You probably know the feeling: You weren’t full yet, so you kept eating, and now you’re uncomfortably overstuffed. Why, oh, why didn’t you set down that sandwich (or salad or pasta or whatever) just a liiiittle bit sooner?!
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It can be surprisingly difficult to tell when you’re full — and it can leave you feeling frustrated with your ability to know your own body and control your eating habits, says psychologist Susan Albers, PsyD.
“Fullness confusion is one of the biggest mysteries and difficulties that people tell me they face,” she says. “They say, ‘I never feel full,’ or ‘I go from feeling starved to being overly full without intending to.’ It’s a frustrating and exhausting repeated cycle.”
So, how can you change your ways? Dr. Albers explains why so many people have such a hard time with fullness and how you can better tune into the signals your body sends you about when you’ve had enough to eat.
Why it’s so hard to tell when you’re full
Have you ever heard that it can take up to 30 minutes after eating to recognize that you’re full? It’s true, Dr. Albers says. There’s a lag time between eating enough to become full and your brain realizing that you feel full — and it’s during that in-between time that you may continue eating and end up feeling stuffed.
“There’s a huge gap between being physically satisfied and realizing in your mind that you’re full,” she continues. “The connection between them is more like old-school dialup speed than instantaneous WiFi.” (She adds that she considers “being full” to mean being satisfied or not hungry anymore, rather than your stomach being filled to the brim.)
But what actually happens between taking a bite and feeling full? It’s a complex process that scientists don’t yet completely understand. But it goes something like this:
- You start eating. When food hits your stomach, the muscles around it begin to stretch to accommodate it.
- As those muscles stretch, the nerves around your stomach send messages to your brain to let it know that you’re filling up.
- Your body starts releasing hormones like leptin and cholecystokinin, which impact how full you feel. As the hormones kick in, your brain starts to realize that you’ve had enough to eat. “Part of the difficulty is that you reach physical fullness before your brain realizes it,” Dr. Albers notes. But by that point, you’re not just full — you’re overly full.
“Basically, it takes a while for all your hormones and insulin levels to rise enough for the brain to detect them,” she explains. “It’s not a super speedy process.”
And as it turns out, chemistry is only half the picture.
Emotions play a role in fullness, too
Emotions and social cues play a role in this process, too. “Fullness is only partly a physical process,” Dr. Albers says.
If, for example, you eat a meal you don’t particularly like, your disappointment can leave you wanting more. On the other hand, if you’re having dinner with a friend who pushes their plate away and declares that they’re full, you might start to feel full, too.
And then, of course, there’s stress eating, mindless snacking and other unintentional but very real eating habits that cause you to overeat, often beyond the point of fullness.
How to know when you’re full
Hunger and fullness are important biological cues that tell you what your body needs — vitamins, nutrients, energy, sustenance and so on. These cues are an integral part of our human DNA, but many of us have learned to suppress and ignore them.
“The biological cues of hunger and fullness aren’t the enemy, as diet culture would like us to believe,” Dr. Albers says. “They are helpful survival tools that allow us to thrive and function well.”
Both hunger and fullness are messages about what you need. But how can you learn to hear and receive those messages? Dr. Albers shares tips for knowing when you’re full, which is closely tied to knowing how hungry you are.
1. Practice mindful eating
Mindful eating is the antidote to your body’s confusion about hunger and fullness. But what is mindful eating?
“Eating mindfully is about knowing your body,” Dr. Albers says. “There is such a fine line between eating enough to feel satisfied and being overly full. Paying attention as you eat can give you a heads up that you are approaching that line.”
Mindful eating is related to the overall concept of mindfulness, which encourages you to slow down, live in the moment and be in tune with what’s happening around you and inside you. When you eat mindfully, you give careful thought to what you eat and when and why — tuning in to what your body really needs (and what it really doesn’t). A similar concept is called intuitive eating.
“Listen to your body,” Dr. Albers encourages. “Tune in. Let go of diet mantras and diet culture.”
2. Reframe the concept of fullness
To start, Dr. Albers suggests rethinking the word “full” and replacing it with the word “satiated.” They may seem like similar concepts, but the difference between them makes, well, all the difference.
“When we think about the word ‘full,’ it’s often like filling up a cup or occupying every inch of a space,” Dr. Albers says. “But the fullness that we can feel and perceive in our stomachs is often being overly full. ‘Satiated’ is different, though. Satiated is meeting a need.”
Put the word “full” to the side for a moment. As you eat, don’t ask yourself if you’re full; instead, ask yourself if you’re not hungry anymore. Your goal should be to eat until you’re no longer hungry, not to eat until you’re full. “This is a much different mindset,” Dr. Albers states.
3. Try the PAUSE exercise
How often do you really take the time to feel your hunger and satiety, or even think about them at all? “Hunger is like a knee-jerk reaction,” Dr. Albers says. “Most of us don’t even slow down for a moment to evaluate the nature of it.”
