After every great dinner with friends or family, a difficult moment arises. The pie or cake arrives on the table, resplendent. But having just gorged on the meal, I can’t enjoy dessert. What’s a sweet lover to do?
We put this highly scientific question to a panel of registered dietitians to figure out when’s the best time to eat and enjoy dessert and whether there’s an ideal time to wait to check in on your hunger cues.
The ideal time for a sweet treat is…
In my unqualified opinion, it’s always the ideal time for dessert, but our experts said otherwise.
Earlier in the day may be best for digestion, according to Sue Ellen Anderson Haynes, a registered dietitian and founder of 360 Girls & Women. In fact, an after-dinner treat could contribute to acid reflux, heartburn, upset stomach or just poor sleep when enjoyed too close to bedtime. “It takes about one to two hours to digest carbohydrates (bread, pasta, crackers),” Anderson-Haynes told HuffPost. “If you add more components such as protein and fat, you increase digestion time. Most desserts contain high amounts of fat and carbs (added sugar, flour, etc.).”
Dessert is part of celebrations, enjoyment and pure pleasure, so if you feel like eating it later in the day or evening, that’s fine too, according to registered dietitian Alisa Rumsey. “You can eat dessert any time of day that you want,” Rumsey said. “If you’re tuning in to your body to help determine what you want to eat and it’s hungry for dessert ― have the dessert! Oftentimes people restrict dessert or sweets during the day, even if they’re craving them, which can lead to them feeling out of control around sweets later in the day.”
Meaning: Enjoy dessert if you feel like it! Kimberley Rose Francis, a registered dietitian nutritionist, explained that it’s better to have the sweet than obsess over it for both your mental and physical well-being. “Depriving yourself may lead to overindulgence and then psychological guilt later on,” Rose-Francis said. “A recent 2020 research article concluded that ‘anticipating indulgent food, such as dessert, can change healthy food preferences for immediate consumption.’”
The 20 minute rule
If you’ve ever been told to wait before you take another portion or have dessert, there’s a research-backed reason: It takes about 20 minutes for the brain to register fullness.
“It can take time for your stomach to communicate with our brains that you are physically full, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t eat dessert right after a meal,” Rumsey said. “However, if you frequently find that you’re finishing dessert and then feeling uncomfortably full afterwards, you could try experimenting with waiting 10 or 15 minutes and see how that feels.”
Try eating slowly and mindfully, skip electronic distractions and enjoy your meal at the table. Rose-Francis suggested: “As a best practice, employ mindful eating tactics: one, chew your food slowly; two, chew your food thoroughly; and three, check in with your body to see what information it is giving you. Taking these steps will let you know if you have the desire and/or room for dessert.”
Why there’s always room for dessert
Even if you wait 20 minutes and feel full, the often-cited “dessert stomach” may have an extra room. This so-called second stomach is more mental than physical, but that doesn’t make it less real.
“There are two pathways that control our food intake,” Rose-Francis explained. “The first pathway is the homeostasis pathway, which motivates us to eat when we are truly hungry. The second pathway controlling our food intake is the hedonic pathway.”
That means eating food isn’t just for nourishment but for pleasure, as well. “Just because you’re physically full doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily done eating,” Rumsey explained. “Meals and snacks need to also be satisfying for us to feel ‘done’ eating.” A balance of the three main macronutrients — carbs, protein and fat — can help ensure a sense of satiety.
According to Rumsey, an after-dinner pantry search for your favorite cookie or chocolate could indicate that your meal wasn’t satisfying. Sticking to a restrictive or boring diet could be the cause. “If you’re often feeling uncomfortably full after having dessert, make a note of it and check in: Did you eat enough earlier in the day and for the last several days? Have you been restricting sweets or desserts? Were the foods you ate earlier in the day satisfying? Are you eating enough carbohydrates?” she explained.
If thoughts or feelings of shame, guilt or judgment come up, that can also take away from the enjoyment and satisfaction that you may get from dessert. If you enjoy having something sweet after you meals (even when you’re full), you should know that’s OK.