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In this post, I’ll teach you to feel your fullness as a way to honor what your body is trying to tell you. Does this sound familiar? You sit down to eat, and before you know it, you’ve finished your meal without even noticing and you’re still feeling hungry. Or you find it hard to stop eating even when your stomach already feels uncomfortable.
Perhaps you know that you can’t eat another bite, but you just can’t bear to leave food in your plate. Maybe you were repeatedly told at an early age that you “have to clean your plate”. Or maybe you were taught that food should not go to waste, so you it’s difficult for you to leave food on the table.
The problem with type of eating behavior is that it disconnects you from your own fullness cues. One of the main purposes of Intuitive Eating is reconnecting us with our innate body signals instead of relying on external regulations (aka, diets).
This is Principle 5 of Intuitive Eating , which is all about listening to your body signals that tell you when you are no longer physically hungry and comfortably full.
“In order to honor your fullness, you need to trust that you will give yourself the foods that you desire. Listen for the body signals that tell you that you are no longer hungry. Observe the signs that show that you’re comfortably full. Pause in the middle of eating and ask yourself how the food tastes, and what your current hunger level is.” Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, Intuitive Eating
Why do you need to feel your fullness?
As I mentioned above, dieting disconnects us from our internal signals by telling us when, how much and what to eat. We’re born intuitive eaters. As babies and small children, we know when to stop eating once we’re full (as long as your parents and caregivers gave you that autonomy).
However, exposure to diet culture and socially constructed body ideals sneak in and start to regulate our eating externally.
In fact, many people, especially chronic dieters, don’t even know what being comfortably full feels like. They’re so used to eating “when it’s allowed”, that they lose trust with what their bodies really need.
What does fullness feel like?
Just like when we honor our hunger, respecting our fullness requires knowing what to look for. Specifically, what does comfortable fullness feel like? Well, since we’re all different, this sensation will not feel the same for all of us. Let’s dive right in and see how this works.
There are so many ways to describe fullness and satiety cues, but you have to tune into your own body and be mindful and pay attention to your eating so you can discover what it feels like for you in your body. Shifting your focus on paying attention to your eating will help you with this. But just in case, here are some common fullness/satiety cues:
- Subtle stomach fullness
- Feeling neither hungry nor full
- Feeling satisfied and content
“Remember, there is no failing in Intuitive Eating! At times, we eat beyond fullness. At times, we engage in distracted eating. This principle is about connecting more deeply with your body’s signals, not about perfection”. Evelyn Tribole
What causes fullness?
Just like hunger, satiety is a natural way that our bodies tell us it’s time to stop eating. The brain and digestive system are constantly communicating back and forth. Satiety is triggered in the following way:
- Your brain sends messages to your stomach when your body needs energy, making you feel physically hungry, which reminds you to eat.
- Your stomach sends messages back to your brain when your stomach starts to stretch after eating, making you feel full and satisfied, which signals you to stop eating.
There are also hormones that tell the brain how much fat we have stored in the body, which affect satiety over the longer term. All of these signals come together in areas of the brain involved in controlling energy intake. Although we can feel the stomach filling up as we eat, it can take some time after food is first eaten for the full range of satiety signals to reach the brain. By this time and for some time afterwards we will experience feelings of satiety.
How long does it take for your body to realize it’s full?
There is usually a time lapse between when we start eating and when the fullness signals begin reaching our brains. Once food reaches the stomach and digestive tract, satiety hormones start to be released which provide feedback to the brain to tell us we’re full.
So, does it take 20 minutes to feel full after eating?
There is a 20 minute window, more or less, where you’re not getting some of those feedback signals. So, in general terms, it may take around that amount of time (from 20-30 minutes) until you start to feel your fullness. It’s not black or white, and it’s different for everyone, so don’t stress if this process takes longer.
Taking this 20 minute window into account, slowing down during meals can actually help you to get more in tune with your satiety cues. For example, this research paper (1) found that a slower rate of eating was associated with “a greater increase in fullness after the meal and demonstrated greater ghrelin [the hunger hormone] suppression”.
