If I had a nickel for every time someone named fullness as a bad thing, well, I’d have a lot of nickels. One of the most common things I hear as a dietitian is the frustration, worry, and guilt people feel when they’ve “over eaten.” Two things that immediately come to mind upon hearing this is 1) I’ve SO been there and 2) what actually qualifies as overeating anyways?
Like our hunger cues, feeling our fullness happens on a spectrum and is influenced by our biology [hey hormones! Feel free to brush up on some easy science in Honor Your Hunger.] Like so many other parts of our lives, diet culture can infiltrate and impact how we feel about something that is purely natural. Fullness is simply a way our body communicates its needs, a sign that our bellies have expanded for the time being and that we can slow down on the intake to give it time to process. Like hunger, we all have different abilities to recognize fullness cues, and despite any level of interoceptive awareness, all brains can be easily fogged by distractions. Because there is really no clear way to define “over eating,” I find that “eating past fullness” is a more helpful [NEUTRAL] descriptor.
There is a reason mindfulness has become a hot topic and means for misunderstanding in the nutrition world. Interoceptive awareness, the way we perceive and experience our physical bodies, is utilized and understood most effectively when we can be present in a moment – otherwise known as mindful. Mindfulness speaks to our ability to negate the fog, reduce distraction, and focus on the here and now: What’s going on in your physical body? Anything stand out? What are your thoughts? How do they maybe contribute to feelings? WARNING, this can be hard! If you’re unused to it, you may find some discomfort comes up – physical and/or mental. Working on mindfulness while eating has shown to improve interoceptive awareness and therefore our individual understanding of cues such as fullness (1). Sadly, this has quickly been picked up and manipulated by diet culture [shocker] as a sneaky way to restrict, BUT after working on the rejection of diet culture, is a super helpful tool in exploring intuition.
There are a number of things that can create barriers to experiencing fullness. Take some of the following for example:
Distraction: News flash, we humans cannot actually multitask! Sure, we can perform one action simultaneously with another. I mean who hasn’t snacked on popcorn during a movie? Or listened to a podcast while cooking? Maybe watched TV while writing that essay? Although seemingly doing two [or three or four] things at once, your brain isn’t capable of actually comprehending the sensory experiences of eating or things like body cues. This makes it much harder to determine fullness, and much easier to leave an eating experience feeling unsatisfied.
Social Influence: In case you haven’t noticed – I’m a talker. Eating around a table with several others like me can make for quite the dinner party, but for some, can really ruin “the mood.” Everyone has different preferences when it comes to the most relaxing, enjoyable dining experience, so knowing your comfort level is important. Whether or not you’re loving my recap on last night’s episode of the Bachelor over your steak and potatoes, studies have shown that more people = more food eaten (1). Makes sense given the above [distraction] right?
Your Hunger Level and Timing: When was your last meal or snack? Our bodies like consistency and most need to refuel every two to six hours. Maybe you’ve just eaten lunch when your friend asks for an afternoon ice cream date – you’re likely to feel fuller compared to having had no lunch beforehand at all. Maybe work was so busy that you skipped out on lunch? It is so normal to come home ravenous and struggle to sense when the fullness creeps in while raiding the pantry before dinner is served.
Relationship with Foods: Always a great idea to revisit Making Peace with Food, because something as simple as our relationship with foods can influence body attunement. Imagine your diet starts again Monday [abort, abort!]. It’s going to be much harder to listen to any fullness cues if you think you’re eating your favorite pizza for the last time.
Type of Food: The nutrients in foods we eat and how they digest differently do in fact influence how we experience fullness. It is super common that fad diets encourage what can be considered as foods with little staying power (1). All of the times you’ve been told to “curb the hunger” with high volume, low calorie foods (ie. veggies, fruits, air-filled puffs of some kind) have actually been about fullness; however, many of these things don’t contribute to satiety in a lasting way. Protein, fat, carbohydrates, and fiber all serve as very real contributors to fullness and satiety.
As mentioned previously, this discussion around fullness is meant to be both neutral and factual. Just as we’ve come to realize the ways diet culture manipulates natural biology such as hunger, fullness has also been targeted as a dieting tool. Eating intuitively encourages neutral and observational attunement to such body signals so they can be fully understood. This doesn’t necessarily mean that fullness has to dictate when to stop eating. In fact, it is SO COMMON that we choose not to avoid food when full, and it is SO NORMAL to eat past comfortable fullness!
It is okay if you realize you tend to eat more in social situations, or easily become distracted by your phone during meal times. It is okay if you’re now realizing that there may be more than a few things that disrupt your ability to tune into fullness. And it is okay if you are in a situation in which you KNOW you ate way past comfortable fullness. This is not a fullness shame: This is an awareness game [rhymes – see what I did there?]
- Tribole, Evelyn, and Elyse Resch. The Intuitive eating workbook: Ten principles for nourishing a healthy relationship with food. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc., 2017.