“Dessert Stomach,” Sensory Specific Satiety, and Overeating

But First, a Disclaimer

I always like to preface posts like this with the disclaimer that I love food.


First anniversary frozen cake

Frozen hot chocolate at Serendipity

All the meat

Pizza in Milan

More pizza in France

And these are just the food photos that I’m actually in – I could add hundreds more in which I’m behind the camera.

I add this disclaimer because posts like these can come across easily as cold and clinical – the strict moralizing of someone who has not had a lifelong passion for all things culinary.

But don’t be fooled. I may quote studies, but I don’t just speak from the point of view of research and experiments.

I also speak from the difficult but rewarding personal experience of re-building a healthy and positive relationship with food over time. 

Because my “love” for food, at one time, also took me here:

And here:

This was one of those wake-up-call pictures for me.

In other words, I’m not giving advice from the ivory tower. I’m sharing the specific tools that have worked for me in the real world to maintain a near-50-pound weight loss, as well as what has worked for so many of my clients to manage their habits and improve their health.

Now, onto the topic of the day…

Sensory Specific Satiety

Today, we’re wrapping up June’s theme of “Outsmarting Yourself” with one of the simplest tricks in the book – cutting down on the variety you encounter at each meal. 

Why is variety being blamed here? Shouldn’t we all eat balanced and varied diets?

The short answer is “yes,” when it comes to vitamins and minerals in the big picture sense. Of course you shouldn’t cut down on the variety of fruits and vegetables that you include in your diet. But you probably already know that.

What I’m really talking about is the amount of variety you have at each meal, in terms of the number and types of courses, and the selection of foods you have available for a single meal.

Put simply: it is easier to overeat when variety is available. You may know this phenomenon as “dessert stomach” (what happens when you’re stuffed, but still magically have room for the sweets course).

The more science-y name for it is “sensory specific satiety,” and I want to hone in on that key word: “sensory.”

Eating is a rich and rewarding mental and physical experience, not limited to appeasing hunger. As humans, we love eating (and some evidence even suggests that people who struggle with weight management may get even more out of the experience than “naturally” lean people).

In other words, eating feels good, and the phrase “sensory specific satiety” refers to the fact that we can often miraculously expand our appetites to match the variety of sensory experiences available.

(By the way, in case you’re not familiar with the term, “satiety” is simply another word for feeling satisfied with food. So “sensory specific” means that we’re not relying on our actual fullness or satisfaction to cue the end of a meal – if a new food is presented, it will be so alluring that we will be compelled to eat it.)

For example, we may not be very hungry when we sit down at the restaurant. But if we have difficulty choosing between an appetizer and an entree, we will probably take advantage of both so that we can indulge in the sensory experience of trying two different foods, instead of being limited to just one.

This is because part of “sensory specific satiety” is the odd fact that as we steadily eat a certain food, our enjoyment of that food declines, making another, different food seem even more appealing and alluring. If you’ve had 5-10 bites of your appetizer, you may still eat the entire thing (because it is in front of you), but your entirely different entree is becoming increasingly attractive. The variety enhances the anticipation and enjoyment of each new dish. 

This can happen at a restaurant, at a buffet, at a party or event, or even at home if you’re on a grazing spree. It can happen anytime you have the means and opportunity to line up a sequential experience of food variety.

This instinct for variety causes overeating – and, for most people, weight gain – in our current food culture and environment.

Think about history – your grandparents or great-grandparents. Previous generations would have been limited to holidays or – at most – Sunday lunches to exercise this kind of sensory-driven eating. Most meals would have been “a necessity and a boring staple” throughout history, punctuated by occasions of possible feasting.

But now, we can have this kind of selection all day, every day, to the extent that not having variety feels downright restrictive. Eating a one-course meal can feel sad, in the context of so much available food.

As this paper says: “In our modern-day food environment, monotony and similarity in meals are rare. The variety of ethnic foods, multiple fast-food restaurants on virtually every corner, and the many choices of highly palatable food that these establishments have to offer creates a diverse, delicious abundance of food from which we choose our meals.”

