Fullness — or the experience of physical satiation — is a challenging area for many people in recovery from dieting or disordered eating.
When you’re used to be being told how much, when, and of what you should eat, fullness can feel much like learning a new language.
It can also be incredibly common to wonder, should I be eating for fullness or satisfaction? And what’s the difference, anyway?
It can be tough to know when to stop eating when you’re accustomed to external directives. These might include things such as portion size, a points count, or conditioned behaviours (e.g. clean plate.) Knowing when and how to do this for yourself takes practice and experience. The foundational skills required to stop eating at comfortable fullness and to have a choice over your eating can take time to develop.
Fullness is even more complicated when you have a history of trauma and embodiment doesn’t feel safe.
I want you to know that it’s okay if you don’t experience fullness cues or need to rely on mechanical eating (e.g. eating every few hours). Feeling and stopping at fullness isn’t a requirement for becoming an Intuitive Eater or recovering from dieting. There can be a number of reasons as to why you don’t feel full, find the sensation of fullness intolerable, or experience difficulty stopping once you start eating.
It can also take several months to re-gain fullness cues after a history of malnourishment.
What is fullness?
Fullness refers to physical satiation. While many of us think of fullness in binary terms (full or not full), fullness lies on a spectrum. Comfortable or pleasant fullness generally falls somewhere between the absence of hunger and Thanksgiving full. However, keep in mind that everyone’s experience with satiation is different. There is no “perfect” stopping point. Depending on the foods you’re eating, your hunger level, the last time you ate, and other factors, you may stop eating at different places along the spectrum. This is totally okay! Personally, I think the goal of identifying and responding to our fullness cues isn’t “perfection,” but connection.
Fullness is usually marked by the following cues:
- Pressure in the stomach
- Felt sense of “enoughness”
- Mild discomfort
- Disinterest in food
- Reduced preoccupation with food
Importantly, not everyone experiences fullness as comfortable or pleasant. For some, eating to “comfortable fullness” feels uncomfortable. This is one of the reasons so many find Intuitive Eating so challenging. This is also why somatic practices and exposure work can be helpful in bringing some sense of safety to the experience.
If you’ve been dieting for a while or are used to under-eating, eating until fullness can be a bit of an adjustment. It’s incredibly common for dieters to spend most of their time suppressing hunger or eating just enough to take the edge off. Feeling full and satisfied can be brand new.
What is satisfaction?
Satisfaction is not the same as fullness. It’s worth distinguishing the two because they refer to separate but related experiences. Unlike fullness, satisfaction is emotionally-based. Whereas fullness is utilitarian — an indiscriminate call for sustenance — pleasure and desire form the backbone of satisfaction. Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch refer to the sensory experience of satisfaction as “hitting the spot.”
You can get full eating poached chicken, brown rice, and broccoli, but it may not be satisfying. Consider the same plate with the addition of peanut sauce or coconut curry. Does it sound more or less appealing to you now?
Your environment and emotional state also play a role in satisfaction. Generally, a calm and peaceful external and internal environment is most conducive to a satisfying eating experience.
Some factors that influence satisfaction include:
- Flavours, such as salty, buttery, sweet, spicy, spiced, acidic, smoky, bitter
- Textures, such as crispy, crunchy, soft, toothsome, chewy
- Aromas, such as the smell of freshly baked bread or barbeque
- Appearance, such as colourful plate, comforting beige foods, and fresh-looking food
- Environments, such as a dimly lit restaurant, a candlelit table, or dinner al fresco with natural light
Why do I keep eating past fullness?
While eating until fullness is challenging for many people, so can stopping at comfortable fullness. To clarify, it’s completely normal to eat past fullness sometimes and even “experienced” Intuitive Eaters do this. The difference is that eating past fullness on occasion is viewed as part of normal eating and met with compassion rather than judgment.
That said, regularly eating past fullness can be an uncomfortable experience, and you may wish to learn how to stop doing this for this reason alone.
Some of the reasons may include:
- Filling up on unsatisfying foods. You can certainly get full by eating low-calorie, high-fibre foods, but it’s not the same as eating enough. Living on bland food? It’s possible you’re missing the satisfaction factor — you continue to eat searching for the thing that’s missing. You can get full on a bowl of popcorn, but it doesn’t mean that it will be satisfying.
- Missing macronutrients. Under-eating one of any of the three macronutrients — the building blocks of life — such as carbohydrate, fat, and protein can lead you to eat beyond fullness.
- Delaying meals/snacks. Under-eating at a previous meal or waiting too long to eat can make it difficult to stop eating at the next meal or snack. When blood sugar gets too low, it’s far more challenging to get clear on what we want and to know inside when we’ve had enough.
