The Science of Satisfaction: How To Find Balance & Comfortable Fullness

by | Mar 24, 2024

Feeling “too full” after a delicious meal once in a while is a normal human thing that everyone experiences. But feeling this way all the time, or like you can’t stop eating even if you want to, can be upsetting, especially if you think it’s causing weight gain. 

Diet culture and it’s friends (perfectionism and healthism) spend a lot of time demonizing “overeating”. That said, it doesn’t usually feel great to feel compelled to keep eating after you’re full. In this article, I’ll be explaining how some folks are prone to eating compulsively, how to feel more satisfied after eating, and how to stop eating when you’re full, no white knuckling needed. 

The Biology of Fullness

Our fullness signals involve a conversation between the gut and the brain by the hormones ghrelin and leptin and our neurological system. Ghrelin levels rise when the stomach is empty, telling your brain you’re hungry, while leptin is released from fat cells and signals fullness, helping to suppress appetite. 

These signals get overridden pretty easily through chronic dieting, being overly busy and ignoring them, trauma, and disordered eating. Gotta love our complex psychology. But actually, our bodies are brilliant. If you have been disconnected from your body and feel like you can’t listen to it, it is likely for a good reason, even if it feels frustrating to you now. 

Your ability to sense and respond to hunger, fullness, and other bodily states is called interoceptive awareness. We all have slightly different ways of noticing our bodily states, some folks have a naturally easier time noticing these things than others do, so keep that in mind. 

The Difference Between Fullness And Satisfaction

Fullness is purely a physical sensation that you feel in the stomach and throughout the body. It may feel like pressure in your belly and heaviness in your body. You stop thinking about food. Your energy comes back. 

Satisfaction, on the other hand, includes a broader, more psychologically and emotionally fulfilling experience. You feel content and pleased after you eat. Taste, texture, variety, and the emotional context of the meal are relevant to making you feel more satisfied after eating. It’s that ahhhhh feeling.

You can feel satisfied but not full, or full but not satisfied after you eat. After a perfect chocolate chip cookie in the afternoon, you may feel greatly satisfied but not full. Or you can fill up on low calorie air foods, carrots, a dozen rice cakes, or plain chicken and broccoli and feel full but utterly unsatisfied. 

While fullness is a cue to stop eating from a physical perspective, it’s much easier to stop eating if you feel satisfied too. Just aiming to stop when full and denying your emotional experience can disconnect you from your body and is not a healthy solution to “overeating”. 

Why It’s Hard To Stop Eating When Full

There are many reasons you may have a hard time noticing when you’re satisfied: restrictive dieting, a trauma history, years of food insecurity, or an eating disorder for example. Or it could be that you’re getting an emotional need met by eating and so stopping when you’re full doesn’t feel very good.  

You need to learn what is causing you to feel disconnected from neutrality around your fullness cues. This will work better – and for longer – than dieting and imposing external limits on how much you eat. 

Here are some reasons that it may be hard for you to stop when you’re full. Which do you connect with? 

Dieting (and entitlement eating)

When you’re restricting or on a diet, you have an EXTERNAL point for when to stop eating. If you have 700 calories left for the day, but you’re not very hungry, you’re probably going to want to get all those calories in since you’re already limited, and you’ll be limited tomorrow too. Maybe you’re only hungry enough for a light dinner or snack, but you’ll go ahead and order the extra side or large fries just because you can. 

If you’ve been restricted for a long time, you will likely be reacting or rebounding from the diet – so not really in a neutral spot to stop when you’re full then either. You may be in a scarcity mindset for a while after you end a diet, your body preparing for the next diet you go on – gotta get it all in now, this yummy food will soon go away. 

Don’t underestimate the power of your body’s drive for survival! 

Being in a dieting mindset also creates a lot of obsessive thoughts about food due to that psychological fear that you’re not going to get enough. The further dieting gets in your rearview mirror, the easier time you’ll have calming down with food. 

Trauma and emotional eating 

There are many reasons why someone starts using food as a means of distracting or coping with difficult feelings. And it makes sense: if the reason you start eating is not related to physical sensations, physical sensations might not work to stop the eating either. 

