Most people know what hunger feels like yet struggle to control it. Another approach to managing appetite is to focus on the flip side of hunger: fullness. It’s all about keeping some food in your stomach as long as possible because when your stomach is empty, biological signals of survival kick in to stimulate hunger. So when fullness is sustained, hunger is reduced — a win-win when it comes to healthy eating.
Fullness is not always all about the number of calories. Oftentimes, it’s about volume — the amount of food consumed for the same number of calories. Studies continue to show people eat for the amount of food, not calories.
Check out the five food categories that can boost your sense of fullness, keeping you satisfied longer: water, air, fiber, protein and fat. All except the protein boost fullness by keeping food in your stomach longer. Protein boosts fullness through a stomach-brain connection, which signals your brain that you are full.
When it comes to fullness, one size does not fit all. Try them out to see what combination works best for you. Many of the foods are “double duty” and contain two fullness boosters.
Water is a go-to temporary stomach filler, any time of day. When paired with fiber (naturally found in fruits and vegetables), it’s a one-two punch for fullness. Hunger is often confused with thirst — and drinking a big glass of water can often fix the perceived sense of hunger. Many fruits and vegetables are more than 90 percent water.
• red peppers
Air pumps up the volume for foods and dilutes the calories. Because the volume of the food is much greater, that larger volume fills up your stomach. Look for words like “puffed” and “popped.” For about 100 calories, you can eat two cups of puffed rice or wheat, compared to one cup of oat or rice cereal.
• popcorn (air-popped or microwave, plain)
• puffed wheat or puffed rice cereal
• rice cakes
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Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that is not digested by the body. It is processed “as is” and eliminated. While most often associated with bowel health, when eaten, fiber alone provides fullness. It also swells in your stomach when combined with water and food exits more slowly from your stomach — keeping you fuller longer. Aim for at least 20 grams daily (about five servings), and stick with foods, not supplements. Here are some fiber boosters, up to half of your daily fiber needs in one serving.
• large whole artichoke (or five water-packed hearts)
• one cup blackberries or raspberries (fresh or frozen)
• one and a half cups of split pea soup
• two tablespoons chia seeds
Protein boosts fullness through an action on the brain. There are many two-way nerve signals between the digestive track and brain. When eaten, nerve signals from the stomach send a message boosting fullness. When protein foods are in your stomach, your brain gets the signal that increases your biological fullness. Aim for at least 10-15 grams per serving.
• 6-8 ounces plain low- or non-fat Greek yogurt
• one hard boiled egg
• single serve ready-to-eat water packed tuna pouch (or can)
• 1/2 cup low fat cottage cheese
• single serve protein shake (around 150 calories) with 15-30 grams of protein per container
Fat is the most satisfying of all nutrients for taste, flavor, and fullness. Stick with heart-healthy fats to slow the rate of stomach emptying, keeping you fuller longer. Whether alone or with other foods already in your stomach, keeping the food there longer boosts fullness. When it comes to fat, portion control is key – and a little goes a long way.
• pistachio nuts in the shell (around 35)
• handful of almonds (around 15)
• handful of walnuts (around 9)
• single serve full fat string cheese
• two tablespoons ground flax seeds
Remember the goal is “fuller” — not stuffed — as the endpoint. It’s important to accept contentment as the healthy feeling — being content and satisfied, event though you could eat more. Use my three-point scale for this. Aim for level 2 of fullness, where 1 is actively hungry (headache, rumbling stomach) and 3 is stuffed (can’t eat another bite).
Madelyn Fernstrom, Ph.D, is NBC News Health and Nutrition Editor.