Here’s how and why we can make room for dessert after a big meal

A peppermint pie from Grapefruit & Thyme and a bowl of Eleanor's Coconut Cream are plated for a photo at The Dessert Collective in American Fork on Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2024.
A peppermint pie from Grapefruit & Thyme and a bowl of Eleanor's Coconut Cream are plated for a photo at The Dessert Collective in American Fork on Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2024. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

The meal was great and you’re so full you think you’re going to pop. Then dessert’s wheeled out and you think you just might have a little room for more after all.

Science says there’s a good chance that “dessert stomach” is real and you’ll eat dessert regardless of how full you feel., published by Egton Medical Information Systems, says there are “scientific theories behind dessert stomach.” None, by the way, include a real second stomach, although that’s been speculated, too. The article says the ability to make room for more if it’s dessert “might be explained by sensory-specific satiety. That is the idea that the more you eat something in particular, the less you start to enjoy it. It suggests you become increasingly bored of the same food or flavor, to the point that you stop eating or seek something else.”

The article said that could explain why people crave something different in taste and texture — “like cookies, sweets or cheesecake after you feel full from your savory dinner.”

Then again, it’s just as plausible, the author adds, that pleasure from eating a sweet dessert is greater than the feeling of being full. Sugar triggers the brain reward system, releasing endorphins and serotonin.

Merriam-Webster explored the idea of dessert stomach, citing research suggesting the stomach “will relax to make room for dessert, which is based on research that suggests that glucose allows the stomach to depressurize and itself wouldn’t mind some sweet sensation. If that’s the case — apparently our minds do in fact play tricks on us.”

The satiety-pleasure link has found more support, though. Per, “According to Dr. Barbara Rolls at the Penn State University Laboratory for the Study of Human Ingestive Behaviour, who’s been studying sensory-specific satiety since the 1980s, it comes as a result of chemicals which stimulate the brains reward centre, producing pleasurable feelings when we eat.”

These pleasurable feelings, however, gradually decline as you continue eating. “The decline in pleasure you derive from food is specific to the food that you’ve been eating,” says Rolls. “Or to other foods that are similar.”

“So, while you might lose your appetite for that food, a different food will be appealing. That’s why you always have room for dessert,” she said.

An article in Psychology Today said that “the sensory-specific satiety explains why we always seem to have room for dessert even when we feel completely full from the main course. In part, it is because the dessert is the only part of the meal that we haven’t tasted. Desserts offer sensory qualities quite different from the main course (sweet vs. savory). So, being full and feeling sated are separate matters.”

My grandfather was a tough little bantam rooster of a man, slender and wiry. He never skipped dessert. He ate it first, because he knew he was going to want it and he’d overeat if he saved it for last. It was a family joke for generations.

He may have actually been onto something smart, though we got a lot of laughs from it. His philosophy was not unlike the approach recommended by Cara Rosenbloom, a registered dietitian, who told Today’s Parent that if kids are racing through their meal to get to dessert or pestering parents about dessert, they should try serving dessert along with the main dishes. She found that kids do eat dessert first — maybe Grandpa was just a grown-up kid — but they also eat more of their meat and vegetables because they’re not saving room for dessert and the pressure’s off.