Food insecurity is also a leading cause of binge eating and an inability to stop eating when full. The scarcity sticks around in the psyche. Not having enough food is deeply troubling and one can end up with a lasting fear that they will not have enough food. 

PTSD or other types of trauma can impact eating behaviors in many ways, including using food as a means of control over an uncontrollable situation, distracting or numbing extreme pain, disrupting appetite regulation and body cues, or making it hard to engage in loving self-care. 

The Clean Plate Club

If your parents were finger-wagging clean platers, you may still have a habit of finishing everything on your plate, regardless of how full or satisfied you feel after eating. Unfortunately, while this could be well-intentioned, it doesn’t allow kids to figure out how to modulate their hunger and fullness, so is not advised. 

If you were also taught that thin bodies are good bodies and that gaining weight means you messed up, you may have some dysfunctional food and body image thoughts. This cognitive dissonance causes many kids to feel bad about their bodies, to eat in the absence of hunger, and to develop disordered eating habits. 

What Satisfaction Feels Like

Satisfaction can be hard to sense If you are disconnected from your body. Extreme fullness and extreme hunger are easier to feel since they’re uncomfortable.

Comfortable fullness includes a feeling of satisfaction. It’s the feeling you get when you’ve had enough food and feel content. It’s flexible, changes from day to day, and is different from meal to meal. It’s not black and white. 

It also changes with your hormones. You may desire a little more food the week before your period starts, but the week of your cycle or the week after, a little lighter eating makes you feel comfortable. 

You are likely to eat more on special occasions when your favorite food is served, or perhaps in winter. You may feel comfortable eating less at lunchtime, in the summer, or when you know you’re going to be eating again in a couple of hours. 

Satisfaction after eating also includes respecting your body’s need to digest your food. You’ll sense that your stomach is about to be full and that you’ll feel better if you stop now and give your body time to digest your food. 

Feeling satisfaction after eating is calm. You trust that food will not be taken away from you soon, so the urgency to eat more dissipates.  Comfortable fullness is subjective and something that you can figure out in time as you explore how you want to feel and what types and amounts of foods make you feel good. 

Emotional Eating & Binge Eating Make Satisfaction Confusing

Eating for reasons other than physical hunger makes it hard to stop eating when you’re satisfied. Why would you stop when you didn’t start eating because of hunger to begin with? 

Many people use food as a coping mechanism for a whole manner of difficult things in life – loneliness, anxiety, stress, trauma, and even boredom. 

Eating compulsively, binge eating, and emotional eating can all be a serious distraction from difficult emotional situations. Even if you are unhappy with the binge eating and perhaps the resultant weight gain, the difficulty of the emotional situation is buried deep in your psyche, and your nervous system is trying to escape from those feelings. 

Binge eating is partially a more repetitive form of emotional eating, with an added element of feeling unable to stop or that you must keep going back for more, with little regard for physical fullness. 

You must learn that you are not going to be deprived of food later on, thereby easing the scarcity feeling inside you. You must also look at the underlying emotional issue. What need is the binge or emotional eating serving for you? Often folks who are over-promised and whose personal needs are not being met will turn to food as something that does not ask for anything in return. 

Foods That Increase Satisfaction & Fullness

There is an element of using logical nutrition information to help you feel satisfied after eating. Foods that increase fullness and satisfaction include proteins, carbohydrates with fiber, and fat. 

This is why eating plain fruit doesn’t fill you up for very long or why you may have a smoothie and feel hungry again an hour later. Pay attention to the difference between eating pizza with a big salad vs just eating pizza and you’ll see what I mean. 

It is extremely hard (I kinda want to say impossible) to stop binge eating if you start eating when you’re ravenous since binging is often triggered by extreme hunger. Read this article I wrote previously about how to get in touch with your hunger cues

How To Feel Satisfied After Eating (So You Can Stop When You’re Full)

Learning to stop eating when your body has had enough means paying close attention to your body, giving it the benefit of the doubt, not holding it to unrealistic expectations for quick weight loss, and being curious about what it’s telling you.  

