We've all done it. When you walk into a buffet restaurant, the world is your oyster. You pick up a couple of plates, fill them up, and then pick up a couple more. Eat a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and keep eating so you can try everything. And then all of a sudden, one and a half hours have gone by, your stomach feels like it is about to explode, and you regret everything. Well it is not your fault (well, not completely)! All of this food variety is instinctively resulting in you eating more, and thus, over-eating. And this phenomenon has a name; its called...
Sensory Specific Satiety!
What is Sensory Specific Satiety? (SSS, I'll use this abbreviation for the rest of the blog post)
SSS refers to a temporary decline in pleasure derived from certain foods in comparison to other unconsumed foods. The more you eat a certain food, the less "pleasure" you derive from it and and the less you want to eat it and the less you like it. Your brain subconsciously signals your nose (olfaction) and taste buds (gustation) that whatever food you have just been eating does not taste or smell as good as before. Alternatively, it can also result in a renewal in appetite resulting from the exposure to a new flavor or food.
So why does SSS happen?
The theory is that it developed as an evolutionary response to encourage humans to eat a wide variety of foods, thus ensuring that we obtain all of the essential nutrients for development.
Do differences in SSS account for obesity/overeating?
Could differences in SSS be an explanation for why some people struggle with obesity (do they have a weaker SSS response than other individuals?) The literature we have so far say NO. A 2004 article by Snoek et al. in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition evaluated SSS in obese and normal weight individuals. They measured food intake, appetite ratings, and liking scores before and after eating in both populations and found no significant difference in the decrease in appetite ratings for both groups. Multiple subsequent studies have shown similar results.
Then why does it matter? How can I use SSS to my advantage?
SSS was important in our ancestors to encourage a wide variety of consumption, but in today’s environment where food is highly palatable, varied, abundant and cheap, it’s original evolutionary role isn’t as relevant. However we can take advantage of it to help achieve our dietary goals in two ways.
Use SSS to limit your portion sizes/prevent overeating. Let’s say you are going out to dinner to a restaurant. You have the option to choose a large plate of pasta or a small appetizer, small plate of pasta, and a small dessert. If all else is equal (total calories, macronutrients) you’re less likely to overeat with the singe entrée because you‘ll have diminishing pleasure from the meal as you keep eating. If you go with the three course meal, each course provides a new taste and smell experience that will keep fueling you to eat more. You can also use these principles in your home. Limit the variety of less healthy/“junk food” you buy; with less variety you’ll be less inclined to eat these foods.
Use SSS to vary your healthy food intake. On the opposite end of the spectrum, keep a large variety of fruits and vegetables around the house so you have multiple options for snacking and don't get tired of the same foods. If all you have are baby carrots and apples, you’ll get tired of them eventually and switch over to the unhealthy stuff.
Is this the holy grail answer to all of your dieting troubles? Definitely not! Portion control and choosing healthy foods are a difficult thing to train your mind and body to do, but it takes a series of small steps to get you going in the right direction. This may just be one of those steps.
For more information about Sensory Specific Satiety, check out this excellent video from Vox.
Harriëtte M Snoek, Linda Huntjens, Leo J van Gemert, Cees de Graaf, Hugo Weenen, Sensory-specific satiety in obese and normal-weight women,The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 80, Issue 4, October 2004, Pages 823–831,https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/80.4.823
Brondel, L., Romer, M., Van Wymelbeke, V.et al.Sensory-specific satiety with simple foods in humans: no influence of BMI?.Int J Obes31,987–995 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.ijo.0803504