Ice cream is delicious, sweet but full of fat and sugar. How is it, then, that some people consider this frozen dessert to be a food that could benefit your health?

Recently, in an article for The Atlantic, US public health historian David Merritt Johns revealed just how many studies over several decades repeatedly found mysterious health benefits from ice cream. But on the other hand, scientists admit they have no idea how this happened. 

Johns’s ice cream investigation began when he heard a scoop that in 2018, a Harvard Ph.D. student published a study on ice cream and diabetics.

According to this study, diabetics who are half a cup (64 grams) of ice cream each day could slash heart disease risks. 

Investigating further, Johns found out that the study’s data was over 20 years old and was itself observational. In other words, the study couldn’t actually prove that eating ice cream itself is in any way responsible for reducing the risk of heart disease in patients with type 2 diabetes.

Ice cream cone (illustrative) (credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)

In another paper from 2014, researchers investigated dozens of years of dietary follow-up data. They found that a “higher intake of yogurt was associated with a reduced risk” of type 2 diabetes, while other dairy foods were not.

But according to Dariush Mozaffarian of Tufts University and co-author of that paper, “The conclusions weren’t exactly accurately written. Saying no foods were associated — ice cream was associated.

“There’s this perception that ice cream is unhealthy, but it’s got fat, it’s got protein, it’s got vitamins. It’s better for you than bread,” Mozaffarian said, as noted in The Atlantic. “Given how horrible the American diet is, it’s very possible that if somebody eats ice cream and eats less starch… it could actually protect against diabetes.”

“Given how horrible the American diet is, it’s very possible that if somebody eats ice cream and eats less starch… it could actually protect against diabetes.”

Dariush Mozaffarian

“Could the idea that ice cream is metabolically protective be true? It would be pretty bonkers. Still, there are at least a few points in its favor,” Johns wrote, noting that ice cream’s glycemic index is lower than that of brown rice and the supposed benefits of other dairy products.

Along with sugar and fat, there is calcium

Not everyone has been eager to accept these findings. 

“As an academic public health doctor, I’m not going to be rushing out to eat more ice cream based on this research,” Queen Mary University London lecturer and public health doctor John Fort explained, according to The Guardian.

“There are lots of other potential explanations – it may be that people are more likely to have an ice cream to cool down after a walk or some exercise, or it may be that people tend to choose ice cream as a dessert instead of a high-calorie slab of chocolate cake are also likely to substitute other high-fat foods.”

“The problem ultimately is that we try to link a health effect or benefit to a single food, when in reality we eat a variety of foods, and it is our whole dietary pattern that counts,” noted Aston Medical School lecturer and dietitian Duane Mellor, The Guardian reported.

However, Mellor also did concede the point that it is possible that ice cream “may contain some nutrients which could be beneficial,” specifically calcium, and noted its low glycemic index. However, this, too, is something that would likely be outweighed by sugar and calories. “So, overall we should not be considering ice cream as a health food, only something which can be enjoyed in small amounts as part of an overall healthy dietary pattern.”

“I think probably the ice cream is still reverse causation,” Mozaffarian told The Atlantic. “But I’m not sure, and I’m kind of annoyed by that,” he concluded, saying that if ice cream were a patented drug, a company “would have done a $30 million randomized controlled trial to see if ice cream prevents diabetes.”

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