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Why It's Not So Easy to Feel Your Fullness

Written by: Natalie Faella, MS, RDN, LDN | April 28, 2022

friends sitting around a table eating spaghetti and drinking white wine at a restaurant

Blogging about hunger and fullness may seem a bit elementary. Like, aren’t these topics for toddlers? But it’s actually quite the opposite because sadly, toddlers are more in touch with their hunger, fullness, and food preferences than we are as adults.

There are a bunch of reasons why we get thrown off and no longer trust our hunger and fullness cues:

  • Learning from an early age to clean our plates

  • Learning from an early age not to eat so much or not to clean our plates

  • Growing up with food insecurity or the parental influence of food rules & deprivation

  • Finding food helpful to cope with difficult emotions, stress, and hard times

  • Having busy schedules that leave little time to think about, prepare food, or eat food

  • Having busy lives that prevent us from being able to practice mindfulness when we eat

  • Being taught what an “appropriate” serving is from diet culture

  • Being taught to “eat like a lady” or eat “enough for a growing boy”

  • Being taught literally anything from diet culture

So it makes sense that somewhere along the line we lose touch with our ability to trust ourselves or tap into our intuition with eating. One of those gray areas can be feeling our fullness. We may regularly eat past the point of comfortable fullness, or fear the feeling of fullness and continually not eat enough. Or maybe it’s a mix of the two where we don’t let ourselves really get full all day and then overeat at night to the point of discomfort.

Getting back in touch with our fullness cues is just as important as honoring our hunger cues, and is one of the 10 principles of intuitive eating. We’ll talk more about some of the things that may be impacting your ability to feel fullness, but first I think it's helpful to understand how our body feels this cue.

Time to Get Science-y

The feeling of fullness is a result of several biological pathways in the body. First, our stomach, which is like a reservoir designed to hold food and liquids, sends a signal to our brain when that reservoir is physically filling up.

In addition to the cue of physical fullness from the stomach, there are receptors in our small intestines that also signal fullness. These receptors are triggered by a change in pH levels from broken-down components of foods like fats and proteins. This is why physically filling up on water only lasts so long — we need real food (i.e., nutrients) to trigger satiety. These receptors then cue a hormonal reaction that ultimately leads us to a feeling of satisfaction. It does this by reducing the feelings of pleasure that we get from eating. (This is why the first few bites of food taste so good, but as we get through the meal we seem to get used to or get over how good it tastes).

Then there is leptin, our “fullness hormone” that reduces the feelings of hunger. When we have gone a while without eating or intentionally fast or restrict intake (i.e., diet), leptin levels are decreased. This makes sense because our body would want to signal hunger at this time, not fullness. (Remember hunger is cued by the hormone ghrelin? Ghrelin levels would be elevated at this time.) When and after we eat, the levels of leptin increase, helping to signal fullness. So ghrelin levels rise before a meal making us feel hungry, and leptin levels rise after a meal, making us feel full. Unless you’ve been dieting…

How Dieting Impacts Feelings Fullness

Over time, dieting causes a reduction in leptin levels. This makes it harder for dieters and post-dieters to feel their fullness. To further complicate things, dieting also increases ghrelin levels (the hunger hormone). Ghrelin levels increase when we’re in need of nourishment and energy, and should decrease as we finish a meal. Post-meal ghrelin levels can remain high in dieters up to a year after dieting. So dieters can not only experience a reduction in their feelings of fullness, but also feel hungry after eating, even if they ate enough. This is one of the ways dieting increases the likelihood of overeating and rebound weight gain.

How Diet Culture Impacts Fullness

1. Skews the idea of what appropriate servings are.

Diet culture tells us things like we can "have either one glass of wine with dinner or bread from the breadbasket, but definitely not both." Diets will also include specific serving sizes like a 1/2 cup of pasta or 1 Tbsp of peanut butter, making us feel like we need to measure our food to ensure we eat the "correct" amount. But what these arbitrary rules are really doing is keeping us from trusting our bodies to figure out how much food is enough for us and our individual needs. It can also lead to overeating or binging later because we weren’t satisfied with our meals during the day.

I can remember a time when I felt like I had to measure my pasta and peanut butter, which is why I chose those examples. Do you know how sad a 1/2 cup of pasta looks?! It is definitely not enough to be considered a meal. (And would make my Italian grandmother very upset if I had ever told her that was my meal!)

2. Makes us critical of the amount we eat

I’m sure you’ve noticed the messaging that males need to eat a lot to "bulk up" and get more muscular while females should keep meals small and "light" to "maintain" their physique. We’ve either heard someone say or even been told at some point to "eat like a lady." And while the energy needs of some males can be higher than some females (can be, not always), it doesn’t necessarily mean that we should not eat as much or more as our male partners, friends, or family at a given mealtime.

Say you eat more than your male cousin at a holiday. Does this mean you overate? No. Maybe your cousin filled up on appetizers, or maybe you were just more hungry, or maybe your nutrient needs are higher than his, or maybe who cares?? The most important thing is you enjoyed your meal and feel satisfied. It doesn’t matter how much anyone else ate.

But not being hard on ourselves when this happens is easier said than done. It’s common to feel shame when you eat more than those around you — whether or not they are of the same sex. When someone eats very little they tend to be praised "Good for you... I wish I had your willpower." So it’s no wonder we don’t feel stellar after eating more than someone else. Even if we enjoyed the food. Thanks, diet culture.

3. Causes us to emotionally restrict

Emotional restriction is something we typically don’t realize is happening; it is kind of like those subconscious food rules we talked about a few blogs back. An example of this would be only eating whole wheat pasta because diet culture tells us it’s "healthier." We start to believe that we like whole wheat pasta better than white pasta after telling ourselves this for so long, but deep down we really prefer white pasta. By continuing to buy and eat the whole wheat pasta, we are emotionally restricting the white pasta. Even if we don’t have an outright "rule" or tell ourselves we can’t have the white pasta, by continuing to avoid it for the "healthier" option we are subconsciously depriving ourselves. This, as we know, can backfire. Remember any form of restriction or deprivation can ultimately lead to overeating something (Anything! It may not even be the food you're restricting but something else) in the future.

So if you’ve been feeling out of touch with your fullness, please don’t feel ashamed. Clearly, there are a TON of factors that can be contributing to that! It isn’t easy to tune out all the noise that surrounds us and that lives in our heads. And we can’t be 100% tuned in to our bodies 100% of the time, but with practice and patience, we can certainly start to be tuned in more often.

Stay tuned for more on intuitive eating and my anti-diet approach to nutrition, health, & wellness by subscribing here!


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