Do you struggle with constantly over eating? Are you looking for tips on how to end a meal comfortably satisfied? In this post I'm going to break down how you can learn to listen to your hunger cues and naturally know how to stop eating when full & satisfied!
What Is A Hunger Cue?
A hunger cue is a signal produced by your body in order to tell you "Hey! I need some energy!" or "Hey! I've got enough energy!". In essence, it's your body's natural way of regulating its energy needs.
This natural energy regulation system is directed by appetite hormones that our body produces such as the two main ones we think of, leptin and ghrelin. Let's briefly discuss both of those, shall we?
Leptin: The Fullness Hormone
What Is Leptin?
Leptin is known as the "fullness hormone". It's a hormone that is produced by fat cells of the body and signals to us that we've had enough energy (i.e. food). Leptin levels are low when your body needs energy, signaling hunger. And the opposite is true also, leptin levels rise as you consume more food, which is how your body regulates your energy intake. It also rises with the amount of fat cells on your body. Now, here are a couple important things to know about leptin.
First, leptin can be influenced by several things, such as weight loss which can decrease the amount of leptin in the body. This may contribute to the fact that we see so many diets fail, resulting in actually increasing weight in the long run. You body starts to notice "Hey... I'm not getting enough energy... something is wrong..." So, it tries to fix it by decreasing your amount of fullness hormone, leptin, in order to drive you to give it more energy.
If you've ever been on a diet before and realize after a little while on said diet that you get hungry, this can explain it! It's not your lack of willpower, it's your body literally trying to save itself.
Also, while you might think that those who have more fat on their bodies would have high leptin levels and therefore lower appetites, that's not always the case. One can also develop leptin resistance, meaning that even though their fat cells are producing leptin, the message leptin is saying of "Hey, I'm full now!" isn't being accurately interpreted by the body.
What Can Be Done About Leptin Resistance?
More research needs to be done on this area of leptin resistance. However I think the biggest impact that we can have in order to stop this phenomenon from happening is to end dieting and restrictive tendencies, as we know this leads to weight gain, which means more fat cells, which may mean higher likelihood of leptin sensitivity happening.
I'd suggest giving my blog post on the set point weight theory a read if you're wondering more about the topic of weight. Also, my post on wanting weight loss and intuitive eating will be very helpful!
We will go more into detail later in those post on some other things you can do to help you feel more satisfied so you can stop eating when full, especially helpful for leptin resistance!
Ghrelin: The Hunger Hormone
Gherlin is essentially the opposite of everything we just discussed about leptin, it's the hunger hormone. Ghrelin is secreted from the stomach mainly to tell your brain "Okay, need some food!" It will then lower as your give your body food.
Ghrelin is at it's peak prior to a meal and it dips to it's lowest about 1 hour after a meal. So, if it dips about one hour after a meal, how the heck are you supposed to know when to top stop eating?! Let's chat about that.
How Does Your Stomach Know It's Full?
Like I said, ghrelin production decreases as the meal goes on as a way to stop telling the brain to give you cues to eat. And while you might think that these cues are in the stomach only, such as a feeling of fullness, there are other more subtle cues that may signal that your stomach is full and satisfied with what you've eaten such as:
- you are no longer paying as much attention to your food, you lose interest
- the food may stop tasting as good (usually the first few bites taste BETTER as a way for your body to drive you to keep eating. But as it gets energy, it stops the intense taste)
- there might be physical fullness or distention in your stomach
- you may feel reenergized or have a relaxed/pleasant mood
Identifying fullness is more about a compilation of things you may feel and experience, rather than just the sole feeling of your stomach. And it's totally unique to every person! One might feel more of the physical signals, like stomach fullness, another might feel more mental signals, like becoming distracted and losing interest.
When Should We Stop Eating?
I want to be careful with the word "should" here because I don't want you to "should" yourself. Meaning, I don't want you to fall into the diet trap and do something because you think it's "right", I want you to truly understand your own body's cues.
I teach the girlfriends inside of my membership, The SociEATy, to use the hunger scale to help identify fullness & satiety to understand how to stop eating when full.
I have an entire post for how to use the hunger scale if you're new to it. The idea is to find your "comfort zone". Typically, this is about a 6-8 on the hunger scale but it is different for everyone and it can range from day to day.
Should You Stop Eating When You're Full?
