Have you ever watched a toddler’s face with an ice cream cone? The first bite, cold and messy and sweet, is a sheer delight.
Desserts bring joy. But for many girls that joy is suppressed somewhere down the line – replaced by stress and fear.
“That shift usually starts around middle school,” says Lucie Hemmen, a Santa Cruz, California psychologist who specializes in my demographic: teenage girls. At that age, she said, we begin to absorb the strange tension of our culture in eating, especially in desserts.
The negative messages bombard us from all directions. On TV, female characters say they shouldn’t have dessert. Ads show women who refuse to get the goodies they want because they are “sinful”. Friends and family members comment on our appetite. Boys are also affected by cultural messages, but girls in particular seem to be told that we are either eating too much or too little, or the wrong foods, or that we should “detoxify” instead.
It’s like being shamed for breathing.
But I’ve come across a powerful secret: some treats may actually be our friends, and not just because they’re the only ones we can safely hang out with during a lockdown. We can bake our own delicious desserts that are good for us in every way and that nourish our body and mind.
When I was 9 years old, I discovered healthy baking. I got a mysterious stomach ache that often kept me in bed all day. After missing half of fourth grade and going doctor by doctor, I still didn’t know what was going on. As a last resort, my parents decided that I should try going gluten free. It worked. Within a few months, all of my symptoms were gone. But there was one big problem. There weren’t any good gluten-free desserts in stores at the time. This meant I was missing out on my favorite food group: baked goods.
So I started creating my own using ingredients like almond flour, dark chocolate, and coconut milk. They were grain-free and low in sugar. To my great surprise – and my family – these treats tasted better than traditional desserts. Because they were less sweet, more flavor came through. We could really taste the strawberry, chocolate, or cinnamon if they weren’t overwhelmed by sugar. And I felt really good after eating them! It was a revelation.
The grain-free, low-sugar baked goods I make are filled with egg whites and saturated fats like butter and coconut oil. Although the conventional wisdom is that butter is linked to cardiovascular disease, some experts argue that butter is actually nutritious and that it is sugar that we should avoid.
Nina Teicholz, author of “The Big Fat Surprise”, claims that common thinking about saturated fat is “completely upside down and backwards”. Studies show that foods with a high protein and fat content keep us full, says Ms. Teicholz. Ideally, we should adjust to our hunger and stop eating when we are full. According to Gary Taubes, author of The Case Against Sugar, traditional treats are high in sugar – which can have the opposite effect, making us hungrier and asking for more candy after we’ve eaten them.
But after a low-sugar dessert, we feel satisfied.
Creating and eating these new goodies has become my favorite part of life. And while blogging and posting about baking on social media, I found that many others – especially young women – share my joy.
Baking is an opportunity for mindfulness, especially during the pandemic.
The soft clink of my whisk on the mixing bowl pulls me into the present moment. This is my meditation. In the kitchen, surrounded by scattered chocolate chips and splashes of melted butter, there are no screens to grab my attention. I am tuned to the sensations of the process. Roll the cookie dough into balls. Flatten it with the palm of my hand. I’m here now and everything else is gone.
As a newcomer to Zoom University, I know how exhausting it is to be online hour after hour every day and to fix my eyes on the bright screen. Dr. Inhibiting indicates that it can make us feel separate from ourselves. Many of their teenage customers “don’t feel real because they are so overwhelmed by the technology”.
When we crack our eggs in the mixing bowl and beat them into a foam, we feel real again. We are being drawn back into the physical world, back into our bodies.
Because we are currently baking, it also brings us into contact with our emotions. A few days ago I created a new brownie recipe. As I was chopping up chocolate, I noticed tears running down my cheeks. I had just read an article that really pissed me off. The emotions seeped into the brownies as I added more cocoa and a spoonful of strong coffee.
You know how an intense shared experience with a friend brings the two of you closer together? Baking is like that. When we get our hands on ingredients, fill them with our emotions and turn them into something delicious, a connection is created between us and the food. The finished product becomes more than an object on a plate.
After this slow, mindful process in the kitchen, the experience of eating also becomes mindful. When we sit down with our desserts, we receive them as gifts. We enjoy every part of this gift because we can feel all the care we put into it.
The other day I made a grain-free peanut butter chocolate chip cookie. When I pulled it out of the oven, the scent of vanilla wafted away. I sunk my spoon in the center of the huge cookie and took a bite. The nuttiness mingled with the bittersweet chocolate chips that melted on my tongue. My stomach was happy and so was my mood.
Sadie Radinsky is a freshman at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of “Whole Girl: Live Alive, Love Your Whole Self, and Make Friends with Food.”