Are the New Studies on Ice Cream Health Benefits True?

Emily Boynton Fact Checked
Ice cream cone
© Ruth Black / Stocksy United

Seattle might be known for its coffee and seafood, but when the temperatures rise and Seattleites flock to Alki Beach or Volunteer Park, ice cream takes summer’s centerstage.  

We’ve got seasonal scoops with Washington-grown berries. Ginger beer ice cream floats. Boozy shakes, throwback sundaes and even soft serve swirled into taiyaki fish cones. 

So, it makes sense if those recent headlines about the health benefits of eating ice cream feel like the cherry on top.  

But is the news too sweet to be true? 

Are there health benefits to eating ice cream? 

Like eating a double scoop before it melts on your hand, it’s complicated.  

All those headlines about ice cream being healthy are citing a 2018 dissertation by a Harvard doctoral student on the health outcomes associated with eating dairy fat. 

The researcher analyzed data from three survey studies that collected dietary and health information over multiple years. During that time, participants filled out questionnaires on what they ate, and then models were used to estimate health risks associated with eating various foods.   

From there, the researcher looked to see what health risks were associated with eating dairy fats, in particular whether they increased the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and if dairy fats increased the risk of cardiovascular disease in people who already had Type 2 diabetes. 

“The overarching theme compared the consumption of dairy fat in general to other foods, and they noticed a higher risk of cardiovascular disease with meat and refined carbs than dairy,” says Morgan Chojnacki, a dietitian at UW Medical Center – Montlake.   

Meaning, if you are choosing between eating dairy fat (ice cream, yoghurt or cheese) or eating either animal fat (pork, steak or bacon) or refined carbohydrates (white bread, pasta, pastries), dairy fat may have less risk of causing heart problems.  

This doesn’t exactly mean eating ice cream is comparable to eating broccoli, though.  

“People who ate a small amount of ice cream each day were less likely by just a tiny little bit to have a cardiovascular event than other foods. But even though ice cream didn’t increase cardiovascular risk, it does increase other problems associated with high blood sugar,” says Chojnacki. 

Other research has found eating too much ice cream can cause complications for folks with diabetes, prediabetes and PCOS, and, like other highly processed food, it can increase the likelihood of developing some cancers.  

It’s also important to keep in mind that the study was not an experiment in which some people were randomly assigned to eat ice cream and others not, which would be a better test of the benefits or harms of eating ice cream. And it largely looked at healthcare professionals of European ancestry. So it’s an interesting observation, but it’s far from proof and doesn’t translate into helpful guidance for your summer sweets. 

Ice cream is OK in moderation 

Where does the rubber meet the (rocky) road?  

“I wouldn’t say eat more ice cream, but if you like it and you eat it every now and then, it’s fine to have some,” Chojnacki says.  

If you want some ways to enjoy your ice cream and feel satisfied, she has tips here, too: 

  • Add some protein. Ice cream already has some protein in it, but topping your treat with chopped nuts will give you a boost of protein and fiber, which will make you feel fuller faster.  
  • Portion it out. It’s all too easy to indulge more than you wanted to if you’re eating from the tub. Dish out your dessert into a cup or bowl to help yourself be more mindful. 
  • Try lower-sugar flavors. If you’re looking to cut back on sugar, you can try high-protein low sugar brands — though Chojnacki notes if you’re just trying to be healthy and don’t enjoy the dessert, you’re better off eating the ice cream you like but doing so less often. 

“The dietetics I practice is that all foods fit. Really, that’s what I take away from this study. If you want ice cream as your treat, you’re probably fine, as long as it’s something you consume in moderation,” she says.