How to Interact with Sensory Specific Satiety

However, I can say from personal experience that building awareness of sensory specific satiety – and knowing how to interact with it – can be a game changer for weight loss. Here are concrete tips for improving your eating game to ameliorate the effects of sensory specific satiety:

Eat at home (or food from home) more often. 

Bottom line, the more you eat at home and the less you eat out, the better your eating habits are going to be. It has become extremely common to eat out most of our meals. However, this habit is not good for health.

The food you have at home automatically presents less opportunity for variety. You’re more likely to listen to natural hunger and fullness cues when you’re eating a food to which you are habituated, rather than an exciting new food.

Of course, this doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy our food at home – it just means that every meal is not a sensorily breathtaking experience. Check out my recipe book for ideas for making meals at home more interesting, as well as easier to make.

Make buffets a once-in-a-blue-moon experience. 

I write this, having gone to a brunch buffet just yesterday. There’s nothing wrong with buffets per se – but they provide a ton of food variety and possible sensory experiences. You’re not just seeing food described on a menu – you’re physically seeing it and smelling it, which will increase your level of cravings for specific foods. This makes it increasingly difficult for you to not only resist the call of new sensory experiences, but to get in touch with your natural hunger and fullness cues.

I also talk with clients about a “one plate rule” idea – if you’re in an environment like a buffet or a party, try to make one plate, one time. See how it works for you.

My advice? Limit the number of times per year you go to a buffet so that it is truly an occasional experience.

At restaurants, try to order just one thing. 

This isn’t hard if you’re grabbing lunch with a friend or dinner with your spouse.

But the bigger the event (like a large family meal out), the more likely it is that you are sitting down to a very long dining experience. In these situations, try to emphasize vegetables and protein and simple foods, and really focus on what you want to eat, instead of eating something just because it’s in front of you. Make just one course the “special” course, and keep your other courses simple.

At parties, categorize (ahead of time) which foods you ARE going to eat, and which you AREN’T going to eat.

I want to be clear that this is not a blanket method of categorization for all food, all the time. I never recommend that clients completely slash carbs, for example. However, going into a specific setting where there will be food everywhere, categorization can be a very helpful way to limit the amount of food you actually eat.

At parties, it is easy to drift and graze mindlessly for an entire evening, and – driven by sensory specific satiety – to eat the equivalent of several meals in gradual bits and pieces. However, if you start the evening by setting an expectation for yourself that you’re not going to eat any breads or any sweets, you automatically knock hundreds of calories off of your plate.

It doesn’t have to bread or sugar. You could decide that you’re not going to eat any cheese, for example. But just by narrowing your field of choices, you take pressure off of your willpower and create an operating system for your sensory specific satiety, so that you don’t eat everything, all night long. 

Reminder: to lose weight, you don’t need to eat perfectly. You just need to eat less.

Just because you love food doesn’t mean that you’re not capable of setting up habits and expectations for yourself that help you regulate your eating and reduce your intake. After all, the National Weight Control Registry has found that “98% of registry participants report that they modified their food intake in some way to lose weight.” This could include lots of different tools, and now you have another one to add to your toolbox.

Follow-Up Questions from Last Week

If you want to jump into this free healthy living project (with weekly strategies to try out), sign up on this page to get these questions delivered directly to your inbox each week!

Last week in “The ‘Unhealthy = Tasty Intuition,'” we explored how our perceptions of food enjoyment can be influenced by our perceptions of a food’s “naughtiness.”

Answer the following questions about your experiences with last week’s post:

  • Question 1: Can you think of examples when you have fallen into the “Unhealthy = Tasty Intuition”?
  • Question 2: What can you change about your language and approach to food to stop drawing black-and-white lines between “healthy” and “unhealthy”?
  • Question 3: How can you “position” or “re-brand” foods so that you enjoy all foods more?

E-mail these answers to me! 

Rachel Trotta

I am a Certified Personal Trainer, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, Physique and Bodybuilding Specialist, and Women's Fitness Specialist. I live in New Jersey in the NYC metro area, and I coach clients online all over the world. As a trainer and health writer, my mission is to make healthy living sustainable for the average person. I’m also a wife, mom, nature lover, runner, avid cook, weightlifting aficionado, history nerd, travel addict, and obsessive podcast listener. Get in touch!

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