Sensory-specific satiety ensures that we have a variety of food in our diet with the pleasant unpleasant matrix that it has to offer.
Have you ever found yourself so full that you can’t take another bite? It feels like your stomach might explode, you can feel the food in your belly, and for a while, everything gets a little… uncomfortable.
But then, the chocolate cake arrives at the table and you suddenly feel lighter! Somehow, there’s plenty of space for a tasty dessert.
As strange—and delicious—as this apparent paradox is, there is an actual reason why this happens. In fact, a very interesting aspect of how we have evolved as a species can explain this kind of mysterious moment at the dinner table.
What is Sensory-Specific Satiety?
Imagine coming home after a long day and going to the fridge, excited to eat your favorite food. Now, imagine you get to eat the exact same food the next day too. Sounds good, right? Who wouldn’t want to eat their favorite meal two days in a row? Now, let’s stretch that streak out to five days, and then ten days… the excitement for that particular food is probably beginning to wear off.
Would you be able to eat the same exact food everyday? In reality, you would probably get bored by that food, to the point where it might no longer be your favorite food.
This same idea can be applied to how a normal meal progresses.
After you’ve eaten a significant amount of the food in front you, you gradually begin to lose interest. Some people might even label the food as ‘boring’ or ‘less satisfying’ after some amount of time. At this point, despite “feeling full”, if a different type of food is introduced, the new food piques your interest and a new burst of energy fuels more eating.
This very phenomenon, where some types of food become increasingly unpleasant, while others grow more appealing, is called sensory-specific satiety.
Evolution and a Balanced Diet
Many authors differ over the exact function of sensory-specific satiety, but a common argument links the phenomenon to evolution. It is argued that during our evolutionary process, a requirement for different nutrients was realized, and sensory-specific satiety manifested as a result.
Sensory-specific satiety keeps our interest in a broader variety of foods, which ensures that we’re always consuming different types of food. This is, of course, beneficial in two ways.
First, when you consume different types of food, you take in a broad variety of nutrients, fulfilling the goal of a balanced diet. Second, it keeps us from consuming too much of one nutrient type, like protein or fat, which one type of food might predominantly provide.
What About Desserts?
After reading up on sensory-specific satiety, you might notice it is often discussed in relation to desserts, but why is that the case? If this phenomenon promotes a variety of different food, shouldn’t all types of food be just as relevant?
While sensory-specific satiety definitely includes various types of food, the role of sugar is very important in this setting.
As mentioned earlier, sensory-specific satiety works on the idea of increasing unpleasantness or pleasantness. If eating the same food becomes repetitive, the increasing unpleasantness is what promotes our varied tastes, just as increasing pleasantness of a new food promotes that same tendency towards variety.
It is established that consuming sugar triggers the release of dopamine in the brain, which is part of the reward system. This response helps in validating the decisions that you make, and encourages us to make those same decisions again.
For example, if you eat a cookie, the reward system of the brain not only makes you feel better about eating the cookie, due to the release of dopamine, but also makes you want to eat more cookies!
This, combined with the idea of sensory-specific satiety, shows how dessert or sweet foods might play an important part in the variety that this phenomenon encourages. Thus, dessert is not the only food that fits in the pleasant-unpleasant matrix, but considering how the body responds to sugar, it becomes an important factor, given how much space we apparently “save” for dessert.
It’s interesting to know that even the smallest choices we make can be linked back to our evolutionary past. This knowledge could promote the more efficient usage of sensory-specific satiety, as we all recognize the importance of a balanced diet.
In today’s world, where most folks understand the benefits of a balanced diet, not everyone is able to achieve it. This type of information, along with teaching us more about our bodies, adds a sense of comfort, knowing that we have been evolutionarily and historically committed to this kind of balanced diet.
The relationship of sensory-specific satiety to evolution is something that clearly demonstrates the link between past and present. This information helps us understand our behavior at the dinner table, and appreciate the long and fascinating process of evolution that has brought us to this point!