Plus three smart strategies for enjoying dessert without wrecking your healthy diet. 

Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD
April 19, 2017

How many times have you eaten a well-balanced meal, declared yourself full ... and then skimmed the dessert menu? Or considered digging into the pint of mint chocolate chip in your freezer? Turns out there’s a scientific reason for this phenomenon. It’s called sensory-specific satiety.

Translation: When you eat one type of food, you develop a decreased appetite for that food compared to other foods with different tastes, textures, and colors. Sensory-specific satiety helps explain why it's oh-so-challenging to avoid overeating at a buffet. It’s also why you always seem to have room for dessert.

So if you’re hardwired this way (it’s science, right?), what can you do to avoid ending a meal feeling uncomfortably full? Here are three techniques to combat your brain’s desire to have it all, so you can maintain a healthy balance:

Make variety work for you

Fortunately, eating a variety of foods in one meal is good for you: It's a smart strategy for creating macronutrient balance (that is, a good balance of protein, fat, and carbs), and exposing your body to a broad spectrum of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Just try to avoid the trap of eating a dinner made up of less-than-healthy choices, followed by dessert. They key is to make each choice a smart one.

I recently had a client describe nearly every dinner as a smorgasbord that started with cheese and crackers, followed by bites off her kids’ plates, and a bit of whatever her husband was eating (often with little to no veggies, and sometimes no real sense of how much she'd actually eaten). We worked together to help her start planning actual meals that contained a balanced mix of foods (think chicken, fish, or pulses, veggies sautéed with EVOO and herbs, and a small serving of a whole food starch like quinoa or sweet potato).

The result? The she was able to eat a small amount of dessert (or a few squares of dark chocolate), and still lose weight.

RELATED: Eating at Night Can Make You Gain Weight, But What If You're Actually Hungry?

Budget for dessert

If you’re craving chocolate cake, or you’re going to a restaurant famous for its pastries, keep your entrée simple. Most desserts are high in carbs, so it makes sense to create balance by curbing or omitting the carbs in your main meal.

At a restaurant, ask for double veggies on the side, instead of veggies and potatoes. Or opt for a protein appetizer (like shrimp cocktail or chicken skewers) plus a small salad or side of cooked veggies.

One of my clients once told me how physically awful she felt after ordering a turkey burger with fries, followed by a slice of warm apple pie. When I asked which was better—the fries or the pie—she said hands down the pie. So we made a plan: Next time she would order a turkey burger wrapped in lettuce (no bun), a side of veggies in place of fries, and pie for dessert.

She reported back that the combo felt “just right." She left the restaurant satisfied and energized.

RELATED: 49 Ways to Trick Yourself Into Feeling Full

Pre-think your meal

Planning head is a key way to prevent your subconscious mind from taking the driver’s seat, and making choices that aren’t so great for your body. If you’re going out to dinner, look up the menu ahead of time; decide what to order (when you aren’t starving), including whether or not you'll be having dessert; and stick with your decision once you get to the restaurant.

If you know you're having dessert, it’s okay to politely say no when someone asks if you want to split an appetizer, or share a bunch of small plates. And if you decide in advance that you want to enjoy an all out indulgent meal, it's a conscious choice, rather than an impulse or an emotional reaction.

These tweaks aren't about restriction; they're about balance, which just feels better, even if you aren’t focused on losing weight. And feeling great while still enjoying your meals is a win-win that's totally worth a little savvy give and take–with no “diet” mentality necessary.