Why Ice Cream Makes Us Feel So Good

Need to cool off on a hot summer day? You guessed it, ice cream!

By Amanda Jowsey 

Dietitian Sheila Flavin
Dietitian Sheila Flavin

It seems that there is one go-to food that fits just about any occasion. Bad breakup? Ice cream. Feeling stressed? Ice cream. Celebrating? Ice cream. Need to cool off on a hot summer day? You guessed it, ice cream!

What is it about this tasty treat that makes us feel so good? Turns out that there are actually scientific reasons for our enjoyment of a cold pint, cone, dish or shake, however you prefer to get your fill.

1. Dairy-based ice cream contains several vitamins and minerals. 

The vitamin D, calcium, iron and potassium in ice cream benefit overall well being. Registered dietitian Sheila Flavin wants people to be cautious when considering these nutritional benefits, however.

“The reason you eat ice cream is not for the nutritional benefits, but it’s what I put in the category of a fun food. It’s celebratory. It tastes good because of the high sugar content and the high fat content. The two of those together make it very palatable. There’s definitely room for fun foods in your diet,” Flavin said.

Chiropractor Paul Bluestein also helps to set the record straight on the nutritional component of ice cream. Bluestein is the founder and president of Patient Advantage, a personal medical research and patient advocacy firm.

In ice cream, “If you include other items that are healthy, walnuts, bananas, pecans, small fruits etc, there can be another small component that would add to the nutritional value. Artificial flavors have a negative effect. Colorings make it a less perfect food. You don’t want the extra chemicals,” Bluestein said. “Many cheaper ice creams with artificial flavors and coloring wipe out all the nutritional benefits.”

The bottom line is that high quality, dairy-based ice cream with little to no additives is the best way to keep its feel-good benefit alive.

Chiropractor Paul Bluestein
Chiropractor Paul Bluestein

2. It boosts energy.

The carbohydrates, fats, proteins and sugar in this sweet treat all help to keep us moving. “It’s the sugar high that elevates mood,” Bluestein said. “It’s a big burst. The fat component also has that type of trigger. The fat component is more likely to make you want to eat more of it. Ice cream is a mix of both saturated and unsaturated fats, but both help satisfy the body’s need for fat to energy conversion.

3. It can provide natural relaxation. 

Ice cream is made from milk and contains high levels of L-tryptophan. This amino acid helps to produce serotonin and melatonin. Some research suggests that having sufficient levels of L-tryptophan affects hormonal balance, thought patterns and behavior. According to Bluestein, “The amounts are relatively high in dairy products. If you’re making ice cream from real cream and real milk, you are going to have higher levels of L-tryptophan. Some research suggests that it’s an aid to sleeping.”

You would, however, have to consume a significant amount of this tasty treat for it to have any sustained impact on emotional regularity or improved sleep.

4. It triggers happiness.

The Institute of Psychiatry in London examined people’s brains when eating ice cream. They found that a part of the brain that registers emotional pleasure, the orbitofrontal cortex, was activated. According to the Journal of Nutritional Health and Food Engineering, ice creams that are rich in protein also increase the odds of boosting tyrosine levels in the brain, a neurotransmitter that raises dopamine levels. They also state that eating sweets causes the release of endogenous opiates which influence mood and the ability to calm down. 

Flavin said there can be “a heightened response to dopamine” when eating ice cream, especially if you go without it for a long time. “If you restrict a food like ice cream… and then you finally eat it, your body will overreact and produce extra amounts of dopamine and your brain explodes with pleasure,” Flavin explained.

She specializes in treating those with eating disorder issues. People have to be careful with restricting desserts like ice cream because it can ultimately lead to overeating. It’s OK not only to allow desserts in the diet, but to enjoy them and feel good about them when eaten in moderation, Flavin said.

Adding natural flavors or ingredients to the ice cream introduces another variable, Bluestein explained.

Chocolate, for example, in its natural form, has solids that are both antioxidants and mood boosters.

“Having chocolate ice cream is actually a different experience than having vanilla,” Bluestein said. “You’re going to get a bigger happy feeling out of chocolate ice cream, theoretically, than you would vanilla or other flavors.”

There is, of course, the emotional component to eating ice cream. That happy connection to our childhood that plays a role.

“It’s hard to connect a bad memory with ice cream. It’s a treat. It’s a reward. That psychological piece is there,” Bluestein said.

Of course, like all things, moderation is key. If you are an otherwise healthy individual and you love to indulge in this creamy cold snack, you can put aside your guilt. Ice cream really does make you happy.

I tried to interview a cow for this story to see how she felt about helping to make one of the world’s most beloved treats. All she said was “mooooo!”