Sensory Specific Satiety: Why There’s Always Room for Dessert

Ever felt stuffed from a nutritious, healthy dinner, but then someone offered dessert?

Somehow, we always have room for dessert.  It’s as if we have a separate dessert stomach.

But we don’t.  It’s all about sensory-specific satiety and the feeling of fullness.

Sensory-specific satiety is a fascinating concept crucial to understanding our appetite, managing food intake, and achieving satiation.  This natural mechanism ensures we obtain all the nutrients we need from a variety of foods.

You don’t want more once you get enough of a particular nutrient.  Instead, your appetite sends you out in search of other nutrients to achieve the perfect balance of protein, fat, carbs, minerals, and vitamins.  In this article, we’ll dive into the role of macronutrients and micronutrients in sensory-specific satiety.

Understanding sensory-specific satiety can help you make better food choices, prevent overeating, and maintain a healthy diet.  Empowered with this understanding, you can leverage the power of sensory-specific satiety to crush your cravings and avoid being seduced by hyperpalatable processed foods designed to keep you craving them.  

What is Sensory-Specific Satiety?

“Sensory-specific satiety describes the decline in pleasantness associated with a food as it is eaten relative to a food that has not been eaten.” (Wilkinson & Brunstrom, 2016).   

In plain English, once we get enough of the nutrients and energy we need from one food, we lose interest in it but still crave other foods that contain the other nutrients we still need.  For instance, after eating a protein-rich savoury meal, you may lose interest in more savoury foods but still find room for something sweet.

Sensory-specific satiety ensures we obtain all the nutrients we need from various foods.  But today, ‘addictive’ ultra-processed foods are engineered to never trigger sensory-specific satiety, preventing a feeling of fullness and true satiation.

The ultra-processed foods we often feel ‘addicted to’ are neither nutrient-dense nor nutrient-poor empty calories.  They contain just enough of each nutrient to hit our bliss points for a range of nutrients, seducing our appetite but never fully satiety. 

History of Sensory-Specific Satiety

In the days before refrigeration, convenience stores, multivitamins and fortified foods, sensory-specific satiety was critical to ensure we obtained everything we needed from our food to thrive.  

I first heard about the concept of sensory-specific satiety in Robb Wolf’s 2007 book Wired to Eat, where he uses the illustration of a guy in an ice cream eating competition calling for a basket of fries to reset his pallet so he could get back to eating the ice cream and win the contest.  

French physiologist Jacques Le Magnen first described the phenomenon in 1956.  Professor Barbara Rolls and colleagues first coined “sensory-specific satiety” (Sweeney et al. l, 1981). 

In a 1984 study, Rolls and colleagues found that participants ate 44% more when the same foods were allowed to choose the same foods at a buffet vs four separate courses. 

Nutrient Cravings and Sensory Specific Satiety

To understand how macronutrients and micronutrients contribute to satiation and manage cravings, we need to delve into the science behind nutrient-specific appetites.

Protein

Professors David Raubenheimer and Stephen Simpson have extensively studied how all living organisms forage around their environment, seeking the nutrients they require until they get enough.  In 2015, they published Obesity: The Protein Leverage Hypothesis, highlighting that our cravings for protein in the modern food environment could explain much of the rise in obesity. 

While we appear to crave a range of energy sources and nutrients, in line with their analysis, our satiety analysis shows that our appetite for protein is the strongest.   

As shown in the chart below, created from more than a million days of food logging data:

  • when our diet consists of less than 12.5% protein, we eat less but crave high-protein foods,
  • however, we eat less when we only have higher protein % foods available, and
  • we have a bliss point at 12.5%, which is where we eat the most. 

Some people consume more than 50% protein, but this usually doesn’t last long because sensory-specific satiety for protein kicks in.  We experience palette fatigue for high-protein foods, and our cravings for energy from fat and carbs increase. 

Macronutrients

As shown in the chart below, which shows all three macronutrients, we crave energy from fat and carbs to balance the protein.  We’ll eat less if we only have low-fat or low-carb foods available.  But, given the opportunity, our appetite draws us to the perfect bliss point macro combination that allows us to eat the most. 

