Eating well is not the same as eating less. We’ve said time and again at HTBM that a diet only works if you can keep it, and it’s hard to keep a diet if you’re hungry all the time. So, this article is going to cover filling foods. Foods that “stick to your ribs,” as your grandmother might say – but that won’t stick to your waist, or thighs.
Before we talk about filling foods, let’s address satiety – “feeling full.” As far as basic biological sensations go, satiety is actually relatively complicated. Our sensations of hunger and “fullness” are, as are all of our human sensations, caused by chemicals.
The feeling of hunger is largely triggered by a chemical called “ghrelin,” which is released when sensors in the stomach tell you that it’s empty (Pope et al., P 341). This is important because a lot of the filling foods that we’re going to talk about are foods that make your stomach literally “feel full” so that it doesn’t release ghrelin so that you don’t feel hungry.
On the other hand, the feelings of satiety is largely caused by a chemical called “leptin.” Leptin, interestingly enough, is released by adipose tissue (ibid.). We’re not going to focus on it in this article, but having too much adipose tissue (“body fat”) can lead to levels of circulating leptin that are so high that your body just starts ignoring it, making it more difficult for you to feel full.
To be clear, there are a lot of other ways in which your satiety ties in with other complicated “chemical processes” like your mental and emotional health and your metabolism. It’s a lot, and we’re not really going to go into that here.
What we will say to this point is that if you feel like filling foods and feeling full aren’t the same in your experience, talk to your doctor. You could have an underlying condition that’s throwing this relationship off for you.
Bring Water and Fiber!
Now that we’ve discovered that the secret to filling foods is that they literally fill your stomach, how do you fill your stomach without gaining a bunch of weight? Of the things that we can safely consume in meaningful quantities, there are two things that have no calories at all: water and fiber. Both of these can fill your stomach without expanding your waste line. But, why?
Filling, Filling Fiber
In the case of fiber, its a mainstay of filling foods because your body can’t digest it. There is energy and nutrient content in fiber, but it is packaged in such a chemical configuration that your body can’t get at it.
So, it goes in your mouth, it sets up shop in your stomach for a while, and then it moves on without a trace. In fact, more than not leaving a trace, it actually cleans up after other things that might not be moving along like they should be.
We know what you’re thinking: if you try to cheat your diet by filling up on fiber, won’t you get … “blocked up?” If you eat too much of anything you can get blocked up. Fiber, protein, dairy, anything. You can experience digestive problems from too much fiber, but the truth is that most of us aren’t getting all the fiber we need – too much is a lot more than you think it is.
The main thing that keeps fiber moving through your system is the other part of our filling food super duo here: water.
Water moves through your system like fiber does, but it doesn’t have locked-up nutrients like fiber does. Water also can’t accumulate in your system when you get too much in the way that fiber can. Like fiber, most of us aren’t drinking as much water as we should be in the first place. So, drinking water throughout the day as a way of trying to feel more full probably won’t hurt.
The only problem with water having no nutrient value is that it doesn’t take any time for your body to digest. That means that it doesn’t stay in your stomach very long to make you feel full. So, it can help in a pinch, but you probably can’t drink water fast enough to never feel hungry again – and you definitely shouldn’t try.
If you read our article on negative calorie foods, you might remember that cold water might actually be the only actual negative calorie food because your body expends energy warming the water and doesn’t absorb any energy back from the water that it warmed.
What to Eat, What to Drink
We’ve been talking about why filling foods are filling so that you can find your own. We’re going to give you a list of some of our favorites, but there are more out there. Look for high water content, high fiber content, and low calorie content on nutrition labels and you’re in the right place.
So, now that we understand what causes hunger and how we can cheat satiety, here is our list of filling foods that are still worth eating.
We don’t really have anything more to say about water that we didn’t say above. It can burn calories without contributing calories, and it can make you feel full.
As we’ll see, this makes water good on its own, but it also makes water an important component in other filling foods on this list.
Most people don’t hate plain water. However, if you need a little encouragement, look into a low-or-no-calorie flavoring that you can squirt into your water to make it a little more interesting. These flavorings are usually found in the same grocery store aisle as the soda, so don’t get distracted. Drinks like coffee and tea are options too, but be aware of other players like caffeine.
Vegetables are low in calories and high in water content – a theme that you may remember from the negative calorie foods article. Vegetables tend to be low in sugars and fats, and the crunchier the vegetable the higher the fiber. Think things like celery, carrots, broccoli, etc.
Just remember, if you try to make the vegetables more appetizing by adding dressings, they stop being healthy. If you just can’t bring yourself to gnosh on plain raw vegetables, look to dressings like oil, vinegar, and a light salting.
We know, we know, grains means carbs. That’s true, grains are high in carbohydrates. However, some grains are better for you than others.
Click the link above for a deeper dive into what separates a good carb from a bad carb, but a key takeaway from that article is that not all grains are created equal. Processed foods and white flour baked goods have the healthiest part of the grain removed – the part where all the fiber is.
This component of the grain is called “bran” – and it isn’t just full of fiber, it’s full of vitamins and minerals (ibid, p82). Whole grains include the bran, bumping up their fiber content to make you feel full longer. If you find products that only incorporate the bran, that’s even better – more fiber and fewer carbs for healthier more filling food.
A lot of fiber products are advertised toward people who need fiber’s help … “moving things along.” However, some of these fiber products are advertised towards people on diets specifically because of how great fiber is at filling you up and keeping you full.
Some of these are fiber powders that you can stir into water and most of them also come with different low-calorie fruit flavors which, as discussed above, can be even better if plain water just doesn’t hold your attention. There are snack and granola style bars for the same purpose.
With things like this, however, you have to be careful. We said above that getting too much fiber can be hard – and that’s true, with natural foods. However, foods in this category are engineered to have extra fiber. So, follow the dietary recommendations on the package or these filling foods can become too filling.
(Of Course) Meat!
Is meat one of nature’s perfect foods, or do we just like to include it in every list we make? We’ll never tell.
The truth is that meat takes a long time to digest and it’s low in calories and, depending on how it’s prepared, it can have a pretty significant water content. Those things put it in the same columns as a lot of the other filling foods included in our list.
Be careful, however. As we mentioned above, because meat is relatively hard to digest it can cause digestive problems if you eat too much meat and don’t get enough fiber and water. Further, snack meats like jerky typically have a lot of added salt and sugar. In other words, meat makes the list, but it’s the bottom of our list and it should be the bottom of yours too.
That’s Not So Hard, Is It?
A lot of tasty foods are filling foods. So, filling up on healthy filling foods shouldn’t be hard. It is just something that you might have to think about for a bit. If this article doesn’t describe how you normally eat and drink, it can take some time to change your outlook. But, it’ll be worth it.
Pope, Jamie; Nizielski, Steven; McCook, Alison. “Nutrition for a Changing World.” Macmillan Learning. New York, NY. 2015.