Craving something sweet after eating lunch or dinner isn’t uncommon. But why exactly does it happen? We asked a dietitian to explain.
Do you often get to the end of the meal and, despite feeling full and satisfied, still have a craving for something sweet? Some people might say they have a ‘separate stomach’ for dessert, fitting in a brownie or ice cream even though they wouldn’t be able to finish another bite of pasta.
Whether you’re used to having a biscuit and a cup of tea after lunch, a bowl of fruit with your nighttime Netflix offering, or can’t get through the evening without chocolate, many of us crave sweet things after savoury. It’s definitely not a problem, but it’s an interesting phenomenon – so why does it happen?
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Why do people crave sweet foods after savoury meals?
According to registered nutritionist Kimberley Neve, it usually comes down to nurture over nature. “Wanting to eat something sweet after a savoury meal is often due to family traditions,” she says. “It’s something people often start with babies and it becomes something you’re accustomed to and ingrained in that way.”
A lot of the reasons behind why we eat the foods we do comes down to habit and routine. In fact, a 2022 study found that two-thirds of people eat the same breakfast at least twice in one week. Like with regular breakfasts, the reason you might crave something sweet after eating savoury foods is mostly down to your body’s memory and its expectations. If you’ve made chocolate a nightly habit, you’ll likely want chocolate.
Another reason for cravings is simply that we need more energy. If your main meal wasn’t calorifically satisfying, or even mentally satiating, your body can be left wanting more. That’s especially true when you’re on your period or if you’ve done any form of exercise, as your energy demands will be higher than normal and your usual meals might not quite fill you up enough.
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We’re also hardwired to crave certain nutrients, including sugar, which is likely to be found in sweet foods. Food cravings are often the result of food receptors in our gastrointestinal system sending signals to the brain when they detect specific nutrients like sugar, salt, protein, fat, starch or glutamate (MSG). “Our bodies want us to get plenty of energy, so detecting foods high in these ingredients makes the body signal that it wants more and reinforce behaviour that leads to eating more,” Neve previously told Stylist. Given that most foods, even savoury foods, contain some amount of sugar, this could explain a lot when it comes to having sweet cravings after lunch or dinner.
A 2014 study found that a lack of sleep could mean that you crave sweet food items more, so a craving for a bar of chocolate on the sofa might be your body screaming at you for a short burst of energy. And other studies have also linked feelings of stress to cravings for sweet food. Craving sweet foods regularly might also be a genetic trait, explaining why some people have a sweet tooth and others don’t, although more research needs to be done in order to say this with certainty.
Plus, sweet foods like chocolate, cake and ice cream are, quite frankly, delicious and enjoyable to eat. Sometimes that’s reason enough to create a craving.
Should you eat sweet foods after savoury meals?
“Some people will prefer a ‘palate cleansing’ after a meal to feel fresher in their mouths, but there’s no nutritional need to have something sweet after savoury,” says Neve.
But just because it’s not nutritionally or biologically necessary doesn’t mean you shouldn’t acknowledge your cravings. In fact, listening to your body and what it wants and needs is one of the most important parts of being healthy. “There’s no need to demonise liking sweet foods. It’s all about understanding how to find the right balance with them,” Neve stresses.
This doesn’t necessarily mean limiting your sweet cravings, especially if ignoring your cravings is going to make you feel stressed or unhappy. Neve explains that it’s fine to eat something sweet after something savoury whenever you have that craving.
According to Neve, if you’re eating enough and feel satiated, your body is probably craving the taste and pleasure of sweet food, rather than the energy it provides. It might pay off to understand and be curious about if you might be regularly eating past the point of fullness, but don’t feel bad about your squares of chocolate after dinner.
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