When we exceed our limited capacity to store protein (in our muscles) or carbs (as glucose in our liver and muscles) in our body, we get a robust ‘I’m full’ signal from our appetite. Interestingly, because we have a lot more capacity to store energy as fat in the adipose tissue of our body, we don’t see the same satiety response to very high-fat, lower-protein foods. 

Having a solid appetite for hyperpalatable foods that enables us to eat more and store fat would make sense in an environment where food was scarce and we needed to survive the impending winter.  Strict diets that mimic seasonal extremes, like low-carb, carnivore (winter) and low-fat plant-based (summer), work because they enable us to avoid these bliss point intakes. 

But in our modern environment, ultra-processed foods are designed to hit these bliss points all year round.  Even if we eat healthy most of the time, energy-dense comfort foods are always on hand to enable us to restore balance and bring us back to the bliss point of nutrient intake. 

Minerals

In 2022, Raubenheimer and Simpson stated that animals (including humans) possess specific appetites for protein, carbohydrates, fat, and at least two micronutrients —salt and calcium.  However, they also noted that specific appetites for other nutrients also likely exist.    

Our data analysis from free-living humans enables us to identify the craving and satiety response to essential minerals and vitamins.  

As shown below, we crave sodium until we exceed around 3.1 g/2000 calories in our food.  We will either add salt to our food or eat more to get the sodium our bodies need.  But if we accidentally add too much salt, the food tastes too salty — we experience sensory-specific satiety for sodium and eat less.  

The satiety analysis shows we crave 650 mg/2000 calories of calcium in our food.  However, once our food contains a higher calcium concentration, we experience sensory-specific satiety and eat less of that food. 

Sugar

We even see a bliss point response to sugar.  If you’re on a low-carb or keto diet, sweet foods will light up all your dopamine centres, and you’re helpless to stop eating them.  However, people on a low-fat diet don’t usually binge on pure table sugar or fruit.  On average, we see a Goldilocks zone for sugar at around 18% of calories

Notably, the point at which we trigger sensory-specific satiety is also the concentration of that nutrient where we eat the most.  Once we get a higher concentration of that nutrient, we are satisfied with less of the foods that contain more of that nutrient. 

We have denoted this tipping point as the ‘bliss point’, which we have calculated for each of the macronutrients and micronutrients. 

Optimal Nutrient Intake

Once we understand that the secret to crushing our cravings is to exceed the bliss point for each nutrient, the next question is, how much is too much?  That’s where the Optimal Nutrient Intake (ONI) comes in.  The ONIs are a stretch target that is achievable but challenging.  However, exceeding the ONIs doesn’t provide much extra satiety benefit.   

For example, once you reach the Optimal Nutrient Intake for protein (40%), you’ll be much better off seeking out foods that contain more of the other nutrients rather than trying to choke down more protein. 

Keeping your nutrient intake above the bliss points ensures you satisfy your nutrient cravings and avoid nutrient deficiencies.  However, focusing on other nutrients once you exceed the ONI mimics the nutrient-foraging behaviour we see in nature. 

How Ultra-Processed Food Manipulate Sensory Specific Satiety

As detailed in Michael Moss’s excellent book Salt Sugar Fat, in the 1990s, Coke hired a Swiss expert in flavours and fragrances to understand the fundamental aspects of Coke’s appeal.  

To make an ultra-profitable food that people will keep buying, you want to make it exciting and enticing but also bland and forgettable at the same time.  What you need to avoid is triggering sensory-specific satiety.  No flavour or nutrient should be too strong; otherwise, your taste buds will say, ‘I’ve had enough.’ This strategy ensures the food remains highly palatable and prevents a feeling of fullness.

Ever since Howie Moskowitz systematised this process in the 1970s, Big Food companies have been in an arms race to make the most profitable and addictive foods to stay in business. 

The same is true for McDonald’s smash hit Big Mac.  It’s not the protein in the meat, the fat in the cheese and dressing or the carbs and sugar in the bun that makes the Big Mac irresistible.  The combination of all these things makes it tasty but not satisfying.  Moreover, it has just enough sodium, calcium, iron, potassium, B2 and other micronutrients to hit many bliss points simultaneously. 

