Dessert stomach may sound like a cutesy name for the oh-so-specific belly gurgle that follows a big ‘ole bowl of ice cream. Or, like a byname for the bloat that inevitably follows sweets.
Actually, dessert stomach is a term that names the phenomenon of being completely full after dinner… but moments later feeling like there is room for a sweet treat, explains wellness expert Karen Thomson, founder of the The Sugar Free Revolution and author of Sugar Free: 8 Weeks To Freedom From Sugar and Carb Addiction.
“While not medically recognized, it does encapsulate the common experience of feeling like you can still eat dessert despite having had dinner.” Specifically, a substantial dinner that has left you feeling ‘full’, or like you’ve eaten ‘enough’.
But what is it about sweets that can make us feel hungry again? Ahead, learn what causes dessert stomach. Plus, the potential health benefits of forgoing a sugar-laden last meal and tips on how to do just that.
The Causes of Dessert Stomach
The sensations associated with dessert stomach are caused by emotional, psychological, social factors — they are not driven by physical changes.
The human body has just one stomach, explains registered dietitian Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, author of Read It Before You Eat It. The food you eat for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert all goes to the same place, she says. So, “there is not literally a separate stomach or separate portion of the stomach reserved for dessert.” Further, the stomach is not literally augmenting its shape while you sit at the dinner table to make room for a sweet treat, she says.
Typically, people have dessert not because they have room for dessert, but for other reasons, according to Taub-Dix. “Sometimes people eat dessert because they see something that they want for dessert in their pantry or freezer, or on a dessert cart at a restaurant,” she says. Other times, people have dessert because it is included in their meal and convince themselves it would be a waste of money and of food itself to go without it, she says.
It is also common for people to have dessert simply because the people they are eating with are having dessert. Eating is an incredibly social activity in most cultures, explains Taub-Dix. As such, it is uncommon for part of a group to have dessert, while the other half abstains. Much more common is for everyone at the table to order something, she says.
“Sometimes people simply have dessert because they are in the routine of having dessert,” Taub-Dix says. Fact is, someone who grew up eating dessert after every meal is more apt to have dessert following dinner because they have become mentally and physically accustomed to believing that a meal is not done unless dessert has been had, she explains.
Dessert Isn’t Bad — But There Are Perks To Cutting Out Sugar
No broad-sweeping claims can be bad about dessert being either bad or good. After all, the most healthy thing is consuming things in moderation. As Taub-Dix puts it, “It’s one thing to have dessert on an occasion, but quite another to make a habit out of eating dessert or to eat it just because other people are,” she says. That said, there are some serious health benefits associated with reining in your dessert desert habit — as well as cutting back on sugar in general.
Whenever you eat sugar, it immediately gets absorbed into your bloodstream, causing your blood sugar levels to spike. In response, your pancreas releases a hormone called insulin whose function is to absorb the extra sugar (or glucose) in the body. Once insulin has done its job, your blood sugar levels drop back to their normal, pre-dessert level, Thomson explains. Therefore, when you eat sugar you get a sugar rush immediately followed by a sugar crash, which often leaves you feeling low energy, she says.
So, when you stop eating (as much) sugar, you get off the sugar-induced energy roller coaster which helps reduce symptoms of sluggishness, lower energy, and poor mood. Indeed, “one of the short term benefits of reducing sugar intake is more stable energy levels, improved concentration, and a general feeling of wellbeing,” says Thomson.
Longer term reduced sugar intake is associated with even more benefits. “People who consume less sugar have a reduced risk of chronic diseases, such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease,” says Thomson. Indeed, research has found time and time again that reducing sugar intake is associated with reduced risk for obesity and cardiovascular disease.
Sugar also has an inflammatory effect on the body, according to Taub-Dix. Per research published in 2022 in the journal Frontiers in Immunology, excessive intake in dietary sugar leads to an increase in proinflammatory proteins in the body (called cytokines), which can lead to chronic inflammation as well as insulin resistance. On the flip side, “when someone cuts out sugar they can help reduce systemic inflammation,” she says.
A reduction in inflammation can be especially life changing for individuals with inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, psoriasis, to name just a few. Though, even people without inflammatory diseases can experience anti-inflammatory benefits such as reduced fatigue, less joint pain and stiffness, improved cognitive function, and better gut health, says Taub-Dix. That’s right, reducing your sugar intake can help improve your gut function. Sugar can disrupt the gut barrier, she says, which can cause gut permeability which interferes with the gut function.
“People who cut back on dessert intake or sugar intake through other means, help decrease their risk for dental problems, improve their skin health, and support their weight loss or maintenance goals,” says Thomson.
Exactly How To Stop Desert Stomach and Cut Back On Sugar
Not to be the bearer of bad news, but while cutting back on sugar intake can offer some serious benefits, it won’t be easy.
“Sugar impacts the brain’s reward pathways similar to the way certain drugs do,” says Thomson. “It triggers the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward, which leads us to crave more and more of it.” The addictive nature of sugar, combined with societal prevalence and emotional connections to food, makes reducing sugar intake a challenging task, she says.