The most important thing to remember is that you cannot force yourself to STOP the moment you become full. This is something that must come from permitting yourself to eat enough of the foods you enjoy and slowing down to be present with yourself while you’re eating. Fullness is often one of the last steps to click in the intuitive eating framework. Remember that you cannot fake intuitive eating. You have to let yourself experience each step. 

If you’re having trouble stopping eating when your body has had enough and is satisfied, go back and focus on listening to your hunger, ending the diet mentality, and giving yourself permission to eat what you want. 

Focus on enjoyment and pleasure

Claiming back your pleasure and satisfaction will go a long way to making the food that you eat more enjoyable. When we eat what we want without judgment, being overly hungry, and without emotional turmoil, we will likely be satisfied with just the right amount. 

If you’re been dieting for years, it will take time to get accustomed to asking yourself what you want. This is unfortunately very common, as our society also demonizes folks in larger bodies for eating in public, which is just so unfair. 

So ask yourself- what do you really want to eat? If you have difficulty answering this question, maybe because you’ve been on diets your whole life, give yourself some time and patience here. It can be hard! 

Write down a list of 10 foods that you really love and that you’re going to try and enjoy in the next 2 weeks. 

Do not pick a salad if what you desire is a sandwich. Do not get a burger and fries if your body is telling you it wants vegetables. Do not get a cookie if you want a bowl of soup, and do not get a bowl of soup if you want a cookie. You get the point. Choose what you desire in the moment will an eye toward satisfaction with your meal.

If you don’t love it, don’t eat it. And if you love it, enjoy it. 

This is certainly a very privileged standpoint but it can be a helpful place to start. 

Stop ignoring your hunger

Do you tell yourself to wait another hour or two when you feel yourself getting hungry? Do you drink calorie-free beverages, coffee, water, or chew gum when you feel hunger coming on so you can eat less? If so, this is not working. 

If you are still ignoring your hunger, letting yourself get ravenous throughout the day, or not in touch with gentle hunger, go back learn how to get your hunger cues back. You are unlikely to be feel fully satisfied after eating – without “overeating” – if you’re starting your meal in primal hunger mode. All bets are off. 

You probably want to be eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner each day. Many people need one, or sometimes two snacks, depending on how active they are and the size of their meals. There is no right or wrong way to do this, but do know that primal hunger will drive your need to “overeat.” 

Use the hunger/fullness scale

The hunger fullness scale is a 0-10 scale to help you get more granular and understand your body better. It is not magic and you don’t have to follow it to a T.  Everyone will be different. What’s important is that you know how gentle hunger feels to you, what ravenous feels to you, what neutral, and gentle fullness and extreme fullness feel like. 

You want to try to eat at the point that feels the best to you, most of the time. 

The more responsive you are to your body’s cues, the easier it will be to trust that you’ll have enough to eat. A good way to practice this is just to check in with yourself every hour or two, look at the chart, and note where you are. The more you check-in, the more you’ll learn. 

Another key here is to make sure you’re not stopping eating too early. If you stop eating at a 5 or a 6, you are not getting full. You are stopping just when hunger goes away. Remember this is not the point, you need to let yourself experience fullness and satisfaction with your meals.  

Explore YOUr emotional eating

If you know you’re using food to deal with negative emotions, you’re not alone. Food is a common coping mechanism for a reason – it’s safe, it’s delicious, and it is something you can do alone anytime you want. So give yourself some compassion if you know emotional eating is a problem for you. 

It could be that food is a major source of the pleasure in your life right now. Seeking other forms of pleasure, satisfaction, joy, and connection can help take some of the pressure off of eating to do that for you. 

If you sense it’s something deeper, and if you want to dig into your emotional eating, be curious about what you’re feeling right before you start eating. Eating is comforting. If you’ve been eating past fullness to distract or numb yourself from your feelings, this process could come with some real emotions.

Remind yourself you can eat again soon

This is from principle 3 of the IE framework. Because restricting the types and amounts of food you eat leaves you feeling deprived and in a scarcity mindset, you may be overeating as a rebound effect. 

