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Some foods really are more filling than others, a phenomenon you can leverage for weight management purposes if you understand how this effect works.
Dieting to enhance fullness (with less/healthier food) is an overlooked, but very useful method that anyone can use to lose weight and replace unhealthy food with much better alternatives.
Every food is different in the extent to which it promotes the feeling of fullness, and there are healthy and unhealthy foods on both sides of the fullness-promoting spectrum.
As such, it takes a more calculated approach to pick out the unhealthy foods in your diet—whether they’re filling or not—and replace them with healthier alternatives that are as filling or more so.
It’s a little dated at this point, but the most comprehensive list of foods according to how filling they are was developed by the University of Sydney, Australia in 1995—the Satiety Index.
The University of Sydney came up with the Satiety Index after conducting a study in which they tested the filling effects of “isoenergetic servings of 38 foods” (meaning every food tested was portioned to have the same amount of calories) on groups of 11-13 subjects.
38 foods were tested, and the “satiety response curve” was measured against the satiety response for white bread, which they set at 100%.
In other words, if a food was more filling than white bread, it would have a satiety index (SI) score of more than 100%, and vice versa.
We invite you to check the link for the full list, but here are the top ten items for some quick context:
If it seems hard to pick out a trend among these ten highly filling foods, it’s because there are several nutrients that can influence satiety in different ways.
Since it’s far more important to learn how to make your own satiety index tailored to your situation and preferences than to try to fit this generic mold, we’re going to break down these nutrients step by step.
Keep in mind throughout this brief guide that satiety isn’t the only objective; we need satiety and nutritional density (along with a calorie deficit) if we’re going to promote weight loss, improve blood glucose levels, and so on.
When snacking or otherwise, multiple studies have outlined the importance of protein-rich foods, fiber, and other key nutrients for keeping dieters fuller for longer.
In this eye-opening study from a public university in France (Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes), researchers gave participants high-fat, high-protein, and high-carbohydrate snacks exactly four hours after the beginning of lunch, and then asked participants to request dinner whenever they were hungry again.
The three measurements the researchers were interested in were the participants’ ad libitum (as much as they wanted) lunch intake, the “latency of the spontaneous request for dinner” following lunch and a snack, and the ad libitum food intake at dinner.
As it turns out, “consumption of a high-protein snack delayed the request for dinner by 60 min,” where the high-fat snack only delayed the request by 25 minutes, and the high-carbohydrate snack delayed the request by 34 minutes.
Notice that fat was the least satiating nutrient, which is doubly harmful for those trying to lose weight, since fat is already more calorically dense than the other two nutrients (9 calories per gram versus 4).
In other words, fatty snacks will have you reaching for more food faster, while at the same time creating the largest calorie surplus.
In multiple cases, the addition of fiber (or replacement of low-fiber foods with high-fiber alternatives) has enhanced the satiety level of tested foods.
As summarized by an academic article presented by Yale University researchers and others at the Advances & Controversies in Clinical Nutrition Conference in 2014, a fiber-enriched midmorning snack (barley enriched with beta-glucan) was superior to standard biscuits in promoting satiety.
Like the protein study, the satiating effect was measured as the participants’ willingness to eat again as well as subjective reports of fullness.
Fiber is one reason that it’s difficult to find trends throughout the satiety index; both carbohydrate-rich and protein-rich foods can be high in fiber, which is why we often see these frontrunners passing each other intermittently in the top results.
Taking a break from specific nutrients for a moment, the practice of snacking in general is still being debated over, as some sources believe it leads to binge-eating at meals and poorer choices, while others believe it’s a healthy way to maintain or lose weight.
Some findings have found a positive correlation with snacking frequency and body mass index (BMI), but other sources assessing the same connection have denied it.
Moreover, some studies go as far as to say that even calorically (but nutritionally) dense foods—like nuts and dark chocolate—can actually promote weight loss, partially due to satiation.
While we won’t claim to have discovered the magical solution to this debate with independent research, we can say with confidence that the nutritional breakdown of the snack can be highly influential, both in terms of satiety and weight management.
In other words, both sides of this argument are less torn on these two points:
– Cookies, chips, and crackers as snacks will promote weight gain.
– Filling, nutrient-dense snacks are preferable, and though they may not directly promote weight loss, they’re less likely to promote weight gain.
A quick disclaimer before we begin: There are actually many carbohydrate-rich foods that can promote satiety more effectively than healthier, protein-rich alternatives, but as mentioned, we need to balance satiety with nutritional density.
For example, cookies and chips are slightly more effective at promoting satiety than yogurt and nuts, but we’re passing the junk food items over for the next most filling items that won’t, you know, slowly kill you:
– Chips out, nuts in
– Pudding/ice cream out, yogurt in
– White bread out, grain bread in
– Cereal out, oatmeal in (not instant)
– Cookies, candy bars, and pastries out, grapes or apples in.
– In more general terms, seek out nutrient-dense proteins, healthier carbs, and fibrous foods.
A great way to keep your relationship with slightly less filling carbs healthy while promoting maximum satiety is to choose fiber-rich carbs (aka, fruits, vegetables, and some whole grains).
As for fatty snacks, we can’t help but borrow the cliche: absence makes the heart grow fonder.
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