To make it easier, adhere to these tips:
1. Think About Your Dessert Habit
Given that people eat dessert for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with hunger, Taub-Dix says it can be helpful to think about the real reasons you eat dessert when you do. Awareness, as they say, is the first step towards change.
Ahead, some questions you might ask yourself to better-understand the reasons you personally eat desert and have dessert stomach:
- What emotions typically accompany my pre-, mid-, and post- dessert experience?
- How was dessert regarded in my household growing up? How about my current household?
- Are there particular settings or occasions where I am more likely to eat dessert than others?
- What do you typically eat and drink surrounding dessert?
2. Note How Much Sugar You’re Eating (Outside of Just Dessert)
You know that there is sugar in your cheesecake and ice cream (duh). But did you know that there is sugar in your non-dessert foods like salad dressing, morning yogurt or cereal, and all your condiments, too?
“Most people don’t have any idea how much sugar they are actually eating,” says Taub-Dix. That’s why “it can be helpful to do an inventory of the foods in your fridge and pantry to get a sense of just how much sugar you’re eating outside of dessert,” she says.
As you scan the labels, keep in mind that sugar isn’t just spelled s-u-g-a-r, she says. “Sugar is the master of disguise, and often appears by other names on ingredient lists.” Any ingredients that contain the word syrup, end in the word ‘ose’, or have the word sugar in them are all sugar, too.
Once you get a sense of where sugar is sneaking into your diet, you can course-correct by buying lower-sugar substitutes. For instance, you might replace your flavored yogurt with plain yogurt, high-sugar cereal with a healthier option, and regular peanut butter with a natural (no-sugar added) option.
3. Become Accustomed To Your Own Hunger Cues
People don’t typically eat dessert because they are physically hungry, they eat it for a handful of other social, emotional, and psychological reasons, says Taub-Dix. While occasionally eating for these reasons is no big deal, making a habit of it can cause people to lose touch of their internal hunger cues.
“When we are hungry our body lets us know, and when we are full our body lets us know,” she says. Re-learning this language can be helpful for people looking to cut back on dessert intake, as well as those otherwise prone to over-eating.
While everyone has their own particular set of hunger cues, most commonly people will experience symptoms such as low energy, generalized fatigue, trouble concentrating, sensation of thirst, stomach growling, headaches, shakiness, and cravings for a particular nutrient or food group when they are hungry. Meanwhile, people typically experience leveled energy, physical comfort, a sensation of satiety, and decreased interest in the food on their plate when they are full. The presence or absence of these cues can work together to help you make an informed decision about whether or not you eat dessert, says Taub-Dix.
Depending on how divorced you are from your body-talk, she notes it can be helpful to keep a food diary where you keep track of these sensations. It can also be helpful to eat more slowly, forcing yourself to do a full-body scan every few minutes so you can notice any changes in hunger level.
Looking for a boost in balancing your blood sugar? Try HUM’s Best of Berberine.
4. Prioritize Protein and Fiber To Help Curb Dessert Stomach
“Sometimes, sugar cravings are due to a lack of certain nutrients,” says Thompson. “So making sure that you eat a diet rich in proteins, healthy fats, and fiber can help reduce cravings for sugar,” she says.
Actually, increasing your overall protein and fiber intake is likely a good move whether you’re trying to cut back on sweets or not. Research suggests that up to 46 percent of people do not consume enough protein on a regular basis, while an estimated 95 percent of adults do not meet the Institute of Medicine’s recommendation that women get 25 grams of fiber per day and men get 38 grams.
Foods like legumes, whole grains, fish, and dark leafy greens are high in both fiber and protein, so pack a two-for-one punch by implementing these tasty eats.
5. Plan Ahead
Sure, a spontaneous sweet every now and then ain’t so bad. But when possible, Taub-Dix says it’s best to know ahead of time when you’re going to eat dessert so you can plan your meal accordingly. Specifically, you want to prioritize protein and healthy fats, she says.
“Eating protein and healthy fat during dinner helps slow down the digestion of any dessert that follows,” says Taub-Dix. These macronutrients work together to slow down the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream, which helps reduce the severity and symptoms of sugar spikes, she says.
Given that a sugar spike always leads to an energy-wiping sugar crash, this plan also helps ensure that you’ll still have energy to chat and laugh with your dinner mates even after the check has come.
The Bottom Line
Dessert stomach, or the sensation that there is always room for desert, is a super common phenomenon amongst people with a sweet tooth, those who love eating out, and anyone who grew up in the house where desert was a given.
While the occasional post-meal sweet treat can be part of a healthy lifestyle, given the health risks of a high sugar diet, it becomes a problem when it becomes an imperative.
That’s why experts say the best thing is to become aware of dessert and sugar intake, tune into your hunger cues, then prepare your body for dessert when possible by prioritizing absorbent-slowing macronutrients.