5 Possible Explanations Behind Umay

November 16, 2018

One of the best things about about being a grown up is getting to eat as much junk food as you want, when you want, without Mom/Dad/Yaya telling you otherwise. But anyone who has ever finished an entire big bag of Lay’s or wolfed down a “dinner” of instant pancit canton (three jumbo packs) quickly realizes that Mom/Dad/Yaya may have been right about the dangers of pigging out. That nasty, sickening feeling you get (after your junk food binge) as you lick the ring of dried-up MSG-laden seasoning around your mouth? We Filipinos call that umay.


Umay attack in 5,4,3,2…

In English, umay means “fed-up” or “disgusted,” usually with one specific object after being exposed to it for too long. While the term is generally applied to food, one can also get umay from listening to that one song on the radio over and over again, smelling the same strong odor from your officemate’s cologne everyday, or seeing Daniel Padilla’s face on television one too many times. But we’ll focus on the taste aspect and delve into the many explanations behind what happens when you do have too much of a good thing.

1. The Biological Explanation: The Science of Good Taste

Biology tells us that the physical sensations we feel are products of our sensory receptors responding to environmental stimuli. Exteroreceptors are nerve endings that detect stimuli from outside the body, like the ones in your tongue or your ear. They then process these stimuli and pass it along to the cerebral cortex via nerve impulses. You then experience the sensation once you consciously perceive the said stimuli. Umay happens when repetitive stimuli causes a decrease in stimulus response.


Probably the tastiest Biology lesson ever.

Now, let’s talk about the concept of sensory-specific satiety (SSS). SSS is all about how your receptors get less and less input with each additional bite of food. Simply put, if what you’re eating is delicious, you get less deliciousness from every bite as you keep eating the same thing. This is best explained over the steak dinner (complete with side dishes) you’ve treated your Inglisera crush to, as explaining why trying to finish off the steak before you move on to the mashed potatoes or the buttered vegetables is a bad idea will convince her you actually paid attention in school.

Each consecutive bite of your steak/mashed potato/buttered vegetables makes your taste receptors accustomed to the stimuli they produce a lot quicker, so you end up getting sick of that specific food much sooner. If you take alternating bites from each food group instead, then your taste receptors are forced to actively distinguish between the flavors, thus resulting in a more enjoyable meal (and perhaps a second date for you).

SSS also helps explain why it’s so difficult to identify subtle nuances between different samples of the same food or drink, such as chocolate or wine. If that second date occurs at a chocolate buffet, a secret stash of potato chips into your bag could be your secret weapon to impressing your date with your sophisticated palate.

2. The Nutritional Explanation: Eating Yourself Sick

Being omnivores, we humans thrive on getting different nutrients from different food sources, be they plant or animal. So if we eat the same kind of food for a prolonged period of time, our bodies miss out on the important nutrients found in other types of food. From a nutritional perspective, umay, which makes you temporarily repulsed by what you’ve been eating, is simply your body’s way of telling you to eat something else so you can stock up on other nutrients.


The face of umay.

In some cases, umay serves to stop you from eating something that could be toxic for you in large doses. Notice how much easier it is to get sick of potato chips (coated in those bright orange “cheese” powders that list industrial wastes like tartrazine as an ingredient) and hot dogs (the flaming red ones that are basically just casings of fat, water, and carcinogenic nitrates) as compared to scarfing down a plateful of fresh fruit or a bowl of vegetable sticks.

3. The Evolutionary Explanation: Survival of the Pickiest

Apparently, experiencing umay is proof that you’re a fully-evolved homo sapien. Some scientists divide living beings into two groups: generalists who get sick of eating the same thing over and over, and specialists who don’t really mind.

koala 1

Even the strictest vegan has nothing on this fluffy little dude.

Specialists favor one specific food source that’s both plentiful and generally unappetizing to other species (like that one friend we all have who eats all the green peas you pick out of your yang chow fried rice). Specialists are also known to have very little curiosity, so they don’t wander off to other places in the hope of discovering other sources of sustenance. Cute creatures like the koala and the panda bear, which eat only eucalyptus and bamboo leaves respectively, fall under this category.

Generalists, on the other hand, were the world’s first picky eaters, but for good reason. Being dependent on a single food source for your nutritional requirements was risky in olden times (what with disease, volcanic eruptions, and ground-shattering earthquakes regularly wiping out entire plant and animal species back then). And since early man moved around a lot (mostly from running away from said diseases, volcanic eruptions, and ground-shattering earthquakes), he had to find suitable nutrition from different food sources in different locations at different climates.  This sort of behavior became so crucial to early man’s survival that the human body soon evolved to reject the practice of eating the same thing constantly, hence that horrible feeling we get after chowing down on all those Happy Meal burgers (although those minion thingies that come with them are too cute to pass up).

4. The Cultural Explanation: Gross Keyboard Syndrome

The modern workplace has made us adept at multi-tasking. Unfortunately, our added dexterity has also led to an undesirable side effect: a lot of us now think nothing of eating lunch at our work desks. “But that report isn’t going to write itself, and I want to show my boss how committed I am,” you say, while shoveling spoonfuls of rice and last night’s adobo into your mouth with one hand and editing that same report with the other.

Office desk and sandwich

Just think of all the crumbs and food bits stuck in your keyboard right now. Gross.

While taking your midday meal in front of your workstation might impress your boss, it doesn’t do your digestive system any favors. It takes twenty minutes for the brain to register that the stomach is full, and proper lunch and/or dinner breaks were integrated into our school/work schedules so that we’d have ample time to digest our food. Frantically chowing down on your baon while working distracts you from realizing how much food has already gone down your pipe. This is why you get that sick, bloated feeling shortly after. Couple that with the dreaded afternoon energy slump, and taking up the office cutie on his/her invitation to a lunch out suddenly becomes a great idea for more reasons other than the obvious one.

