How to Tell When You’re Full So You Don’t Overeat

“Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full.” 
~ Prevailing Wisdom

It makes so much sense, doesn’t it?

Except there’s one problem: You don’t know what it means.

  • You know what starved feels like. That’s when you’ve skipped the most number of meals ever in one stretch.
  • You know what stuffed feels like. That’s after Thanksgiving dinner.
  • But that middle part between starved and stuffed? That’s when you find yourself saying, “Am I full yet? Do I stop now?”.

You’re neither hungry nor full. So you can’t tell. And here’s why…

“Your stomach can’t count.”
~ Brian Wansink, PhD, Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think

If your stomach can’t tell, then what can?

Your eyes.

Restaurant diners and rigged soup bowls

2 groups of diners were asked by Wansink and his team of researchers to eat half a bowl of soup in 20 mins.

But there’s a catch. And neither group knew about it.

  • Group 1 ate out of a normal soup bowl, 9 oz of soup, which was half a bowl.
  • Group 2 ate out of a rigged soup bowl. It had a hole at the bottom, and unbeknownst to them, the bowl continued to fill halfway full while they ate.

Guess what? Group 2 ate an average of 73% more soup! 15 oz. That’s equivalent to 1 can plus another half can of a regular sized Campbell’s soup.

Did they realize they ate more from the bottomless bowl? No, they didn’t.

They didn’t comment about being full, and rated themselves equally satiated as the others who ate out of normal bowls – even though they ate 73% more.

In fact, most of the rigged soup bowl diners were still eating when the researchers stopped them at 20 mins. Others ate even more – more than a quart (that’s more than half a gallon of soup).

They thought they were only half full when they saw themselves eat half a bowl (or so they thought).

MBA Students, a Super Bowl, and Chicken Bones

A group of MBA students were served a free buffet of chicken wings at a Super Bowl party.

What’s the catch?

The servers were in cahoots with Wansink and his team. The servers only bussed half of all the tables

  • In the bussed tables, there were no chicken bones to see as the students ate.
  • In the tables that were not bussed, the chicken bones kept piling up for the students to see as they ate.

Guess who ate more?

Those who did not see chicken bone evidence while they partied ate 28% more. Those who saw the chicken bone head count ate 2 fewer chicken wings (around 18 grams less protein).

3 steps to use visual cues to avoid overeating
1. Plate your entire meal before you start eating instead of plating small portions and going back for seconds or thirds.
  • Fill your entire plate with a low carb, high fat meal before you eat. Set your visual target as the empty plate, so you don’t have to rely on “Am I full yet?” to figure out when to stop. 
  • full plate sends a visual cue that you ought to be completely full with this amount (as opposed to only half full) if you were to just fill the plate halfway. Don’t use a ginormous plate. Use fibrous veggies or leafy greens to fill your plate. 
  • Don’t eat nuts out of the bag. Take a handful and put them in individual Ziploc snack bags.  Leave out the empty snack bags so you can see how much you’ve eaten, instead of relying on “Am I still hungry?” to figure out if you’ve had enough.
2. Take a photo of your entire meal before you start eating.

You won’t always have chicken bones to help with visual cues. But you’ll likely have your smartphone. If you don’t, take a mental picture of the entire meal before you start.

3. Find yourself wondering if you should eat more even after an empty plate?

Look at the photo or remind yourself of the mental picture. Let the visual cue kick in. Then decide.

An effective and easy-to-use tool

If you’re struggling with using hunger cues to a) tell you when you’re full, or b) to tell you when you’ve had enough to eat, try using visual cues.

“Our eyes are not typically bigger than our stomach. In fact, they’re often better than our stomach at telling us when we’re full.”
~ Brian Wansink, PhD, Chair of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab Research Facility

What’s great about visual cues is that they’re straightforward, easy to do, and most importantly they work.

It’s a great addition to your fat loss toolkit because it helps you avoid overeating.

All you have to do is take your next meal, apply the 3 simple steps, and see the difference.


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