98% of the year you can eat more or less like a normal human being. When you get to a buffet, to Thanksgiving or when the dessert menu comes out...something special happens.
It's easy to think about appetite mechanically. I have "X" amount of room in my stomach; once that space is filled up then I'm full.
Really, though, the stomach is only part of appetite signalling. There's another massive piece to the puzzle that leads to some truly heroic buffet performances.
Sensory specific satiety is a term that refers to the fact that eating just one food isn't all that interesting. One plain food represents one sensory input. Eventually you're brain gets tired of that input and you feel full.
When a new input is discovered, though, your appetite can open right up again. There's a new sensory experience awaiting you, and your brain wants some of that!
Think about a buffet. Dozens if not hundreds of different foods mean just as many different sensory experiences. If each one renews your appetite...you can put away WAY more food than if you'd just been eating a single food.
The same is true of dessert. You might not actually have 'room' for dessert, but you may find room when that new sensory experiences is in front of you.
What can you do to work on this?
First, understand that these situations can lead to gratuitous overeating. If you want to taste the many different foods available, take very small samplings of each. You WILL be able to eat more in these situations. IF you want the flavours, just try each flavour.
A much safer route is to choose just a few "sensory inputs" per meal. At the buffet, for example, you'll fill up a lot faster if you only allow yourself to eat three of the 300 food options.
This is true at home, too. Simple meals may be less interesting because there's less variety...but that lack of variety may allow you to eat a little less a little easier.
Many thanks to Stephen Guyenet for his excellent book, The Hungry Brain.
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