How to Feel Full, part 1

CW sort of: I want to start this post with a caveat that I’m writing about food and eating behaviors. My intended audience are people who already have a pretty healthy, non-disordered relationship with food, and mostly folks who are interested in the cross-section of physique sport, performance and body size. As Jen recently said at the start of a Balance 365 podcast, the same skills can be used as a tool or a weapon, and whether or not something is healthy for you is about how you use it.

There was a time in my life when it seemed like I was always going to be hungry. I’d eat and then an hour later feel hungry again. It became so bad, I began to wonder if I was diabetic, with my blood sugar plummeting before mealtimes to the point that my hands would shake, I’d have headaches and become irritable. I developed an absolute fear of getting hungry and always kept snacks in my purse, in the car, in my desk at work. However, I have since learned that for me, these symptoms can be nearly completely avoided by following some guidelines at mealtimes. The more consistently I adhere to them, the less problematic my hunger has become.(1) Now, I can be hungry before a meal and it’s just that, I’m hungry. The apparent hypoglycemia was for me a symptom that I wasn’t eating satisfying foods that would keep me energized from one meal to the next. In my years of learning about the subject, here’s my accumulated knowledge of how to feel truly satisfied with meals and to make them last until the next one.

1. Eat more. When we habitually undereat, there’s nothing below that will solve our hunger challenges. A long history of research, including the famous Ansel Keys Minnesota Starvation Study, demonstrate that not only during undereating but for months, and potentially years afterwards, our bodies defend against starvation by increasing our hunger cues. If this is you, you need to commit to some time eating enough, and probably in a surplus, until your appetite balances out again. I strongly recommend you get help with this process from a registered dietician or an evidence-based coach. If you are a physique competitor, the folks at 3DMJ have developed the Recovery Diet to help you get back to more normal hunger and satiety signals, and a healthier relationship with food, as quickly as possible after a prep.

2. Eat at predictable mealtimes when possible, preferably evenly spaced throughout the day. Our bodies will learn to anticipate meals and will adjust hunger and fullness to these times of day. As far as I can tell, no one evidence-based recommends a specific number of meals as ideal for everyone anymore, although it is common to say between 3-5 meals a day as preferable. I like 4 meals a day, with 3-4 hours between them; do what you can do consistently.

3. Eat balanced meals. Protein, starchy carbs, just enough fat, sufficient fruits and/or veggies. You can find examples of specific guidelines at Precision Nutrition or from the ladies at Balance 365 (and probably plenty of others, but they’re the folks I know). Each component assists in satiety and they compliment each other. I have learned over the years that the more consistently balanced my meals are–including those 4 elements as often as possible–the more consistent my hunger and fullness has become.

4. Get sufficient protein. 3-4 times a day, at least a palm-size serving. Lean proteins (poultry, lean fish, low fat dairy, beans) are easier to fit into a balanced meal than fattier ones (nuts and seeds, fattier cuts of meat, cheeses), but you can learn to include fattier protein sources without getting more fat than you prefer (see point 6). Protein has been shown to be one of the more satiating nutrients for most people.

5. Increase the volume of meals with fruits and vegetables. Our gut tells us we’ve eaten enough in part due to how much space the food takes up. Take up space with fruits and veggies (enough but don’t go overboard–you still need those proteins, fats, and starchy carbs). I’m a huge fan of the research of Barbara Rolls, who created the Volumetrics Diet based on her research on satiety and food volume. I regularly use recipes from her 3 cookbooks and have used the principals in her books to make my own recipes more satiating.

6. Figure out how much fat is right for you. For me, it’s a range that works out to about 12-20 grams per meal, or 1-2 “thumb size” portions. I figured this out with trial and error. Fat slows down the absorption of other nutrients, helping our food “stick” with us, but it also tastes delicious and can encourage overeating, especially in combination with sugar and/or salt. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn if most of us tend to err on one side or the other–consistently undereating fat or consistently overeating it. I like the flavor fat brings to meals, so for me it’s about having enough so that my meal is enjoyable and satisfying but not more than that.

7. Prioritize whole sources of starchy carbohydrates where you can. Added fiber and reduced processing (meaning more chewing and micronutrient content) make them more satisfying. When our bodies have to work to get the nutrients, we register it as more satisfying than when it’s more readily consumed and absorbed. My favorite sources are oats, brown rice, quinoa, and beans of all kinds. Like fats, I suspect some of us need more of these than others do in order to feel satisfied. Play around with it to find what works for you. I find if I eat 1/2 cup, about a cupped handful, at most meals it is usually enough for me, although I like a heavier-carbohydrate breakfast. (Yay, pancakes!)

8. Get sufficient restful sleep. When we are tired, it takes more food to feel full and we are hungry again more quickly after a meal. When I’m really tired, I feel like a bottomless pit, never satisfied and never filled. We can’t always get as much sleep as we want to, but to whatever degree you can prioritize sleep, you will enjoy more consistent hunger and satiety cues the more consistently you can put it into practice.

These 8 strategies have proven to be very impactful in helping me to feel genuinely and truly satisfied after meals. In particular, balancing my meals with enough protein, plenty of fruits and vegetables, enough fat and more satisfying carbohydrates has been a game-changer. The impact of these choices are noticeable immediately for me when I wander away from them. I’m still definitely a work in progress (and always will be I expect!), and my habits will slide after a while if I’m not paying attention to them or when life gets hectic. When I notice myself getting too hungry between meals, I think back on this list and do a little audit–which of these am I doing less consistently? And as I plan my grocery list for the next week, I set myself up for success by making sure I have what I need in the house.

Keep an eye out for Part 2 next week. Want to be sure you don’t miss it? Subscribe to the blog, or find and follow Progressive Strength on Facebook.

(1) As with all eating guidelines, I approach these with flexible restraint, not a restriction mindset. It’s what I try to do most of the time, but it’s not a big deal when life gets in the ways from time to time. My focus is on consistency, not perfection.

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11 thoughts on “How to Feel Full, part 1

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