Giving yourself unconditional permission to eat will allow you to calm down around food. It will be easier for you to listen to your body and stop when you’re comfortably full. You can experience true satisfaction with all your meals. This is a mantra that may help you in the moment if you’re tempting to keep eating even though you know you’re full – I can have more whenever I’m hungry again next. You have to believe it, too.

Practice mindful eating

Mindful eating has been shown to improve binge eating. It does this by improving cognitive flexibility, and self-compassion, and generally increases your ability to cope with emotions. 

Try and stay present and aware of why you’re eating, what you’re eating, and how you’re eating. Take note of both your physical sensations and your more subtle, emotional sensations before, during, and after the eating experience. Notice how slowing down affects the satisfaction you feel after eating.

Try and eat with fewer distractions. This doesn’t mean you need to eat in a perfectly quiet room without anything distracting at all. Just be mindful of how things that take many senses, like watching TV, affect you. Try listening to music or a podcast if TV is too distracting.

Slow down while you’re eating to notice the subtleties of flavor and texture. Being more attuned to the eating experience can also heighten your satisfaction (or it could help you identify that you’re eating something you don’t like). 

You may be in a habit of eating more than your body needs, and interrupting this automatic habit can come with some discomfort. Breaking habits is hard, but that doesn’t mean impossible. 

Slow down and Stop halfway through

Sometimes we finish out plates out of habit. Try disrupting your eating experience with this tool. Pause halfway through your meal. Notice how you feel. Look at the hunger/fullness scale. Where are you? How do you feel? How satisfied do you feel? Are you enjoying the food? 

And then ask yourself – how much more do you think you need to eat to feel fully satisfied? Be careful not to expect that you “should” be done eating at this point. This is just a space to stop and check in with your body, your satisfaction, and your fullness.  

We so often eat on autopilot, shoveling food into our mouths without taking the time to notice how the experience is going. Don’t worry, you can keep eating as much as you desire. 

Use the last-bite approach

When you just about feel like you’ve reached satisfaction with your meal, try and ask yourself: Will I feel satisfied after one more bite?  

You could also practice leaving one bite on your plate and throwing the food away. This isn’t enough to leave you feeling deprived or still hungry, but might disrupt your normal habit just enough. 

It can be hard, or even sad, to consider eating less if food is a very emotional experience for you. Just notice if difficult feelings come up. There is nothing wrong with you if you have a hard time stopping when you’re full. 

There are so many reasons that people use food as an emotional coping mechanism and once we start trying to find other ways to cope, there could be some sadness that comes along with that. 

You can develop a healthier, more joyful relationship with food by embracing mindful eating practices, listening to your body, and allowing yourself to be guided by internal cues rather than external rules. Don’t forget that this isn’t the hunger fullness diet. It’s not about perfection but about making progress towards understanding and respecting your body’s needs.

If you find yourself struggling, know that it’s okay to seek support from a professional who can guide you through this process with empathy and expertise. A food freedom journey is a path worth exploring. It can lead to greater well-being and contentment in your relationship with food and with yourself.

Work With Me

If you want help figuring out how you can feel more satisfied after eating, without using rules and rigidity to shrink you body and your life, I’d love to work with you. My individual program, Heal & Nourish and The Love Food Again Program would be wonderful ways to find this sweet balance in your life. Book a discovery call to talk about which would be the right fit for you.

And if money is tight and working with someone like me isn’t in the cards right now, check out my free intuitive eating resources here, including my FREE Intuitive Eating Mini Course.

About Emily

Emily Van Eck, MS, RDN specializes in Intuitive Eating, eating disorders, body image, women’s reproductive health, and healing from years of weight-bias and disordered eating. She helps people find balance, consistency, and peace with their eating habits so they can feel confident to get outta their heads and into their bodies. Emily is a registered dietitian and certified Intuitive Eating counselor with a master’s degree in nutrition science. Read more about her practice, values, and experience here.

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Hey there, I´m Emily

A non-diet and weight-inclusive dietitian, intuitive eating coach, and body image healer. Here on the blog, I focuses on exploring intuitive eating, gentle nutrition, the complex arena of body image and feminism, anti-oppression, and all the ways these things intersect. I want us all to be free to own our appetites, and our desires, and eat really, really well. 


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