Celebrations aren’t complete without dessert. Even on a normal day, dinner is just a little more special when you know there’s going to be cake. But the three things that make them downright irresistible are the same things we have to watch out for—fat, sugar, and carbs. What a glorious combo! Responsible for hundreds of thousands (dare I say, millions?) of treats around the world. Resolutions and cookie bender hangovers make cutting back on the big three a popular move this time of year, and it’s never a bad idea to have a couple of healthier treat options in your back pocket, but let’s be real: Desserts without sugar, fat, and carbs usually suck.
No one wants to hear me say “just eat seasonal, raw fruit!” Fruit is good, but it’s not a cookie. If you’ve ever had a sugar-free cookie, you understand that making a good one can be a troublesome task. Some desserts made with substitutes have an “off” flavor or textural issues, but there are a number of desserts out there that are truly tasty and far healthier than their sugar-ful, fat-ful counterparts.
Before you start baking, you need to ask yourself a few questions: What are your restrictions? Do you need a diet with no refined sugars? Are natural sweeteners like honey or agave okay? Is sugar totally fine but you’re on a low- or no- fat diet? Maybe you’re trying to go keto? Once you’ve pinpointed what you are trying to avoid, turn to the ingredients you can embrace.
Fats have multiple functions in baking, like providing flavor, improving texture, and emulsifying other ingredients like eggs to aid with binding. It also promotes browning, adding a warm and inviting color. Taking away such an important player usually means it needs to be replaced—either partially or fully—by something that can perform these necessary functions. Look for recipes that use Greek yogurt, bananas, or applesauce, like this greek yogurt banana bread or the apple and honey cake in the next section. Be aware that while applesauce is nearly tasteless in baking, you’ll definitely be able to taste the bananas, and yogurt will provide a subtle tang and plenty of moisture to the finished product.
Let’s not forget the desserts out there that are completely fat-free without even trying. Angel food cake is light, fluffy, and completely satisfying without a gram of fat involved; try this one from Taste of Home with some lightly macerated fruit for a delicious treat. Also, macarons with jam (instead of buttercream filling) are completely fat-free, as are their Italian counterparts amaretti cookies.
Even though they’re considered healthier fats, avoid recipes with lots of nuts, nut butters, and coconut oil if you’re truly trying to avoid fat altogether. (Nuts are high in fat and coconut is high in saturated fat, so you might be unknowingly sabotaging your dessert.)
White, brown, and powdered sugar all contribute to a dessert’s unique texture and flavor. They caramelize during cooking which, like butter, helps give your treat a tempting golden brown hue. But, let’s be real, we love sucrose for its unadulterated sweetness. This makes it tough to replace because it’s not a function, like binding ingredients, so much as an elemental flavor. In this case, your options lie among sugar replacements like Splenda or stevia (which can have a noticeably cool, not-sugar flavor), natural sweeteners like maple syrup, honey, coconut sugar, and agave nectar, or fruit-based ingredients like purées and juices.
This apple and honey cake from The Granola Diaries uses a clever combination of applesauce, honey, and apple slices to provide sweetness, flavor, and texture. Aside from coconut sugar—which can replace white or brown sugar with a 1:1 ratio—most sugar replacements have a different weight, texture, and consistency, making it hard to substitute in your usual recipes. Splenda is a powder, and honey and maple syrup are viscous liquids, so if you try to wing it with a regular sugar recipe, you could end up with a flat cake or a melted-out cookie. Follow specific recipes for these ingredients to ensure success in the finished product.
And lastly, try to find recipes that have a strong flavor profile, especially when working with artificial sweeteners. This sugar-free peanut butter cookie uses a powdered sweetener, like Splenda, but its primary flavor is peanut butter. Desserts with dark chocolate, coffee, peanut butter, or lots of spices will be center stage on your tastebuds so you won’t notice the change in sugar as readily as with a vanilla or citrus dessert.
There are plenty of nutritious, accessible, low-carb replacements that work pretty darn well. Since white and wheat flours provide the bulk of most desserts, you need a replacement that supplies structure with a somewhat neutral flavor, like beans, whipped egg whites, or alternative flours. With many flour companies addressing the needs of folks with allergies or dietary restrictions, they’ve created some decent replacements, but keep your goals in mind because not all flour replacements are low in carbohydrates.
