Drawing a Line in the Sugar with Chef Emily Luchetti

A Little Dessert Goes a Long Way for Emotional Connections

Posted Dec 14, 2015

How do we deal with delicious, enticing desserts during the holidays? Worry about weight gain, sugar intake and maintaining a healthy diet can take over the mind. Some people become self-critical, depressed, pre-occupied or self-loathing if they overeat, gain a few pounds or even take a bite or two. They feel they have “failed”; give up, binge, then secretly despair or overeat to punish themselves. Losing control can induce a sense of shame. No need. We all slip up. As a colleague once said, the goal is not to never fall off track, but rather to get back on once you have.

Restriction can be a challenge when an array of scrumptious desserts catches your eye and rouses your palette. It is not the sugar alone that beckons. When we reach for the pie, cookie or cake during a holiday it is often a chance to convene with a treasured past or precious culture. Desserts conjure a sense of connection, warmth, history and belonging. Tradition has a powerful effect, both psychologically and emotionally.

In this guest blog, celebrity chef, author, Chief Pastry Officer at Marlowe, Park Tavern, Cavalier and soon to open Leo’s Luxury Bar in San Francisco, Emily Luchetti helps us think about what desserts mean to us and how to let ourselves enjoy them. Chef Luchetti is also the creator of dessertworthy (http://www.emilyluchetti.com), a campaign designed to help us remain mindful of our sweet indulgences. You can also find her at:



Chef Emily Luchetti:

by Chloe Barron
Source: by Chloe Barron

While proteins, vegetables, and some carbohydrates are physically essential for physical survival, desserts are necessary in a different way. Sweets bring us pleasure and pleasure is emotionally important. Delicious desserts, rustic to refined, offer opportunities for human connection and conversation.  

Dessert, the denouement of a delicious meal, has a significant impact on social interaction. Lingering, sharing stories and laughing are more likely when there’s a really good dessert. A moist layer cake, slathered with frosting and lovingly prepared, elevates a birthday experience even if the singing is a little flat. Enlivened senses lodge memories. Over a lifetime, small moments add up and have a profound impact on our lives.

Dessert-connectedness is especially true around the holidays. By recreating traditional family recipes, we cement who we are and where we came from. Mom’s Gingerbread, Grandpa’s chocolate truffles and Grandma’s chestnut cream pie can make the world seem “right.” Whether the treat is homemade, Panettone purchased at the Italian market or Bûche de Noël picked up at a Patisserie, does not matter. It is the personal association that counts.  Even questionable desserts are great for family lore and laughter.  “I can’t believe Uncle George sent us those terrible rum balls again this year,” or “That fruitcake!  It can’t be back!”

For bakers, this time of year is intense. Family and friends, no longer living, are still with us in the kitchen. As we stir, sift, pour and scrape, we recall their tastes, preparations and favorite dishes. After a day of baking in the kitchen I am satiated by the act of creation, the smell and the warm inner feeling. All’s well, so I don’t search for a good feeling via by overindulging. Bakers are part of a history of nurture and delight bigger than our selves. We bake for the satisfaction of creating, because we are drawn to the requisite exactness and because we like to give pleasure to others. Nothing feels better than the look of bliss on someone’s face when they take a bite! We are in our element and it is our way of giving.

But at the risk of being a Grinch, we all need to calibrate our sweets intake. Love and desire for desserts can be balanced with awareness of health needs.  Consuming too much, too often can transform desserts from an uplifting eating experience to a destructive or depressing one. Weight gain or a lousy feeling from too much sugar, high fructose corn syrup or fat in your system is not a positive for either baker or consumer.

Recognizing and reconciling the conflicting attitude we have towards dessert is a way to manage holiday temptations. It comes down to who’s in control. Controlling dessert, rather than having it control you, is key. Where and when to draw a line in the sugar is different for each of us. Personally, my method is to indulge, but when I can’t pull on my favorite jeans without sucking in my stomach, I know I have to cut down. That’s the physical cue.

Mentally it’s a bit trickier but I have discovered that I enjoy desserts most when with others. Both the dessert and the interaction are somehow more intense. (The exception to this is the piece of bittersweet chocolate I enjoy solo at my desk in the afternoon. Perhaps the afternoon snack habit stays within as a positive layover from childhood.) I have found that if I eat sweets in the morning, I tend to crave them, so I try to stick to protein before noon.

Scapegoating sugar is not the answer to a healthy diet. Greens, grains, protein and fruit are a big part of eating well.   http://bit.ly/18XLVee.   Portion control is a tried and true solution, but being too stringent is not a good idea. One nutritionist says, “Instead of denying yourself the object of your affection—and thereby stoking its appeal—focus on portion control and breaking bad dessert habits.” http://ti.me/1U7ndeq.  There are many delicious options that support good dessert habits.

The human connection aspect of dessert is a form of nurture and delight. And in the end, even if you have more pie than you planned, so be it. Getting back on track minus self-recrimination is a form of empowerment and mindfulness. Knowing your ideal intake and having a method to swiftly return to healthy habits after inevitable, occasional lapses, is a way to stay satisfied and well.

Bottom line? Take desserts easy, but take them. Desserts provide emotional and aesthetic comfort as well as sugar satisfaction.  Moderate intake protects health, provides joy and enhances human connections. Keep desserts worthy for the sake of your emotional and physical health. It can be a great way to enjoy the holidays.  And since altruism has the same impact on the brain as sugar, (according to physician and nutrition expert Dr. Mark Hyman http://bit.ly/1YM2RKg ) if you bake for others, you might eat less yourself!