But eating slowly is the key to getting your stomach, gut and brain in sync. Dr. Albers recommends trying the PAUSE exercise, an acronym that can help you understand how you’re feeling so you can make the right decisions for your body’s needs in any given moment.
- Put on the brakes for a moment.
- Assess your hunger level on a scale of 1 to 10. (More on this in a moment!)
- Understand what your body wants and needs.
- Slow down before responding.
- Entertain your options.
4. Assess your hunger and fullness
Evaluating your hunger — before you eat, while you’re eating and once you’re done — can help you know how much to eat and when you’re full. And there’s more to it than you might realize.
“People think hunger and fullness are only felt in the stomach,” Dr. Albers says. “But in fact, hunger can be related to fatigue, difficulty focusing, irritability, anxiety, headaches, shakiness, dizziness and more. On the other hand, feeling focused, calm, able to concentrate and energized can be a sign of fullness.”
A hunger/satiety scale can help you pause and figure out how hungry, satiated or full you are. Aim to remain with a 4 to 7 on this scale:
|10||Absolutely stuffed; uncomfortable to the point of pain and nausea.|
|9||Almost completely stuffed; bloated and uncomfortable.|
|8||Overly full, feeling some discomfort.|
|7||Full but satisfied, with no discomfort.|
|6||Satisfied but could eat a little more without discomfort.|
|5||Neutral (like in between meals) or beginning to feel hungry.|
|4||Grumbling stomach, ready to eat.|
|3||Very hungry to the point of irritability (aka “hangry”).|
|2||Extremely hungry with low energy and weakness/dizziness.|
|1||Starving to the point of feeling unwell; no energy.|
“Check in with your body to see where you fall on the scale, ranging from starving to overly stuffed,” Dr. Albers advises. “When you identify your level of hunger before you start eating, this points you to the right intervention.”
5. Pay attention to portions
How much food does it take for you to actually become full? Large portion sizes, especially in the United States, have skewed our ability to tell — but you can reclaim your understanding.
“Huge portions are one of the No. 1 saboteurs of mindful eating,” Dr. Albers says. “If you’re eating based on external cues, like when the plate is empty, a large portion can trick your brain into thinking, ‘This is how much I should eat,’ versus listening to your internal cues.”
Test out your beliefs about what you think will make you feel full. Experiment with different amounts of food and practice eating slowly. You can even try eating with your non-dominant hand, which can shift you out of autopilot.
6. Train your hunger
Your body and brain love consistency. Even if you don’t realize it, they have the ability to start gearing up for things that happen on a routine basis — including digesting and processing food. But only if you establish a routine eating schedule.
“If you eat at the same time and roughly the same amount each day, your body will begin to anticipate and look forward to eating,” Dr. Albers notes. It will also begin to send clearer signals about fullness and hunger that will become easier for you to recognize.
See what works for you: meal-prepping, setting alarms, writing out reminders, etc. Different strategies work for different people, so experiment with what it takes for you to create and stick to a routine that works for your lifestyle.
7. Know which foods fill you up
Ever scarfed a whole bunch of potato chips and still felt famished? You’re not imagining it. Some foods make you feel fuller than others — and other foods can be eaten in enormous quantities without ever filling you up at all.
“Often, we eat large amounts of food that don’t keep us feeling full, which is why you can eat something and instantly feel hungry again,” Dr. Albers explains. “But some foods are like magic in that they keep you feeling fuller for longer.”
Look for foods that are high in fiber, full of protein and filled with water. Some good options are:
- Cottage cheese.
- Brussels sprouts.
- Black beans.
Dr. Albers suggests keeping a list of foods you like that both keep you feeling satisfied and prevent you from getting hungry quickly.
Seek support for disordered eating
A lifetime of ignoring your body’s hunger and fullness cues can lead to unhealthy relationships with food. “When you feel deprived or are restricting what you eat through dieting, it can be difficult to ever feel full,” Dr. Albers says.
And you don’t have to have an eating disorder (anorexia, bulimia or binge-eating disorder) to have disordered eating behaviors.
“Maybe you’ve been ignoring your hunger or responding to it in inconsistent ways,” Dr. Albers says, “or maybe you struggle with thoughts about shame and guilt when you eat that wreak havoc on your hunger and fullness cues.”
If you can’t seem to get a handle on your hunger and fullness on your own, seek out the help of a professional who can guide you, like a dietitian or a therapist who specializes in eating disorders and other disordered eating behaviors. They can help you get in touch with your biological cues and identify any underlying issues that you haven’t realized on your own.
“Knowing and trusting your body is key,” Dr. Albers continues. “You can stop at what feels like a reasonable amount and trust that when you walk away from the table, you will not be hungry later.”
To learn more on this topic from Dr. Albers, listen to the Health Essentials Podcast episodes, “Understanding Intuitive Eating” and “Eating Disorders: What You Need To Know.” New episodes of the Health Essentials Podcast publish every Wednesday.