Feeling your fullness is also connected to giving yourself unconditional permission to eat. As we discussed in Principle 3 of Intuitive Eating: Making Peace with Food, no food should be “forbidden”, since that actually gives food control over you, and not the other way around.
How can you respect your fullness and stop eating when you’re biologically full if you feel like you won’t ever see that food again? As the authors of Intuitive Eating state: “Unless you truly give yourself permission to eat again when you are hungry, or have access to that particular food, respecting fullness simply becomes a dogmatic exercise without roots. It won’t take hold”.
What does satiety feel like?
For most people, comfortable satiety is a pleasant, if occasional, endpoint to eating. It is a positive state of feeling filled up and satisfied. The desire to keep eating has been replaced with the desire to stop.
Bear in mind that eating past satiety can feel rewarding if it follows a deliberate decision to eat more than usual, perhaps on a festive occasion, because food tastes exceptionally good or because energy needs have suddenly increased. And that’s OK!
Dieting and eating disorders can disconnect us from these signals, making it difficult to determine comfortable fullness (and hunger) cues. So don’t worry if in the beginning this is particularly challenging for you. The key is to recognize where you’re at, and continue listening in to your own body according to what’s comfortable for you.
Why do I keep eating and not feel full (eating past feelings of fullness)?
One question I frequently receive is: “Why do I constantly feel hungry even after eating?”. Another is “Why do I continue to eat past my feelings of fullness?”. This can be due to a variety of factors, but most of the time it’s related to the composition of the meal. Meaning that the foods eaten were not particularly filling.
This is very common when a meal consists of foods such as salads, soups, shakes or simple carbohydrates like potatoes or pasta. In order to feel fuller for longer, the key factors to look for are meals that are good sources of all of these three components:
- Protein: Protein is the most satiating macronutrient. It actually changes the levels of several satiety hormones (2), including ghrelin and GLP-1. Protein helps reduce levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin. It also increases the levels of peptide YY, a hormone that makes you feel full.
- Fiber: Fiber takes longer to pass through the digestive system. Adding more high fiber foods in our diet can help us feel fuller longer, therefore avoiding still feeling hungry after eating. In fact, there’s evidence that dietary fiber affects hunger and satiety (3) by decreasing gastric emptying–which in turn keeps you fuller longer. For a food to be classified as high fiber, it should have from 3-5 grams of fiber per serving.
- Healthy fats: For many years, fats were thought to be the enemy which must be avoided at all costs. Now, we know that there are some fats that ARE necessary for good health, such as omega-3 fatty acids and plant based monounsaturated oils. It seems that fats have an effect on satiety and appear to regulate appetite through the release of appetite hormones and by slowing down the rate at which your stomach empties during digestion.
The bottom line is, these food components take longer to digest, than say, foods that are mainly made up of simple carbohydrates. In fact, it seems that the more “whole” a food is, the more filling it tends to be (4).
Feeling hungry even after eating can also be due to stress or other difficult emotions. It’s very common to turn to foods when faced with challenging feelings, and eating patterns can become altered.
In fact, this article (5) states that “In humans, individual differences in food intake response are similarly noted – roughly 40% increase and 40% decrease their caloric intake when stressed, while approximately 20% of people do not change feeding behaviors during stressful periods”.
So there’s no need to feel guilty or more stressed out about stress eating- it’s a very common response to difficult situations. However, it’s necessary to identify and manage the real cause of emotional eating in order to achieve a more lasting solution.
Deprivation driven eating
Another reason for not feeling full after eating is that maybe you just haven’t eaten enough (or at all) during a previous meal. If that’s the case, then by all means eat!
Skipping meals or eating too small portions can make you feel ravenous at the next meal you eat and feel like you can’t fill up. Purposely restricting food intake can also leaves us feeling hungry and deprived, which is one of the many reasons diets don’t work.
Your body will sense that you are in “starvation mode” and go into overdrive to try to get energy in your system. The results: difficulty feeling full after a meal until your energy is replenished.
4 steps to feel your fullness
Feeling your fullness, and becoming an intuitive eater, require being conscious or mindful of your eating experience. According to Intuitive Eating: “This initial step away from the blind autopilot eating mode is conscious-awareness eating. It’s a phase where you neutrally observe your eating as if under a microscope.”
