Why We Continue to Eat Even When We’re No Longer Hungry

Can external cues help you stop eating when you're no longer hungry?When you eat a meal satiety hormones kick in, signaling your brain that you’re full. Not everyone has the same sensitivity to these signals and some people seem to completely override them and continue eating despite feeling full and satisfied. Why is it that some lucky people stop eating when satiety kicks in while others keep munching away?

The French are a group who, in general, listen to their bodies. They eat foods that are high in calories and fat like cheese and buttered croissants, yet they have lower obesity rates and a lower rate of heart disease compared to people who live in Western countries. This is sometimes referred to as the “French paradox,” referring to the fact they don’t gain weight or develop heart disease at a high rate on a high-fat diet.

Why Are the French Less Likely to Overeat and Gain Weight?

A study published in The FASEB Journal looked at one aspect of the French paradox – why the French eat high-calorie, high-fat foods yet don’t gain weight. What they found is the French are more likely to stop eating when they feel satisfied rather than tuning out their satiety signals and continuing to eat. In contrast, Americans were more likely to keep eating even when they feel full.

According to this study, the difference can be explained by “cues” they use to stop eating. The French are more influenced by “internal cues,” how much they’re enjoying the food and how satisfied they feel and use that to determine when to stop eating.

In contrast, Americans are more likely to use “external cues,” cues that are unrelated to what they’re eating to tell them when to terminate a meal. For example, they may stop eating when everyone else at their table does or when the television show they’re watching ends, or, even worse, when there’s no more food in sight! It’s easy to see how this could be a problem when it comes to weight control. Other research shows that people who use external cues to control how much they eat are more likely to be overweight or obese.

 You Can Change the Way You Respond to External Cues

Have you ever reached for a snack even when you’re not hungry? Chances are you were responding to an external cue to eat. Maybe you walked through the kitchen and saw a candy bar lying on the counter or you caught a glimpse of a commercial that showed steaming hot plates of food. Smell is another external cue that can trigger the desire to eat even when you’ve just eaten. You can train yourself to be less responsive to these external cues by forcing yourself to stop and rate your hunger level before eating a snack. If it’s not a 4 or 5 out of 5, put it back.

You can do the same hunger assessment when eating a meal. Ask yourself during a meal whether you’re still hungry. This works best when you slow down the pace of your meal and give your appetite hormones a chance to kick in. Make it a practice to eat mindfully with greater awareness of what you’re eating – how it looks, tastes and smells.

You can even use external cues to your advantage. Serve food on smaller plates, it gives the illusion you’re eating more. Keep serving dishes off the table so you can’t easily refill your plate. A bowl also gives the illusion of more food. Drink out of a tall, thin glass rather than a short, wide one. Don’t make it easy to go back for seconds. Most importantly, don’t eat when you’re distracted, while you’re watching television, reading, working on the computer, texting, etc. Focus on what you’re eating, how it tastes and smells and nothing else.

The Bottom Line?

The more aware you become of the internal cues telling you you’re full, the less likely you’ll be to overeat. On the other hand, you can use external cues to your advantage by manipulating the size of the dishes you eat on and the glass you drink out of. The next time you sit down to a meal, eat like the French and be mindful of what your body is telling you – and stop when it tells you you’re full.



The FASEB Journal. 2006; 20: A175-A176.

Physiology & Behavior .Volume 94, Issue 5, 6 August 2008, Pages 722-728.

Obesity. 2007 Dec 15(12): 2920-4.


Related Articles By Cathe:

What Science Says About Overeating

How to Stop Eating after Dinner and Avoid Weight Gain

5 Ways to Curb Mindless Overeating

5 Appetite Hormones That Control How Much You Eat

What We Can Learn From the French About Maintaining a Healthy Body Weight

A New and Surprising Way to Control Your Appetite – Eat Your Greens!


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