Skipping straight to the dessert is often a tempting move when there are a sponge cake and custard in the offing, but the vast majority of humans eat the sweet stuff after savory starters and main meals. Why is this? According to food scientist Steven Witherly, it could all be to do with our “primal urge” to consume a large dose of calories in one sitting.
Primal urge: It is well known that appetite diminishes when we continue to eat the same type of food, and it appears that variety is very much the spice of life and ingrained into our eating habits. This is especially true when we come to eat dessert. Weatherly believes that the brain plays a key role in the process as it tricks us into wanting to consume more, and we need something vastly different to savory products to feel content. This is where sugary and creamy dessert classics come in.
“As we eat the savory course, we rapidly reduce our hunger pangs and become full – the pleasure of the first course has passed (savory and hot). But as we indulge again with a new set of foods (sweet and cold), our appetite re-energises – and we indulge in the pleasures of eating once again,” Witherly notes in his book Why Humans Like Junk Food. Another key reason is the fact that we can only entertain the thought of more decadent desserts after we have had our fill of other food.
Savory before sweet: Weatherly continues: “When you are very hungry, high amounts of concentrated sugar, rapidly digested starches, or fatty acids can be tough to stomach. Fat is a very potent inhibitor of gastric emptying, allowing the sugar(s) in the dessert to pull water from the stomach in an effort to dilute the contents. A Krispy Kreme donut – or worse, an apple fritter – can actually cause gastric distress in some people – but not after a full meal.” It appears that our bodies need a solid base of carbs and fats on which to indulge in desserts that are usually loaded with sugars.
Sugar relaxation: While you don’t necessarily need to eat again after a big main meal, the body is very open to a sweet dessert such as an apple pie or chocolate cake as glucose stimulates the relaxation of muscles in the stomach wall, scientists claim. This is why you have room for a pudding when you wouldn’t be able to eat another mouthful of savory foods such as meat and veg. “In this way, it can decrease the pressure on the stomach and reduce the sensation of being full. A sweet dessert allows the stomach to make room for more food,” the Journal of the Norwegian Medical Association notes.
Just a taste: While dessert is always the last item on the menu, it’s perhaps best not to overdo it, even if your body is receptive to the sweet stuff. Experts believe that just a taste of a cake alleviates the full feeling of a roast dinner or lasagne without loading on more saturates on top. However, it can be difficult to ascertain the correct amount to eat. The Journal of the Norwegian Medical Association adds: “The problem is that you don’t know when to stop eating dessert. The brakes on carbohydrate consumption are five meters further down, at the lower end of the small intestine.” This taster goes against the “primal urge” mentioned earlier, and it might leave you feeling a little peckish later in the evening.
There you have it. “Dessert stomach” is a very real phenomenon and is largely explained by the way that the brain functions and our need for fat to dilute the contents of sugary treats.