Skip to main content
dessert stomach

Why dessert stomach may actually be real

Struggling to finish what's on your plate, you sit back contently in your chair. The waiter appears with a dessert menu and, as your full stomach presses into your waistband, you hear yourself say "yes please" - but why? It turns out that dessert stomach - the phenomenon of having room for a sweet treat after you’re done with your main - may be backed by science.

Here we look at what it is and what you can do about avoiding the pudding temptation.

Continue reading below

Do humans have a second stomach for dessert?

Whether you call it your "dessert stomach", your "pudding shelf", or your "other stomach", still being able to eat dessert after a filling meal is an experience shared by many of us.

While it's true that melt-in-the-middle chocolate cake or bowl of ice cream might just feel like too much of a treat to pass up, there are some other scientific theories behind dessert stomach - although none of them involve the existence of an actual second stomach.

Sensory-specific satiety

Dessert stomach might be explained by sensory-specific satiety. This 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 flavour, to the point that you stop eating or seek something else1.

For example, in a study of 128 people eating two meals, those who had a different food for their second meal had a much greater appetite for that food than those who were given the same meal twice2.

While there are limited studies on savoury and dessert dishes, many experts believe this may explain why you can crave something different in taste and texture - like cookies, sweets, or cheesecake - after you feel full from your savoury dinner.

Early humans and sensory-specific satiety

It's thought that humans developed sensory-specific satiety to keep variety in our diets, as nutritionist Sarah Herrington explains:

"Even though our environment has evolved, parts of our brains are still very primal. Once upon a time, we hunted and scavenged for our food, so meals were inconsistent and more sparse in terms of the nutrients they provided to our bodies."

By switching between many types of foods, we have greater odds of getting all the nutrients and vitamins we need to stay healthy.

This is perhaps where dessert stomach and sensory-specific satiety hit a wall. Desserts are rarely nutritious, but it's possible that dessert stomach is a product of the manufactured foods of the modern world - the unhealthy options that weren't around when sensory-specific satiety evolved.

Continue reading below

Sugar addiction stimulates pleasure

Although a popular theory, sensory-specific satiety doesn't specifically explain why you can crave sugary foods after dinner. After all, it's far more common - and socially acceptable - to follow a Sunday roast with a sweet dessert, rather than, say, a bowl of pasta or soup all with the same number of calories.

It's possible that the pleasure you get from eating your favourite sweet desserts simply overrules the feeling of fullness. This may sound like an obvious explanation, but it's one that is also explained by biology.

Herrington says: "When humans scavenged for their meals, foods we used to find in nature that were sweet, like berries and bananas, tended to be rare and dense in nutrients. Because of this, our brains are wired to want more of these foods."

As a result, foods that contain sugar trigger your brain's reward system. This means that sugar causes the release of feel-good chemicals, including serotonin and endorphins, to give our mood a boost3.

In today's world, this can lead to the problem of sugar addiction, encouraging us to reach for the puddings, chocolate, and sweets we know aren't good for us. Yet early humans developed this system at a time when food was scarce and eating sugary fruits could help us survive.

Patient picks for Healthy eating

Appetite increases before meals

This theory hinges on the fact that dessert is itself a meal and is therefore influenced by chemical reactions in your body that stimulate appetite.

"Different hormones regulate your hunger," explains Herrington. "They send signals back and forth from your stomach to your brain telling each that you either need to eat, or that you are satisfied."

Specifically, the hormone called ghrelin is responsible for your desire to eat food, usually - but not always - when you're hungry4. Ghrelin increases before meals and decreases after you've eaten.

If you have developed a habit of eating dessert as a meal, it's possible that you are getting another boost of this appetite hormone just in time.

According to Herrington, another factor when you eat is that your stomach expands and relaxes: "Part of this process involves the hormones that makes you feel hungry, the process of eating the foods, and the pressure of the food in the stomach.

"So, the sight or smell of a different type of food that you are wired to seek out - think of your ancestors surviving on delicious, nutrious and calorie-rich berries - can allow you to continue to indulge."

The nutritionist adds that in some cases, a person might be resistant to the hormone leptin, which is responsible for suppressing hunger once we've eaten. "Some people don't receive the signals to the brain that the stomach is full and satisfied, therefore they are more likely to overeat without realising."

Continue reading below

How to make healthier dessert stomach choices

The odd sweet treat after a meal isn't harmful, but regularly overindulging on sugary foods can increase your chances of tooth decay, type 2 diabetes, obesity and related medical problems including cancer and heart disease.

According to Herrington, this doesn't mean that you have to completely deprive your sweet-tooth, as this can lead to unhealthy eating patterns down the road.

Instead, she advises making a wiser choice, such as:

  • Sharing the dessert you want with a friend - to half the sugar and calorie content.

  • Choosing a healthier alternative to satisfy your sweet craving - such as a bowl of berries or a portion of 85% or greater dark chocolate.

If you often have cravings for sweets and need to get this under better control:

  • Make balancing your blood sugar a priority by focusing on balanced meals at regular intervals throughout the day that are rich in protein.

  • Identify any potential nutrient deficiencies that could be contributing to specific cravings, such as a magnesium deficiency.

  • Go on a walk after eating to help balance post-meal blood sugar dips.

You can also find more helpful advice on beating sugar cravings here.

Further reading

  1. González et al: Effect of exposure to similar flavours in sensory specific satiety: Implications for eating behaviour.

  2. Hendriks et al: Sensory-specific satiety, the variety effect and physical context: Does change of context during a meal enhance food intake?

  3. Avena et al: Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioural and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake.

  4. Sun et al: The neural signature of satiation is associated with ghrelin response and triglyceride metabolism.

Article History

The information on this page is written and peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

symptom checker

Feeling unwell?

Assess your symptoms online for free