Back in the motherland we call it “having eyes bigger than your belly”, and you’re lying if you say you haven’t been there. Large amounts of food have just been eaten, our stomach is visibly sticking out of our ribs and feels like an inflated Swiss ball to the touch, and someone asks that dreaded and impossible to refuse question: “Anyone up for dessert?”. Yes. We’re always up for dessert, even though we know 5 minutes in we’ll feel sick and regret our decisions, goddamit.
The reason why we always have room for dessert is the same reason we overeat at Christmas, large dinner parties or buffets: sensory-specific satiety.
What is it?
Sensory-specific satiety is our brain keeping track of the flavour and texture of what we’re eating so it can keep a tally of the nutrients we’re getting into our body. If you are only eating one flavour profile, it means that you’re likely getting a limited array of micronutrients (vitamins, minerals and such) which might mean you’re deficient in other areas, which can cause some basic body functions such as hormonal control and immune system (amongst many others) to start missing some key ingredients they need to function.
So even though you’re so full you can’t get off your chair, your brain will trick you into wanting a piece of something-something, because that other food might have nutrients you haven’t consumed yet today.
The logic is more flavour, more variety of nutrients, better for you. Which is all well and good when food is not as abundant and engineered as it is today.
We have all experienced the pleasure of acquiring a few kilos over the holidays. It won’t come as a shock that eating a lot of food will give you more energy that you can burn, and your body will store it away for a rainy day in form of a longer belt.
The food industry knows this well. The reason processed foods feel so crazy in your month is to keep your brain guessing – pile up the seasoning and artificial flavours, get all the fat, salt and sugar in, make it crunchy and smooth at the same time! And a whole packet of cookies later, we wallow in regret wondering what just happened.
At the other end, some diets have been created to exploit this principle. The idea is that if you only eat limited types of food you’ll become bored of them and not overeat. The downside here is that this will mean you’ll miss out on that nutrient variety business. Variety in your diet is important, and restricting yourself from whole groups of food might help you lose weight but will also make you malnourished in the process. This means other body safety systems might kick in, make you’re more susceptible to binge eat and gain that weight back, after making your body a bit sick in the process.
What can I do then?
The bad news is that there is no way around this. No pill or magic mind trick that will help you around the fact that your brain works that way. But there’s a couple of tactics you can use.
You can exploit that to overeat healthy stuff. That whole eat the rainbow thing plays to your sensory satiety. The more vegetables you have on your plate(s), specially if they’re seasoned with different spices, the less you’re likely to “need” to eat after something else. You’ll feel like you got a good array of nutrients and flavours and textures going, and if you throw in some fruits, you’ve got your sweet tooth covered too. And overeating whole plant-based unprocessed food won’t cause weight or health issues, I promise.
Another thing to consider (as well as the above) is to wait 20 minutes after your main meal for dessert. The sensors and hormones that tell your brain that you’re physically full take time to act, and although they won’t stop your brain wanting some different flavours, it will help you control how much you put on your plate.
So there you have it. You now have scientific backing to say “no thank you, Diogo explained this to me and it’s all a trick” to eating a whole cake after Sunday roast. If you do say “yes”, please do not use my name when you inevitably question your collective decision – take responsibility for your actions even if your brain won’t.
If you want some help developing some better eating habits, and learn how to eat a cake and have it to, I’m here to help.