The office isn’t the only place where you can fall prey to umay. Eating in front of the television or your laptop can also lessen your dining pleasure significantly. This is because watching something mentally stimulating (like that @#*&%*&! Red Wedding episode) forces the more recently evolved and higher-functioning part of your brain to focus on the media, leaving the more primitive part to preside over the eating process. When the reptilian portion of your brain takes over, things like restraint, satiety, and common sense fly out the window. Thus, you end up mindlessly demolishing that huge bag of Cheetos and end up feeling so awful you envy those poor dead Starks by the end of the episode.

5. The Economic Explanation: Proof That Hotel Buffets Were Designed to Torment Us

Anyone who’s been to Spiral, Circles, or any of those other five-star hotel buffets that seem to stretch a mile long knows that there’s an art form to dining at these places. Once you’ve decided to fork over a week’s worth of wages, you become determined to get your money’s worth by attacking the smorgasbord of food with your strategy of choice. Some people load up more than one plate at a time, others zero in on the expensive cuts of meat and luxurious seafood selection, and I’ve known a few who only stop for a drink once they were done eating. And yet all of them end up the same, sprawled out on the cushioned seats and moaning about how terrible they feel.

Spiral buffet

Last time I checked, Spiral had 21 dining stations, with one that offers unlimited foie gras. Talk about a fancy way to get umay.

If I remember my Economics 101 lessons correctly, hotel buffets hinge on the principle of diminishing marginal utility. The premise is that as you increase the consumption of a product, you get a marginal decline for each additional unit you consume. So, the first plate of food you get at a buffet is always the best, with the second one being satisfactory but not as good as the first, and if you keep eating past the fourth or fifth plate, it results in you being sick to your stomach. The economic term for this kind of umay is disutility. And whether or not that’s worth the exorbitant price tag probably depends on how big your gut capacity (or your bank account) is.

In retrospect, I guess all it takes to minimize or avoid umay altogether is to enjoy your food properly. Sometimes, it pays to simply sit down to a meal and to savor food as biology, nutrition, evolution, culture, and economics intended. And hey, a pleasant meal might be all you need to score that second date with your Inglisera crush.

What was your worst umay experience? Is there one type of food you got so sick off that you still can’t stand it to this day? How do you cope with umay? Tell us all about it below!

Images via Feminiya/Jonoandjules/Underscoopfire/Blogspot/The UK Guardian/Flickr


Mader, S. (2010). Human Biology (11th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill

Stuckey, B. (2012). Taste What You’re Missing: The Passionate Eater’s Guide to Why Good Food Tastes Good. New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc.

Serna Estrella SEE AUTHOR Serna Estrella

Serna is a slim piggy who heartily believes that salads are not real food and that desserts (fruit salad not included) should have their own food group. When she's not terrorizing people with her Grammar Nazi tendencies, she likes to hunt for the perfect afternoon tea spot that lets her pretend she's still in the age of Austen (albeit with electricity and better dental care).

21 comments in this post SHOW

21 responses to “5 Possible Explanations Behind Umay”

  1. Erwin says:

    Wow! I learn a lot from this. Thanks!

  2. Adrian De Leon says:

    Weirdly enough, I don’t get a strong umay feeling from junk food. It’s mostly the rich, fatty meat dishes that have me tapping out before I’m stuffed.

    Oh, and great job condensing 11 pages of research notes into a very readable article!

    • Sergia Susana says:

      Nice! I can’t quite finish a huge bag of Lay’s by myself, but desserts are a different story. @.@

      Hehe. Thanks for that, Adee! 🙂 Much appreciated. 🙂

  3. Jose Angeles says:

    3 packs of Lucky Me Pancit Canton Hot N’ Spicy = UMAY. Eating 2 is just right for me.

  4. carina says:

    that’s why I love this blog. nice article! ♥

  5. Sergia Emilia Casiño says:

    Great article, Sern! 🙂

  6. Lars Roxas says:


  7. Keith Chiravat says:

    brilliant! explains everything.

  8. Adette Razon says:

    Brilliant article as always, Serna! 🙂 Now I know why my project teammate wanted to share his bowl of chips (the English version XD) with me while we were eating in this restaurant. He sensed that I would get “umay” sooner or later from the pasta I was eating.

    • Sergia Susana says:

      Thanks, dearest! 🙂 I do hope you’re having a grand time in England and a good handful of them chips! 😉

  9. […] However, although the rich flavor of the patties is the hero of the burger, each bite a reminder of the washboard abs you’ll never have, the overall dining experience could be dry and nakakaumay. […]

  10. […] to chew, and had that smoky richness that managed to almost always stay on the right side of the umay line. They were dipped in identical marinades but the different flavors of each body part still […]

  11. […] time I want a slice, plus the crust of Red Hot Oven’s for its ability to stave off any hint of umay stemming from the rich […]

  12. […] putting in just enough to make you want more with your rice without letting you hit that dreaded wall of umay from all the fat. After my meal, I felt so full that I spent a good five minutes just sitting there […]

  13. […] a nice citrusy twist that helps cut through the richness. That way, you needn’t worry about umay before your second (or third) […]

  14. […] so; it can get — and pardon the code switching because the word has no translation in English — nakakaumay after the first few spoonfuls. The subtlety of the flavors and the rich, thick consistency of […]

  15. […] so; it can get — and pardon the code switching because the word has no translation in English — nakakaumay after the first few spoonfuls. The subtlety of the flavors and the rich, thick consistency of […]

  16. […] Umay is when you’ve had enough. When you’re satiated to the point of not being able to take in anymore. However, this isn’t limited to food and eating yourself sick. […]

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