After every big dinner with friends or family comes a difficult time. The pie, pudding or cake arrives at the table, resplendent. But having just gorged myself on my meal, I can’t enjoy dessert. What’s a candy lover to do?
We posed this highly scientific question to a panel of registered nutritionists to find out when is the best time to eat and enjoy dessert and if there’s an ideal time to wait to check your hunger signals.
The ideal time for a sweet is…
In my unreserved opinion, it’s always the ideal time for dessert, but our experts said otherwise.
Earlier in the day may be better for digestion, according to Sue-Ellen Anderson-Haynes, registered dietitian and founder of 360 Girls & Women. In fact, an after-dinner treat can 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 tells HuffPost. “If you add more components, like protein and fat, it increases digestion time. Most desserts contain high amounts of fat and carbohydrates (added sugar, flour, etc.).”
Pudding is part of the celebrations, the fun and the pure pleasure, so if you feel like eating it at the end of the day or at night, that’s fine too, according to the nutritionist. Alissa Rumsey. “You can have dessert any time of day you want,” says Rumsey. “If you’re attuned to your body to help determine what you want to eat and you’re hungry for dessert ≠ eat dessert! People often restrict desserts or sweets during the day, even if they are craving it, which can lead to them feeling out of control around sweets later in the day.”
Meaning: Enjoy dessert if you like! Kimberley Rose-Francisco, nutritionist, explains that it is better to eat the candy than to obsess over it for your mental and physical well-being. “Depriving yourself can lead to over-indulgence and then psychological guilt later on,” says Rose-Francis. “A recent 2020 Research Article concluded that ‘anticipating indulgent foods such as dessert can shift healthy food preferences for immediate consumption.’”
The 20 minute rule
If you’ve ever been told to wait before eating another serving or dessert, there’s a research-proven reason: it takes about 20 minutes for the brain to register fullness.
“It may take some time for your stomach to communicate with our brain that you’re physically full, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have dessert right after a meal,” says Rumsey. “However, if you frequently find yourself finishing up dessert and feel uncomfortably full afterwards, you can try waiting 10 or 15 minutes and see how you feel.”
Try to eat slowly and mindfully, skip electronic distractions, and enjoy your meal at the table. Rose-Francis suggests: “As a best practice, employ mindful eating tactics: one, chew your food slowly; two, chew your food well; and three, check with your body what information it is giving you. By following these steps, you will know if you have the desire and/or space for dessert.”
Why is there always room for dessert?
Even if you wait 20 minutes and feel full, the oft-cited “dessert stomach” might have extra room. This so-called second stomach is more mental than physical, but that doesn’t make it any less real.
“There are two pathways that control our food intake,” explains Rose-Francis. “The first path is the homeostasis path, which motivates us to eat when we are really hungry. The second pathway that controls our food intake is the hedonic pathway.”
This means that eating food is not just for nutrition, but also for pleasure. “Just because you’re physically full doesn’t mean you’re necessarily done eating,” explains Rumsey. “Meals and snacks also need to be satisfying for us to feel ‘made’ of eating.” A balance of the three main macronutrients – carbs, protein and fat – can help ensure you feel full.
According to Rumsey, an after-dinner pantry search for your favorite cookie or chocolate can indicate that your meal wasn’t satisfying. Sticking to a restrictive or boring diet could be the cause. “If you tend to feel uncomfortably full after eating dessert, write it down and check: did you eat enough earlier in the day and in the last few days? Have you been restricting sweets or desserts? Were the foods you ate earlier in the day satisfying? Are you eating enough carbs?” She explains.
If thoughts or feelings of shame, guilt, or judgment arise, this can also take away from the pleasure and satisfaction you can get from dessert. If you like to have something sweet after meals (even when you’re full), you should know that’s okay.