Here are a series of steps, based on the book, you can try in order to become more mindful during your meals and learn to feel your fullness. And remember, the longer you’ve been disconnected from your body’s signals, the longer it might take to be aware of them. Be very patient and have lots of self-compassion during your intuitive eating journey.
- Pause in the middle of a meal or snack for a time out: You don’t have to stop eating if you still don’t want to, this is just to get in touch with your taste buds and your fullness.
- Taste check: How does the food taste? Are you enjoying it? Are you just eating it because it’s there and you feel committed to finishing it?
- Fullness check: Now, ask yourself what your level of fullness is. Are you still hungry, or are you starting to feel emerging fullness? The hunger/fullness scale below can be very helpful with this process. If you feel that you’re still hungry, continue eating.
- When you’re done eating, check to see what your fullness level is at. Again, the fullness scale can help you out with this. How would you objectively describe your fullness? Pleasantly full and satisfied? Uncomfortably full or stuffed? Remember to avoid judgement. In case you don’t feel well with your current sensation, think about what you can do next time that will make you feel more comfortable. This is an ongoing process and it may take time.
- Identify you last few bites threshold: The purpose of this step is to help you “see” where your biological fullness is finally at. Once you start realizing that you are a few bites away from fullness, notice which one is the one that’s telling you that you can’t possibly eat another one.
- Don’t feel obligated to leave food on your plate: Past dieting experience may have you feeling like it’s “wrong” to eat your whole meal. However, remember what I mentioned above: in order to feel your fullness, you have to give yourself unconditional permission to eat. So if you find you’re eating past your fullness, it’s perfectly OK. As you get to know your body’s signals better, you’ll find it easier to eat to comfortable satiety. On the other hand, you also don’t have to clean your plate if you feel like you’ve eaten enough. I know this can be difficult for those who were taught to clean their plates when they were kids, but remember that now it’s all about what you and your body actually need.
How to use the hunger/fullness scale
One of the most useful ways to get in touch with our satiety cues is by practicing using a hunger scale. A hunger/fullness scale is a tool that can help you get back in touch with your fullness cues.
During the day, try to see which number you would rate your satiety at. If you’re not sure, just rule out the ones you know are not it, then go with what YOU feel is the most representative at that particular moment. BTW, there is no right or wrong answer! And, remember this is just a tool, it’s not an obligatory exercise or anything like that.
Try to approach your fullness with a compassionate, nonjudgmental curiosity. Just try to write down in each box which number feels more “right” during each meal. An easy way is to notice which physical sensations are associated with each number. This way, you have a clear way to “visualize” your satiety cues. Try it for a day or two and see what you learn about yourself!
Additional tips to help you feel your fullness
- Minimize distractions: Get off the phone, put down your laptop, turn off the TV; whatever you have to do that helps you be present when you’e eating. Eating in a mindful manner will help you notice your cues much faster.
- Reinforce your conscious decision to stop eating: Marking your last bite threshold by putting down your fork, pushing away your plate or putting your napkin over your food can give you that visual cue that you’re full and finished eating.
- Defend yourself from obligatory eating: Have you ever found yourself at a family event where that well meaning relative keeps trying to push seconds on you and you don’t want to hurt their feelings so you accept and end up feeling uncomfortably stuffed? Well, it’s time to start practicing saying a polite yet firm “no, thank you”. This also helps you reinforce your boundaries, since only you get to be in charge of how much you eat or drink.
So in essence, with practice and awareness, you will find that you can learn to feel your fullness much easier each time. This will help you to have eating experiences that you want to have again, which is a way of treating our bodies in a way that shows them respect and self-care.
If you start practicing these steps, you’ll start noticing subtle fullness cues, and feeling more in tune with what your body wants and needs. This increased awareness, in turn, will help you return to the intuitive eater you were born to be. Give yourself that chance.
Hi! I’m Melissa, Registered Dietitian and mother of two dragons. When I’m not talking nutrition you can find me rolling around the floor with my kids, sewing, crafting, cooking or missing the 90s (seriously, music just isn’t the same). Read More…