- Not eating enough overall. Eating an insufficient amount of food for your body can make it difficult to stop eating once you begin and can make you susceptible to binge eating. In my experience, most people vastly underestimate the amount of food they need.
- Recovering from mental/emotional food restriction. It’s common to eat past fullness when you’re recovering not only from physical restriction but emotional/mental food deprivation.
- Still in diet/disordered eating recovery. “Extreme hunger” or experiencing an intense urge to keep eating past fullness can persist if your body is under its natural set-point range.
- Food is looped in with an adverse event. Trauma and/or adverse events can impact our relationship to food and our bodies. If you find it difficult to stop eating a specific food or foods or find it challenging to stop eating overall, there could be something here worth exploring with a safe other (although food restriction is important to work through, it’s not always due to some form of food restriction — contrary to what you might hear.)
- Negative body image/weight loss attempts. This falls under mental/emotional restriction in my books but is worth clarifying. For many folks, the mere thought of dieting can trigger binge eating or eating-past-fullness.
Should I stop eating at fullness or satisfaction?
In general, you want to aim for both fullness and satisfaction. That is both physical and emotional satiation. Eating foods that fill both the belly and feed the soul is so helpful when it comes to reclaiming a peaceful relationship with food. They each play an important role.
In the ideal world, everyone would have the chance to eat for fullness and satisfaction. But this isn’t always possible. Sometimes getting enough food is already a struggle. You may not have a say in what and how much you get to eat. Keep in mind that fullness always comes before satisfaction. Eating enough always takes precedence over getting to eat foods that we enjoy or find novelty in.
Even if you do have ample food access, there will be times when getting satisfied may not be available in the moment. We don’t always have a say in what we’re eating. For example, if you’re having dinner at someone else’s home, you may not necessarily care for what’s being served but eat out of hunger. Sometimes we eat foods for functional reasons, such as cleaning out the fridge before grocery shopping or heading out on vacation.
Keep in mind that there are low-cost ways to increase a food’s satisfaction factor, including seasoning the food adequately with salt and pepper; cooking foods in fats such as oils or butter; creating bases out of onion, garlic, carrot, celery, and/or green pepper; using broths or bouillon cubes to add flavour; leaning on less expensive but flavourful cuts of meat; using raw and cooked versions of ingredients, such as garlic and onions; playing with different textures or temperatures in a single meal (e.g. pizza with a crunchy salad, hot curry next to cold raita, warm pad Thai with a cool mango salad); using full-fat ingredients; adding inexpensive condiments such as hot sauce, soy sauce, chilli sauce, mustards, and so on; using nuts, seeds, toasted breadcrumbs, and broken tortilla chips for crunch.
“Fullness practices” to keep in mind:
- Hunger and fullness levels vary. Some factors might include: how long it’s been since your last meal, the types of foods being served, what else you’ve eaten throughout the course of the day, hormones, activity level, time of year
- The needs of the person next to you may be different from your own. Each one of us requires different amounts of food.
- You have a right to seconds or to decline the offer of more food, depending on your needs in a given situation.
- Fullness is a guideline, not a rule.
- Eating a balance of macronutrients — carbohydrate, fat, and protein — can support both fullness and satisfaction.
- It’s difficult to get full and satisfied eating diet foods, especially when the foods are low-carbohydrate or low-fat.
I hope this post has helped you to define fullness, define satisfaction, know the difference between fullness and satisfaction, and to answer the question of whether you should be eating until fullness or satisfaction.
- Legalized Food, but Still Binge Eating?
- 5 Common Pitfalls (That Will Keep You Diet-Binge Cycling)
- How to Find Satisfaction in Everyday Eating
- I’m Doing This Intuitive Eating Thing — So Why Do I Keep Overeating?
- How Do I Stop Eating When I’m Full? by Emily Fonnesbeck
- Eating for Fullness vs. Satisfaction: What’s the Difference? by Alissa Rumsey
- Why Am I Feeling Hungry After Eating? Satisfaction vs Fullness in Intuitive Eating by Rachael Hartley
- Fullness vs Satisfaction by ImmaEatThat
Want out of the diet cycle for good? Here’s how we can work together:
- Work with me 1:1. Together we’ll review your current relationship with food and your body, discuss your goals for our time together, and help you to feel safe with food and your body without #dietmath.
- New to Intuitive Eating and a non-diet approach? My book, Enjoy It All: Improve Your Health and Happiness with Intuitive Eating offers a guide to finding peace with food for good.