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The Octopus can't get no satisfaction
part of a loose series on weight, wellness, and what it all means
I'm continuing my exploration of weight, wellness, and what it all means by taking a look at satiety and fullness.
First, a request: If you feel that this exploration would be unhealthy for you, please practice good boundaries and unsubscribe or stop reading. I know for many of us, and this certainly includes past-me, ANY conversation around weight can be triggering and upsetting. I don't want to cause problems for you, and would much prefer that you unsubscribe than find yourself in an unhealthy place because of something that I've written.
Here's what I've covered already if you want to catch up:
I wrote earlier about how our bodies don’t really track calories. People track calories largely because calories were the first measurement of nutritional content in food and it’s (relatively) easy to do so, especially in the internet-connected modern world. Just because it’s an easy metric doesn’t mean that it’s a valuable metric, regardless of the fact that most weight-loss advice is based on it.
Our bodies are far more concerned about two different nutrients: protein and, to a lesser extent, fiber. Protein is important because it’s both the bricks from which our bodies are constructed as well as the paper on which all the internal messages are written. More than just our muscles, our immune system and our hormones, among other things, are entirely dependent on protein.
The fiber we eat, interestingly, isn’t for us so much as it is for our gut bacteria. Fiber is both home and food to the critically important, beneficial bacteria that live in our digestive tract. Lack of fiber will tip the balance from mostly good bacteria to more bad bacteria, which in turn affects our health in ways we don’t totally understand yet. But, in natural, whole foods, fiber bring micronutrients along with it, like vitamin C, and so eating fiber means getting plenty of micronutrients as well.
How do we know that we’ve eaten enough protein and fiber? We get two different signals from our bodies—the first, fastest signal is from the stretch receptors in the walls of the stomach. After eating enough food to expand the stomach, we have a physical sensation of fullness.
Historically, before highly processed foods like Oreos and Pringles entered our diets, a large volume of plant food meant that we’d eaten a significant amount of fiber. All flour was whole grain flour, with plenty of fiber attached, and fruits were eaten as fruit and not jam or “fruit snacks”. There just weren’t any opportunities to eat starch or sugar without the attached fiber. (Except honey, although that particular food product is somewhat self-limiting, given what happens to people who go up against the bees…)
But, of course, simply having a full stomach isn’t enough.
“I’m always hungry an hour after eating Chinese food.”
“I’m full; what’s for dessert?”
“I can eat that whole package and still want more.”
Most of us have experienced feeling full, or even stuffed, and yet still finding ourselves in the kitchen, poking around for that extra something that will end the meal and make us feel satisfied.
What we’re looking for is the chemical signal of satisfaction, or, in science-speak, satiety, which is the feedback from having eaten enough protein.
When people say that it takes around 20 minutes to feel “full” after eating a meal, this is what they actually mean, because it takes a while for the protein in our food to chemically register in the brain. Once that sensation hits, though, we generally have a feeling of closure to the meal—we’re calm, satisfied, and can walk away from the table without looking back. For many of us, it’s something we don’t feel very often.
I would argue that this feeling of satisfaction is critical for our sense of well-being. Satisfaction, further, is the key to eating both well and healthfully. When we don’t experience satisfaction, we’re biologically driven to eat more. While we may have eaten “enough calories,” we haven’t eaten enough protein to satisfy the body.
What the body considers “enough” protein will vary from person to person. The type of protein might vary as well—in order to use proteins that come from plants, our bodies have to convert them into a usable form, while proteins from animals need less of a conversion process. Some people, for various reasons, have a more difficult time than others converting plant proteins, and so feel better when they focus on eating protein from animals. Other people have no problem with that same process, and feel great on primarily plant protein.
It’s important to understand that mental health, in particular, is dependent on eating enough protein. The brain chemicals that make us feel calm and happy are, like so many other key components, made from protein. Depression and anxiety can be signs that we aren’t getting enough good quality protein. Personally, I know that my mental health is much better when I eat animal protein—trying to follow a vegetarian lifestyle consistently throws me into depression.
The takeaway, then, is to pay attention to whether you’re feeling full and satisfied after you eat. If you’re finding yourself searching for a little something more, even if you’re full, experiment with eating more protein, especially animal protein. How do you feel if you consistently eat about 4oz of meat (or 2-3 eggs) at breakfast, lunch, and dinner? How does it affect your sense of well-being? Your mood? Your energy? Your cravings?
As with everything, the only way we know what works for us is by experimenting and paying attention to the results. Learning how to feel full and satisfied empowers us to freely eat in a way that is truly nourishing.
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