How to Feel Full, part 2

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. And a reminder from the first post, if you chronically undereat, nothing below will solve your hunger challenges. Get professional support to help you recover from undereating and see where your hunger lands after that.

This is the second half of a post on evidence-based strategies to help us to feel full. If you missed part 1, it can be found here. I’ve struggled with seemingly endless hunger in times of my life, and these strategies, learned over time, have helped me to experience a healthier relationship with my hunger and satiety. Every one of these strategies could be a post on their own, and perhaps one of these days, I will write them! For now, I hope I give you enough information to give one or two a try or seek out more information, if you think they might help you, too.

9. Get sufficient movement each day. There’s a Goldilocks amount of activity that helps us manage our appetites without leaving us famished. From what I’ve read, a common level of sufficient activity is the equivalent of 8000-ish steps a day. I’ve also read that some folks find high intensity training dampens their appetites and others find it ramps them up. Like all of these suggestions, you may have to run some experiments, take notes, and figure out where your happy place is for yourself.

10. Slow down and start noticing how it feels to be nearly satisfied, satisfied, and overfull. Some people find that they sigh when they are satisfied. For me, I need to eat a few more bites after the sigh, or I’m hungry sooner than I want to be. If you aren’t used to using your own body to tell you when you’ve eaten enough, this is a skill that takes time and practice. I’ve been working on it a lot this year, as I lost touch with it for a while during the pandemic and a while beforehand. Folks who have allowed calorie counts to dictate how much to eat may take some time to reconnect to and trust their hunger and satiety, but it’s a skill worth learning.

11. Reduce distractions. Look at your plate and consider your meal before eating. Notice you’re eating while you’re doing it. Once in a while think about your tongue and how the food tastes. Mindfulness can increase satiety. I admit, I’m not great with this one. I’ve written many of my posts while munching on breakfast. But I still try to pause and notice how I’m feeling. Georgie Fear suggests imagining cutting our plates into half and checking in with ourselves at the halfway mark. Then, imagine it cut again and check in again when there’s only 25% left. These pause points can help us to stop and notice how we’re feeling.

12. Cook for yourself when you can. I don’t have science to back this one up, but for me, my own food just satisfies me more than something made by a manufacturer or restaurant. Maybe it’s because I chew more? Maybe it’s because it is more balanced? Maybe it’s because if I eat it all today, I have to make more tomorrow, and I want leftovers. Whatever the reason, it works for me, and if you can make it a part of your life, it might work for you, too! I acknowledge there’s a lot of privilege involved in being able to cook our own meals, and healthy, balanced meals can be had with less cooking. But when you can, if you think it would help you, setting up some time for food prep once or twice a week can go a long way to reducing the challenges of cooking for ourselves.

13. Sometimes cap your meals with a bit of fruit if you want something sweet. I like desserts and I don’t mind eating them, but I often choose to avoid eating them daily. Often a bit of fruit seems to signal the same “end of meal” cue as dessert does. I assume the desire for sweets at the end of a meal is a cultural factor not a biological one, but once the habit is created, it seems to be difficult to unlearn. Sweets are very positively reinforcing and easy to eat past satiety. Fruit has the bonus of being less easy to overeat with satisfying fiber and other nutrients to contribute to your sense of well-being.

14. Limit variety on foods that you’d like to eat less often and increase variety on foods you want to eat more often. We experience sensory-specific satiety, which means we feel full on the food we currently have but discover we’re less full when it’s a new food presented to us. This is why you can always fit in the next course on a multi-course meal. (There’s always room for ice cream!) For example, make a salad with a wide variety of veggies, fruits and nuts to encourage eating more salad but limit crackers to only one kind if you find them easy to keep eating.

15. Avoid liquid calories. We don’t seem to notice the calories we consume as a beverage in the same way as those we chew. Mixed foods like soup, protein shakes and smoothies might be satiating for some people, however, so you will need to experiment with those for yourself. For me, I choose to mostly only drink water outside of my morning mug of coffee with soymilk. Protein shakes are useful to me when I’m in a rush, but they don’t fill me up the way chewing some sardines on a rice cake would.

16. Practice flexible restraint rather than dietary restriction. Learning to have a more flexible, lower-stress approach to food changes how our bodies respond to eating. Higher-stress environments can make some people eat less and other people eat more. If you are prone to eating more when you’re undergoing high levels of stress, you may literally need to eat more to experience satiety. We can’t always control our stressors, but learning to think about them differently can help us respond in less-problematic ways.

These 16 points summarize the majority of the research I’ve seen on everyday choices that can help us stay full (excluding things like medications and monthly hormone fluctuations that are largely out of our control). I’m a recreational bro–I need enough food to keep me satisfied, I need it to last me through my training to the next meal, and I need to feel like I have enough control over what I’m eating to manipulate it based on my goals at any particular time. I’m also a person who used to have high enough body fat to be medically obese, and it’s possible I need to monitor more of these than another person would. If the definition of obesity is a disorder of the hunger and satiety signals in the brain, it’s pretty clear that I fit into this definition!

If you also struggle with feeling full enough and for it to last a reasonable amount of time, keep in mind there is no required timeline to figure it out. Try one strategy at a time, run the experiments, and figure out what works for you, with your life, and your unique physiology. If you’re one of the folks on the other end of the spectrum, who gets full too easily, you could flip these suggestions to figure out what you need in order to get sufficient food at mealtimes–find foods that require less chewing instead of more, emphasize increased easier-to-digest carbohydrates and fats in your diet, etc. (Maybe I should make that it’s own post. Put it in the comments if you would welcome it!) In general, the more I’ve learned about the science of feeling full, the more comfortable I’ve been with my hunger and satiety signals. I have a healthier relationship with food when I’m not feeling undernourished all of the time, and I can get on with thinking about other things.

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