had a lower risk of heart disease. And it notes that other studies had drawn similar conclusions.

As David Merritt Johns, author of the story, dug into the issue, he found himself more fascinated — and more puzzled — by the idea of ice cream being good for you. “Am I high on my own ice-cream supply?” he writes. 

But as Johns told MarketWatch, he wasn’t really interested in “making a judgment about ice cream.” Rather, he was trying to gain a better understanding of the research process itself, and how conclusions are drawn — correctly or not.

Nutritionists whom MarketWatch spoke with didn’t think there was much merit to the idea of ice cream becoming a requisite part of our diet for health’s sake.

“Nah, I just won’t do that,” says Stefanie Sacks, a nutritionist and chef and author of “What the Fork Are You Eating?”

Sacks says you can certainly enjoy ice cream in moderation — “I do not believe in deprivation” — but with an understanding of its place within a balanced diet. And even then she says you should be eating ice cream “that doesn’t have any junk in it” — meaning no food additives or chemicals and no toppings or mix-ins (think plain vanilla or chocolate, not a hot-fudge sundae).

As Johns pored over study after study touching upon consumption of ice cream, or dairy products in general, though, he found reasons that researchers might find evidence to support consuming the frozen sweet stuff for health reasons. 

In general, research has shown the importance of dairy foods in a diet, though there’s the question as to which foods provide true benefit, Johns notes in the story. Yogurt has been cited as a particularly good option: One study found that consuming roughly a third of a cup a day reduced the risk of getting diabetes by 14%. 

But there’s a case to be made for ice cream, which remains a favorite treat in the U.S. The average American devours 23 pounds of ice cream and related frozen desserts annually, according to the International Dairy Foods Association.

As Johns writes, “ice cream’s glycemic index, a measure of how rapidly a food boosts blood sugar, is lower than that of brown rice.” He goes on to point to a researcher’s observation that “it’s very possible that if somebody eats ice cream and eats less starch … it could actually protect against diabetes.”

Indeed, that researcher was with Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, the same institution behind Food Compass, billed as “a new nutrient profiling system” designed “to help consumers, food companies, restaurants, and cafeterias choose and produce healthier foods.”

Read more: Looking to lose weight in 2023? The choice between a bag of Fritos and a multigrain bagel might not be as simple as you’d think.

The “compass” rates foods on a 1-to-100 scale, with 1 being the least healthy and 100 being the most healthy. And while a helping of chocolate ice cream with nuts served in a cone has a grade of 37 — not exactly a huge thumbs-up — that still puts it ahead of a serving of Kellogg’s

Corn Flakes (19 points) and a multigrain bagel with raisins (19), both starchy foods that some might have thought of as healthier.

Of course, the case for ice cream can’t be made without a few doubt-raising asterisks. Indeed, researchers have questioned the nature of their own findings, which were often part of larger dietary studies — meaning the focus wasn’t on ice cream, per se.

The average American devours 23 pounds of ice cream and related frozen desserts annually, according to the International Dairy Foods Association.

In the article, Johns points to one factor that could be skewing the data: It’s possible that some people involved in a dietary study have health issues, and so they decide to cut back on ice cream as a result. That would mean the people in the study who were eating ice cream were healthier by nature. So in effect, the ice cream wasn’t necessarily causing them to be healthy, even though the data make the link between ice cream and healthy people.

Nutritionists contacted by MarketWatch say that to convince them of ice cream’s health benefits, there would need to be a very controlled study that looked at ice-cream consumption pretty much by itself and didn’t mix in other foods or variables. 

Dawn Jackson Blatner, a nutritionist and author of “The Flexitarian Diet” and “The Superfood Swap,” says she understands the temptation to buy into the idea of ice cream as a miracle food. But she cautions that almost nothing we eat is going to fit that bill.

“The moral of the story is that no one food is going to be our biggest savior or biggest downfall,” she says. 

As for Johns, he agrees that it will take a more controlled study to offer a surer verdict about the benefits of ice cream. In the meanwhile, he still likes his ice cream, he says, and working on the Atlantic story hasn’t changed his consumption habits one way or the other. 

“I ate a certain amount before, and I’ve continued on that path,” he told MarketWatch.


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