THE BLOG
05/29/2013 02:01 pm ET Updated Jul 29, 2013

Time for Ice Cream in Your Diet!

The slush and remnants of snow were still on the muddy ground when the ice cream truck appeared at the corner of the park by our house. It will be there, each day, until summer passes and Thanksgiving weekend is over. Several weeks later, the lines are long and as many adults as children wait for their soft-serve ice cream cones and cups. Yesterday, a man wearing a well-tailored suit and carrying a briefcase walked away with a cone that towered so high, I hoped he had a stack of napkins to catch the inevitable drips.

Eating ice cream -- or its close cousins gelato, frozen yogurt, sorbet or soft serve -- is a seasonal treat (like buying the first bunch of daffodils or tulips), and as such should not be denied just because one is on a diet. And unless the dieter is following a program that forbids eating any sweet, creamy food that is cold on the tongue, it should be possible to fold the calories from one of these frozen delights into the day's calorie count without inhibiting weight loss. The key seems to be sticking to a half-cup serving size and avoiding the tempting but truly fattening sundaes and added high-fat ingredients.

Should you choose gelato over ice cream? Frozen yogurt, be it Greek or not, over ice cream? Perhaps soft serve versus hard ice cream? It turns out that the calorie count for all of these products hovers around 200 for a half-cup. Unless you are eating a fat-free, sugar-free item that is mostly air and filler, the difference is really in taste and texture.

Gelato is the Italian version of ice cream. It is sweet and creamy, and if you find a gelato store, you will be dazzled by the array of colors and flavors. Gelato has somewhat fewer calories than ice cream; an average half-cup serving has 150 calories versus 200 from regular ice cream because it contains less butterfat. However, it actually tastes creamier. The reason is that much less air is beaten into the mixture, giving it a denser mouth feel. In fact, it is so dense, it is impossible to eat quickly, thus extending the enjoyable experience of eating it.

What about frozen yogurt instead of ice cream? Or Greek frozen yogurt? Although it seems reasonable to assume that the frozen yogurts are less caloric, the caloric difference between them and ice cream may be unimportant. Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia Ice Cream (half-cup) is 240 calories, while the company's Raspberry Fudge Chunk Greek Frozen Yogurt (half-cup) is also 200 calories and its Fudge Brownie Frozen (non-Greek) Yogurt (half-cup) is 180 calories. If your frozen Greek yogurt scoop drips while you are eating it, the calories may end up the same.

Sorbet has fewer calories, around 150 per cup, and most flavors are fat-free. However, chocolate and coconut sorbet do contain some fat and are higher in calories. The calorie contents of soft-serve ice cream that comes out of a nozzle and can be whirled into a tower with a little comma on the top may vary much more. For example, soft-serve JP Licks has 150 calories for a half-cup, while Tasti D-Lite is considerably less, mainly because it contains very little fat but lots of gum and other thickening agents. But, if you add hot fudge topping and whipped cream to even light soft-serve ice cream, the calories bounce up to well over 300 a half-cup serving.

The problem with all these calculations is the serving size. The calorie counts depend on the size of the scoop, and also on whether a cone or cup is dipped in a fudge coating and/or cookies, nuts and candy are added into the mixture.

It is hard to imagine how the six-inch-high ice cream lapped up by the man in the suit could fit into a half-cup serving. A half a cup is not a very large measure. Indeed, even so-called kiddie cones seem to come in larger sizes than a half-cup. A few years ago, Good Housekeeping surveyed serving sizes of ice cream around New York City and found no consistency in the amount scooped. Maybe it depends on how tired the wrist of the server is so that by the end of the day, less is put into the cone or cup than when the server comes to work.

Perhaps the most strategic approach to indulging in ice cream or other frozen delights while dieting, is to be cautious in what you choose. Kiddie-size cones or cups will approximate the half-cup serving size, and if you choose low-fat ice cream or frozen yogurt, you should be eating no more than 200 calories, more or less. Avoid waffle cones; they have 120 calories compared to 17 in a regular cone and 20 in a sugar cone. As yummy and tempting as they are, don't pick ice cream stuffed with chocolate, caramel, nuts, cookie dough and peanut butter -- and no hot fudge sauce.

The pleasure of an ice cream in the summer should come from the combination of warm sun on your skin and cold ice cream on your tongue. And that should be enough.

For more by Judith J. Wurtman, Ph.D., click here.

For more on diet and nutrition, click here.

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