This perfect Goldilocks combination of nutrients gives the Big Mac a satiety score of 0% in our satiety score. 

Discover the science behind sensory specific satiety and how it impacts your eating habits. Learn tips to optimize your nutrition and manage hunger effectively.

To see all the ultra-processed foods that have perfected this bliss point formula to maximise profit, check out our interactive food search tool here.

Strategies to Enhance Sensory-Specific Satiety

Armed with this understanding, we can now take informed action to escape the modern bliss point formula that is the secret sauce of all the foods we find the most ‘addictive’ and can’t stop eating. 

Avoid Ultra Processed Foods

The simplest way to leverage the power of sensory-specific satiety is to avoid processed foods.  Before you buy anything in a box with a bar code, check the ingredients list. 

If it contains a blend of vegetable oils, refined sugar, refined grains with artificial flavours, colours and synthetic vitamins, it’s a safe bet that it’s been engineered to hit your bliss points. 

Treat these foods like you would alcohol, cigarettes and other recreational drugs. 

Eat Whole Foods that Taste Great

Whole foods typically get their energy source from either carbs or fat (not both) and exceed the bliss point for many nutrients at once, so they trigger sensory-specific satiety sooner.  Seek out the highest quality foods you can afford that taste great and are full of flavour because they’re packed with the nutrients your body needs.  Embrace the variety of whole foods to maintain a balanced diet and achieve sensory-specific satiety.

Eat Local Seasonal Fresh Produce

Foods available in nature naturally contain more carbs in summer and more fat in winter.  Besides nuts, milk, and cheese, they provide energy from either fat or protein, not both.  You’ll be pretty safe if your food is fresh and local.

Eat Simply

Grandmas have long been creating tasty signature recipes for Thanksgiving and Christmas that we love eating, leaving us in a food coma and loosening our belts.  But we don’t have to eat like that every day.  

Make simple homecooked meals that get their taste from the nutrient-dense fresh ingredients, not the added sugar or oils.  Plan your meals around whole foods that exceed the bliss point for essential nutrients, ensuring you feel satisfied without overindulging.

If you’re looking for inspiration, you can download samples of our series of NutriBooster recipes in our Optimising Nutrition Community

Prioritise Protein

If you want to start to quantify your diet, the first step is to prioritise protein and dial back added energy from carbs and/or fat, which leads to greater satiety per calorie.  To get a feel for protein-rich foods, check out our lists and infographics in this article

If you’re seeking extra help, join our Macros Masterclass, where we guide Optimisers to increase satiety and dial in their macros. 

Maximise Nutrient Density

Even more than protein, the best way to trigger sensory-specific satiety is to ensure you are getting more than the bliss point nutrient intake and aim for optimal nutrient intake for all the essential nutrients.  This is the ultimate hack to crush your cravings with the minimum energy.  To learn more, check out the lists and infographics in this article.

To identify the nutrients that you’re getting less of and the foods that contain them, check out our Nutrient Clarity Challenge

If you are ready to optimise your diet at the micronutrient level, you can join our Micros Masterclass.  Over four weeks, we show Optimisers how to tweak their diet to fill all their nutrient gaps and move toward the Optimal Nutrient Intakes

Conclusion

Understanding sensory-specific satiety is essential for managing our appetite and food intake in today’s complex food environment.  This natural mechanism, which drives us to seek a variety of nutrients, can be both a blessing and a challenge. 

On one hand, it helps ensure a balanced diet by encouraging the consumption of diverse foods.  On the other hand, the modern food industry has learned to exploit this mechanism, creating ultra-processed foods that keep us craving more.

By leveraging the principles of sensory-specific satiety, we can make more informed dietary choices.  Prioritising whole foods that exceed the bliss point for essential nutrients, avoiding ultra-processed foods, and embracing a balanced intake of macronutrients and micronutrients can help us achieve better satiety and overall health.

With this knowledge, you can navigate your nutritional needs more effectively, resist the lure of hyperpalatable foods, and maintain a healthier, more balanced diet.  Embrace the power of sensory-specific satiety to crush cravings, optimize nutrient intake, and enhance your well-being.

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