Feeling Full is Not a Crime

A cold hard truth of any fat loss diet is that eventually you'll feel hunger.  And for those gaining muscular weight or with a giant exercise output, you'll probably feel full all the time.

Both are different edges of the same sword and do one long enough and you'll start to wish for the other edge.  For many who have only ever done a fat loss diet, trust me, eating to gain weight when you have very high calorie needs is a royal pain.  No, let me clarify, it downright sucks.  You'd think having to eat 4,000-5,000 calories per day would be a treat but the constant influx of food means you never truly feel hunger.  But because your energy ouput demands those calories, you have to keep eating. Knowing you have 2,000 more calories staring you down at 4PM is a tall order and it takes most of the enjoyment out of eating.  For myself, I ended up following every meal with a bowl of cereal to get easily digestible carbohydrate calories in.  And my fiber intake from sweet potatoes, rice and oats was so high I eventually cut back on vegetbles too. This was at the height of my carbohydrate intake, around 575g per day, and it was super not-fun.  Except the cereal part, that was fun.

Do a diet like that long enough and you will BEG to start a fat loss diet.  You actually MISS feeling hungry.  As Escoffier said, "hunger makes the best sauce" and feeling hungry makes food taste better.  We get more reward from our brain filling the hunger signals. 

So the grass is always greener is what I say in regards to dieting, whether it's for weight gain or loss.  Of course, as most people (and men in particular) get into their 30s, rarely do we need anything close to 4,000 calories per day and even for muscle mass gains in Intermediate lifters, the calorie needs to add muscle mass are much less than in your teenage years.

For most, somewhere slightly higher or lower than maintenance is where we'll spend most of the time.  But fat loss in particular at this stage will see more of the hunger effects than muscle/weight gain simply because you CAN force faster fat loss with a larger calorie change than you can with muscle gain.  

In regard to my last article, fat loss should begin around a 15-20% deficit from maintenance.  Nothing insane and you will feel occasional hunger but at this point you can make up enough food volume with lean proteins, veggies and fibrous carbs that you shouldn't ever feel ravenous.  if you do, your food choices need to change OR you might have a history of yo-yo dieting and need some long-term consistency to stabilize hunger/satiety levels.  In either case, the basics of eating optimal protein, fiber from plants, healthy fats and then consuming your food mindfully and chewing well does one heck of a job at quashing hunger.

The thing is, most people chase hunger on a fat loss diet like they chase sweat and soreness in their workouts. Chasing the side-effects does not mean you'll reap the optimal benefits.  I could give you a high calorie diet of Snickers and soda and you'd still feel hungry because your protein, fiber and food volume is low.  I can make you sore by pushing you down a flight of stairs. But the outcomes are not fulfilled through optimal means and so we look for better methods.

Trust me, if you are on a fat loss diet long enough, you'll feel hungry.  Don't be in such a rush to get there.  And as the hunger slowly makes it's way in you can develop strategies to combat those things rather than facing them all at once because you decided to cut your calories in half or eliminate all carbs.

Should you feel full after a meal?

Unless you are at the very late stages in a fat loss diet, you should feel satisfied, not stuffed, after a meal.  Even at lets say 1600 calories per day, which is not a lot, you could conceivably have four 400 calorie meals.  If those meals are lean proteins and loaded with veggies you can create quite a bit of food volume.  Stretching the stomach through food volume can help with immediate hunger.  And having protein, fiber and adequate carbohydrates will help balance blood sugar levels and reduce gherelin, a hunger hormone.  You want protein and fiber high so gastric emptying is slow; the slower the gastric emptying, the longer your stomach feels full. And having a longer area under the curve for nutrients entering the bloodstream means lower gherelin levels.

Leptin is a hormone released by fat cells and signals the brain that you do not need to eat.  The more bodyfat you have, the higher your leptin and conceivably the lower your hunger should be.  In those who chronically overeat very hedonic-type foods, they can become resistant to leptin to even though they are producing a lot, they are not feeling the effects.  Like if you become desensiitized to caffeine the more you drink.  In leaner individuals, leptin is lower because bodyfat is lower, so their hunger will be higher.  But those individuals will also be more sensitive to leptin so they don't need as much to signal the brain.

If you have been pushing the dopamine reward pathway, eating very palate pleasing and hedonic foods, eating in a rush and without being mindful, it isn't very hard to eat past the point of feeling full.  Don't believe me?  Smoke some weed and then see how well your diet goes.  Your stomach can be full and you may literally feel like your stomach is DONE with food, but your brain isn't.  Your brain wants more and your palate wants more and thus it is easy to override the fullness in your stomach.  Now imagine you are someone who has been stimulating those pathways with food for decades and you can see why they can eat past normal stomach fullness.  The brain is always looking for more dopamine and will need more and more stimulation over time if you push the threshold.

In a study conducted on rats (so it is limited in it's human application) we can see this played out.  Rats were divided into groups that essentially saw how their dopamine levels and receptors were affected by normal food and highly palatable foods.  The rats were also measured on how much stimulation it took them to turn a wheel via electrodes in the brain. The rats given the highly palatable foods gained twice as much weight as the rats given a normal diet and also required greater electrical stimulation to turn the wheel.  As the rats ate more and gained weight, their dopamine receptor density went down.  Essentially, the fatter the rats became, the more their reward threshold increased. Normal amounts of food and electrical stimulation were not enough to satisfy their dopamine pathways.  Researchers hypothesized that high dopamine receptor density can offer a protective mechanism against overeating as your threshold for dopamine is lower, thus needing less stimulation.  If you have higher density of receptors, you won't need as much stimulation to feel satisfied.