It's super important to note that just because your stomach is full, doesn't mean that you necessarily should stop eating. There is a difference between being full and being satisfied.
Being full means just that, that your stomach is full. Whereas being satisfied means that your body (and mind!) has what it needs.
For instance, if you eat a giant plate that consists of just veggies, your stomach might be full but your body might not have gotten enough energy (veggies typical have low energy density, i.e. low calories) or the types of energy (like carbs, fat or protein).
Also, your body might be craving one thing, like a juicy burger but if you force feed it a salad, you're likely not going to feel satisfied. This will then cause you to continue to search for something to "hit the spot". And, in the end, when we do this we're likely to actually consume more energy in the long run AND feeling even more full and bloated. No bueno. Just eat the burger.
So, all of that being said, if you're feeling full but not satisfied, it's okay to eat a little past fullness. This will help you also mentally, as you won't be continually thinking about the food you're missing out on. The key here is to find a comfortable balance of this. I'm a big fan of using mindful eating exercises when this happens!
How Long Should You Feel Full After Eating?
There is no gold standard of how long you should feel full after eating for, and it can vary day to day. Our bodies energy needs differ each day depending on our activity level, our hormones (hello, period week!), and our mood.
It's super normal to feel hungry every 3-5 hours, but this can also be impacted by the foods that you eat. Eating foods that consist of all macro nutrients (carbs, fat and protein) and also being sure to include some sources of fiber, can really help provide some staying power to mealtimes.
I have a blog post all about meal planning for intuitive eating that has some other great info on this! These tips can also be used for that leptin resistance that we talked about. Making sure that you're including some feel full fiber, protein and fats!
Exercise can also help decline circulating leptin levels, which could also be of benefit for those with leptin sensitivity. This is true for shorter exercise, I'm not talking about super intense, long HITT workouts or marathon training. Think of this as more of having an active lifestyle VS "exercise".
How Do I Know If I Am Eating Enough?
Feeling your fullness can be really tough at first and you probably won't hit the nail on the head. Think about it this way, you're an archer and you're working towards hitting the bullseye on the target. Of course you won't get there the first time you shoot an arrow, but the more you practice the closer you get. Each meal is a chance to learn more about how to interpret your body's fullness cues.
Feeling actually full & satisfied might feel strange at first. It might feel like you're TOO full. This is common because diet culture has demonized the feeling of fullness for so long. We're used to under feeding ourselves and have conditioned our bodies to THINK that is fullness, when in reality it isn't. Does that make sense?
Tips For Learning When Enough Food Is Enough & How To Stop Eating When Full
Use The Hunger Scale
Going back to the hunger scale tool that I talked about earlier, typically when you're used to trying to eat less (i.e. diet culture obsessed) we usually stop around a 5. It's like we give our bodies juuuuust enough to get by to the next meal. This can cause us to feel hungry soon after or to count down the time until we are "allowed" to eat again.
Play around with your portion sizes and when you end your meal. View it as an experiment. Act like a scientist and simply observe your body. How does it feel when you eat more food at meal time. Do you find you think about food less or can go longer between meals without getting hangry?
Or, try the opposite. If you find you are continually eating past fullness at meal times see what happens if you give yourself a break halfway through your meal to identify where you're at on the hunger scale. Experiment with stopping at different point and make your own decision on what feels best to YOU.
Use Mindful Eating Exercises
In order to feel your fullness and notice when you body has had enough you can use some mindful eating exercises like:
- Eat you meal with the intent of describing it to someone else later. Notice the taste/texture/etc
- Take note of your emotions during the meal and how they may impact your eating. (For example, if you're feeling stressed be aware of this and separate your fullness from your desire to soothe your stress)
- Ask yourself how the first bite differs from the fourth, fifth, sixth. This will help your identify satisfaction throughout the meal, rather than just thinking about it after.
I have an entire list of my top 10 mindful eating exercises that you might find helpful, too!
Remind Yourself You Can Always Have More Food Later
Sometimes when we are eating we focus not on how our fullness level are, but rather on the fact that we better eat a food while we can! One way to combat this is to tell yourself if you're full, you can always have more of this food later when you're able to enjoy it more comfortably!
Does It Matter What Time You Stop Eating?
