Eating enough - to fullness - can be complicated.
Fullness is not the absence of hunger.
What is ‘enough’? I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately. Especially since I’ve been talking with clients about understanding how much to eat and how this relates to their own feelings of enough-ness around themselves, time, relationships, money, stuff, and more.
When it comes to food, how do we know we’ve eaten enough? What does fullness mean and feel like? What does it signify?
Today, we’ll discuss some cultural differences around the word fullness and its meaning as well as what can make it hard to check in with fullness. Lastly, I will wrap up with some thoughts on how to work on feeling fullness if it is hard for you to either tolerate or notice.
What is fullness?
The word, fullness, holds many meanings, memories, fears and sensations when it comes to food. And, it does not mean the same across cultures.
My wonderful clients in Germany have taught me that the meaning of ‘satt’ is a 6-7 out of 10 level of fullness on the hunger/fullness scale, what I would typically say is ‘fullness’. The feeling of having had enough. (For reference: 0-2 would be extreme hunger, 3-4 normal hunger, 5 neutrality, 6-7 moderate fullness, 8-10 overfull). And, when someone uses German to say they feel ‘voll’, that is a 8-10/10 level of fullness. This is what I may call ‘overfull’.
Being ‘voll’ or ‘overfull’ is part of normal eating. It is normal! And, in my way of defining fullness and satisfaction, one can feel full but not satisfied and satisfied by not full (more on that another time).
From a scientific approach, fullness is a filling of the stomach cavity. When the stomach cavity is stretched, both nerve signals and chemical messengers like hormones send signals to our brain, telling us we are at capacity. Hormones like insulin, ghrelin, leptin, glucagon-like peptide and more all play a role in sending signals to our brain from our gut, fat cells and other places in your body to indicate hunger and fullness.
It takes at least 20 minutes or so for our brain to get the signal from our stomach that we’re full, hence why taking time to eat is important.
Fullness depends on many factors.
These include what you last ate, when you last ate, how much you last ate, how you slept last night, your activity level, what medications you’re on, how distracted you are, how fast you eat and more.
For some, fullness can feel like a contentment - knowing that they had enough. It can feel reassuring yet scary for those of us with food insecure histories. Or, for those of us with a history of shame or guilt around eating, fullness can be a representation of doing something wrong and should be avoided at all costs. That if we are full from food, we are just ‘too much’.
Fullness is complicated. We are all different in how we feel fullness and what it represents.
What makes it hard to feel, notice or sense fullness?
It can be very hard for all of us, no matter how in-tune with our bodies we are, to feel fullness. No one is perfectly aware of fullness all the time. The same goes for hunger. This is because there is so much going on in our internal and external words when it comes to signals.
Some specific things that make feeling fullness challenging are:
Trauma histories can make it hard to be in our bodies and thus, feel hunger/fullness. Or, we may be so in our bodies, almost hyper-aroused, that signals are very confusing.
Digestive distress. For instance, if you’re full of stool, constipated or bloated, you will likely not be as hungry as normal and may feel full with less/too little food.
Tiredness or fatigue can contribute to not paying attention to how we feel when eating, leading to overeating or not eating much at all (especially if we are sleeping a lot).
Undereating. If you do not eat enough food, you will likely not be able to understand what fullness feels like to you. You may also feel full quicker with inadequate amounts of food, which may make it seem like you’re eating enough when you really aren’t.
Distractions. Have you ever eaten a lunch meal that wasn’t enough and just went back to work, not realizing you were not full? When people eat on-the-go, with screens or other distractions or are not taking time, they are less able to check in with hunger/fullness.
Pregnancy. This is a perfect example of when hormonal shifts plus mechanical changes occur (stomach pushed up into diaphragm) that creates a feeling of fullness with less food. Typically, pregnant folks need to eat smaller portions more frequently to meet their needs.
Medications. The new class of GLP-1 agonists, like semaglutide, are a perfect example of a drug that affects appetite so much people are reporting forgetting to eat and feeling full on too little amounts of food.
Emotional needs. When folks do not feel ‘emotionally full’, meaning their emotional needs are not met, they may have erratic eating that cycles between overfullness and overhunger.
Refeeding during eating disorder treatment or trying not to diet anymore. If you’ve been restricting food for a while, eating more food again can feel very difficult because you may feel overfull often. This is normal, and your ability to know ‘normal’ fullness will take adequate, consistent eating to return.
I wrote this list to show you that in many circumstances, trying hard to check in and feel your fullness (and hunger) is not always the answer. You may need to work with a specialist to better understand how to navigate any challenge you have.
How can you get more curious and in touch with fullness?
Getting in touch with fullness can help you understand what is enough food for you and what food nourishes and energizes you.
First, it can be helpful to understand your history with fullness.
Did you have autonomy to stop when full when you were a kid? If not, did you often eat past the point of fullness or not get enough to eat?
Did anyone in your family talk about fullness?
What does fullness represent for you now- is it tolerable, comfortable or terrifying?
In addition to reflecting on your history, you can work on providing your body with practices that give it a chance to feel fullness.
These are things like:
Eating regular and frequent meals and snacks day in and day out
Eating enough food at those meals and snacks
Eating while sitting (versus standing)
Getting enough sleep
Taking time to eat, 20-40 minutes for a meal
Setting boundaries around distractions like the phone, work and screens
Creating a pleasant environment for eating
Avoiding ‘air food’ like popcorn and rice cakes that just takes up space, but leave you hungry an hour later
By doing some of these things, you may just notice after a meal that you feel nourished and content.
If you want to go further, and try other experiments to clue into fullness, you can also try:
Taking a few more bites than you would normally and see how that feels.
If you feel you typically overeat or clear your plate, leave a bite or two on the plate. (I’m not suggesting you restrict food, this is an experiment to see what you notice both mentally and physically. You always have permission to eat more if you are hungry!)
Eating with your non-dominant hand (with a fork, chopsticks, hand, etc -whatever is normal for you) to slow yourself down.
Work with a dietitian to identify foods to add to your diet to help with feeling full and getting enough to eat, as well as figure out how to be more aware of your appetite.
I want to circle back to this question of: what is enough?
Food wise, it will never be the same exact amount of food all the time. And, when a meal keeps you feeling full for 3-4 hours one day, it may only do that for 1-2 hours the next day. Hunger/fullness shift and change.
Fullness will be easier to feel on some days than others.
Understanding this dynamic, being present with yourself and accepting that there is no perfect when it comes to fullness can be helpful in letting go of expectations. And, working with a dietitian trained in this can help you discern your fullness (and hunger) so you feel more confident with your eating!