What was interesting is that researchers mentioned how much eating is different than something like heroine use in regards to dopamine. They noted that unlike injecting drugs, eating has social, cultural and emotional factors that impact how much someone eats. However, this could not be further from the truth.  If someone is addicted to drugs the act of seeking out, purchasing and finding a space to consume the drugs is in and of itself a ritual that is highly satisfying.  Taking the drugs whether it is smoking, injecting, snorting etc also carries it's own ritual that is indeed influenced by the social and cultural aspects associated with that drug.  To assume that injecting heroine has zero emotional, social, cultural and sensory input like eating does is completely wrong.

We can see correlations between food and drugs fulfilling similar pathways and these both carry their own self-built rituals that enhance the experience for the user. Anything that involves pleasure will of course have different applications between individuals and this shows how deeply personal something like eating is.

Steering clear

So do we really want to chase the scenario where you are so hungry and deprived you feel like your meal is a dose of your favorite drug?  I'd advise against rushing to that point. The longer you can make your meals satisfying and filling the less you'll chase them as your drug of choice.  Food should be enjoyable but not to the point where you are willing to override signals like stomach fullness just to please the brain.

You should be able to feel fullness and hunger without a huge emotional impact.  If hunger makes you feel wild and obsessed with finding food, you might be forcing a restriction that is unhealthy.  If eating a solid meal that fills you up makes you feel fat and disgusting, you need to spend time reinforcing positive food relationships. Inevitably those who struggle with the emotional impact of feeling full off of a well-rounded meal often overeat at other times away from people.  One major difference is in the food choices; it's way harder to force more salad and chicken down when you're full because your stomach is stretched and the food choices are not stimulating dopamine.  But chocolate cake or ice cream can drive dopamine so high that you aren't fazed by a full stomach.  

Practial Tips

-The more complete meals you can consume, the better.  High snacking usually leads to people never feeling full and satisfied so they keep snacking.  Calories go up but satiety and fullness stay low.  A perfect storm of overeating.  The reason people do this is because they are chasing hunger and snacking allows you to feel hungry all the time despite consuming plenty of calories.

-Choose snacks that have protein, fiber, healthy fats and largely come from whole foods.  Granola bars and a piece of toast don't cut it.  Something like an apple, yogurt, cottage cheese, a couple hard boiled eggs offer protein, dedicated time chewing and are nutrient dense. A snack that adds calories with no satiety is a bad move.

-Choose meals that have some protein, fiber, fat and carbs in them. Over restriction of one food group usually leads to bad outcomes.  Trust me, no one gets fat eating a 1/2 cup rice or a 6oz steak. It's easy to demonize foods when taken out of context or looked at solely through something like the glycemic index but they don't really apply.  Mixed meals with whole food ingredients are a totally different ball game and at this point it comes down more to calories if your protein and veggies are in order.  Don't buy into the hype of glycemic index or eliminating certain food groups.

-Choose foods that DO satisfy your palate. Veggies don't have to be just greens and broccoli.  Squash, carrots, parsnips, fennel, plantains are foods people sometimes avoid but the enioyment and palate fulfilling aspects of these things can not just satisfy your stomach but your brain too.  Dry tuna on dry greens is a binge waiting to happen.  Get weird with your seasonings, try out different foods like lamb, add berries to your salads, eat three kinds of veggies in one meal.  It makes a difference.

-Avoid foods that make you compulsive. For some, almond  butter is satisfying but peanut butter is a drug you'd inject if you could.  Find alternatives to foods that make you too hedonic.  Satisfaction is not the same as indulgence.

-Take your time eating, nothing makes eating more calories easier than wolfing down your food, on your feet, while taking a work call.  Sit down, chew slowly and make time for your meal.  

-Change your routines and environment.  If driving past McDonalds causes you to want to indulge, find another route.  If having cookes on the counter makes it hard to avoid eating them, keep them in the cupboard (or don't buy them at all).  If a long work day has you wanting to stop and get a Big Gulp at the gas station on your way home, pack a snack for the ride instead.  Interrupt those triggers by changing your environment or routines.  You already know what your triggers are, trust me.

Remember, feeling full is not a crime.  And eating a well balanced meal to satisfaction doesn't mean you won't lose weight or be healthy. These are false feelings.  Most of us need some re-training as to what we should feel after eating good food choices and how we associate our behavior and environment with our choices.  You don't deserve or earn anything;  that idea is nonsense.  You are an adult and can literally do whatever you want.  So...it is your responsibility to address the things you struggle with.  I hold myself to that same standard. If you are struggling with overeating I posit a wild idea - eat 3-5 meals per day to satisfaction, not being stuffed. Don't even worry about food choices, just include a lean protein, veggies, fibrous carb and healthy fat. Then do that at every meal.  Your perception will be that feeling satisfied at every meal means you are "eating more" but you'll probably have less compulsion to consume all the extra calories you normally would at night (when most people overeat). In fact, you likely eat less.

An unhealthy relationship with food means you don't need to worry about calories or macros.  What you really need is time spent eating in a healthy environment and with good eating habits.  Those will do so much for the type and amount of food you consume that you might never have to address calories or macros.  For many people, that is the healthiest place they can be.  Having fewer things to mnage besides food choices and how satisfied they feel. Less control, more reflection.  Less micromanaging, more introspection.  Better environment.  These things influence you to such a high degree and free you from the fear of going to "food jail" for feeling full.