Honestly, I don't even worry about time. Our bodies don't know clocks. If you're hungry in the evening, eat. Always honor your hunger regardless of the clock.
Ignoring your hunger because it's "too late" to eat can lead to the restrict binge cycle. Meaning, you're more likely to over eat if you let yourself get too hungry. This will likely cause you to just swing back and for from one extreme of the hunger scale (hangry) to the other (stuffed). And, well, that doesn't feel good and can actually cause your body even more confusion as to what true fullness feels like.
How To Stop Eating When Bored
I won't go into this too much here because I have an entire blog post on how to stop eating when bored, but what I always say is to ask yourself first if you're feeling physically hungry. If so, EAT! It's possible to be bored and hungry at the same time.
If you're not hungry but want to eat, ask yourself what you need. Maybe you're looking for something to entertain you, so you could pick up a book, call a friend, etc. Give that a go and then if you're still thinking about the food, eat it.
Remember that satisfaction piece we talked about earlier? You might be looking for some satisfaction! If you can't stop thinking about the chocolate, eat the chocolate (or whatever food it is!)
Why You Feel Like You Can't Stop Eating Food
Now, if you've gotten this far, have applied all of the exercises I've suggested and are STILL saying "Look... Colleen.. I CAN'T STOP EATING!" There may be a couple reasons for this: extreme hunger, restriction, and an addiction to binge eating.
When You Can't Stop Eating Due To Extreme Hunger
I have an entire blog post on extreme hunger, what it is and why it happens, but basically your body was in energy debt from dieting. And not only was it in debt, but ya gotta pay interest on that. This is commonly seen after an eating disorder, like anorexia, but can be experienced by people of all shapes and sizes.
You Can't Stop Eating Because You Are Restricting
When we say we can't have a food, we want it even more. It's like your body says "My gosh, they're telling me this is so BAD so I better get enough while I can now before it's taken away!" This happens when we both restrict the food physically (i.e. not letting yourself eat cake) and also when we even just have thoughts about restriction!
The key here is you truly need to give yourself unconditional permission to eat ALL foods. Yes, even those ones deemed "unhealthy" by diet culture!
I suggest getting yourself a copy of the Intuitive Eating book (which is, like, the food freedom bible) which really talks more about this. I also have a book list of 5 other intuitive eating books that I recommend for truly learning to see all foods equally!
Faux Food Addiction Keep You From Stopping Eating When Full
Okay, so this might get controversial. I know people out there are dead set on food addiction being a thing. There is even a Yale Food Addiction Questionnaire (YFAQ), for goodness sake! Surely it must be legit... right?
Well, gorgeous, no. Firstly, the YFAQ does not take into consideration food restriction or dieting, which can lead to feelings of addiction towards food. This is seen in the classic, hallmark study the Minnesota Semi-Starvation study. A group of men were deprive of food and as a result, became obsessed with it.
In addition to the obsession when they were finally allowed to eat food again (i.e. went off of the diet) they were warned not to “overdo it” but well… their biology was telling them they NEEDED food. So? They went ham. One man actually had to go have his stomach pumped because he said he just “couldn’t satisfy the craving by filling up his stomach”.
One study on rats found that rats who had unlimited access to sugar and both their regular more nourishing “chow” as they called it, had a more “moderate” intake of the sugar, without binge episodes. However, those with sugar restriction and only intermittent access had more of the binge type episodes with sugar.
Deprivation has also been shown to increase this reward system, so the less often you have sugar (i.e. you restrict it) the more likely you are to have a heightened pleasure from it. Make sense? This will obviously make you want to do it more. But it's not necessarily the food itself that is the addiction, it's the FEELING.
Now, if you do feel like you have Binge Eating Disorder that require professional help I'd highly recommend reaching out to a dietitian for help!
My Final Thoughts On How To Stop Eating When Full
In the end, I want you to know that learning how to stop eating when full takes time and practice. I mean, think about it, as kids we likely didn't even have to think about ending our meal when we were full, we just did. But as we aged and became more and more influenced by diet culture we lost sight of that. It didn't happen over night so getting those fullness cues back won't happen overnight, either.
I am however so confident that each and every person CAN get back to that primal knowledge of how to stop eating when full! Like I said, it takes time and practice, but you got this!
Comment below with ONE step you're going to take to start more understanding your fullness! Let me know how I can support you and be your cheerleader!
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