For substitutes that provide more protein and fewer carbs than all-purpose flour, look for recipes that use almond flour or garbanzo bean flour (also called gram flour or besan) like these double chocolate chickpea flour cookies from Occasionally Eggs. Note that most low-carb flour substitutes are gluten-free, so you should not directly substitute alternative flours in any old recipe. Gluten is a binding, structural protein that is present in all-purpose flour but absent in many low-carb flour replacements, so unless a flour substitute explicitly lists vital wheat gluten in the ingredient section, you want to follow recipes that account for the lack of gluten.
If that doesn’t work for you, and you’d prefer an equal proportion substitute, then you can try Arrowhead Mills Protein Flour or make your own low-carb baking flour with this recipe from A Family Feast, using xanthan gum as a binder.
The low trio
I don’t think we’ve talked about beans and sweet potatoes enough. Not your average dessert ingredients—though sweet potatoes make an excellent popsicle—but they provide many of the traits we’re looking for in replacements: binding, structure, a somewhat neutral flavor, far fewer carbohydrates than flour and butter replacements, with the added benefit of nutrients, fiber, and protein.
Sweet potatoes and over-ripe bananas are especially helpful in this area because they are sweet. With naturally occurring sugars, you can cut down on the added stuff dramatically. These substitutions lend themselves well to more compact desserts, so look for ones that are normally dense and fudgy, like brownies or cookies. My favorite recipe for black bean brownies from Live Eat Learn are super chocolatey and have very little oil and sugar per serving. The trick when disguising beans, sweet potatoes, and bananas? Blend the heck out of them. In the event that you want a fluffy treat with barely any sugar, fat or carbs, try my Cinnamon Spiced Sweet Potato Soufflé:
Cinnamon Spiced Sweet Potato Soufflé (Yield: 5 6-ounce ramekins)
- 1 packed cup (9 1/2 ounces) cooked sweet potato
- 2 tablespoons maple syrup
- 1 tablespoon almond milk
- 3 egg yolks
- 1 pinch of salt
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ⅛ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 4 egg whites
- 1 teaspoon melted butter (for greasing ramekins)
- Optional: Sugar, finely ground coconut flakes, or almond flour for dusting
Preheat your oven to 375℉.
Brush a thin coating of melted butter inside each ramekin. Traditionally, you would sprinkle a little granulated sugar inside the ramekin and rotate it to create a thin layer of gritty sugar for the soufflé to “climb.” If you are looking to keep all refined sugar out of this recipe, you can use almond flour or finely ground coconut flakes (I loved the flavor and delicate texture you get with this), or skip the grainy coating altogether for a little less puff.
In a small food processor, purée sweet potato, maple syrup, almond milk, egg yolks, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg until fluffy and silky smooth. Be sure to scrape down the mixture and blend again so no chunks of potato remain. Transfer sweet potato mixture to a medium-sized bowl.
With a hand mixer or stand mixer, use a whisk attachment and a squeaky-clean bowl to whip the egg whites to just barely stiff peaks. The egg whites should be glossy, not dry, and stand at a point with a little lean to it. The idea is for the egg whites to hold onto air bubbles that are not quite at their limit, so they will still have a little room to expand with heat in the oven.
With a rubber spatula, gently fold the whipped egg whites into the sweet potato mixture one third at a time. With the last third, fold in the egg whites until the last streaks of white just disappear. Immediately portion out the soufflé batter into your prepared ramekins. Use a knife or a flat spatula to flatten the tops and put them directly into your 375℉ oven. Bake for 17-20 minutes or until puffed and slightly browned on the edges; the air bubbles on the side should no longer look wet.
Enjoy as is, or garnish with a dusting of powdered sugar or a drizzle of maple syrup.
Indulging in a flavorful sweet now and then won’t ruin your progress, no matter how lofty your health goals. With a few mindful substitutions and the understanding that, yes, your black bean brownie is going to taste different than your favorite bakery’s two sticks of butter and four cups of sugar version—and that’s OK—you’re on your way to feeling extra proud of yourself this year.