How to Feel Less Hungry on Fewer Calories: Hacking the Satiety Factor of Foods

Most of us are aware of the connection between how filling a food is and how many calories it has. A double cheeseburger may have 20 times the calories of a healthy plate of plain lettuce, but if you knew your next meal wouldn't be for another six hours, you'd grab the cheeseburger, right? I certainly would.

That, in a nutshell, is the problem with trying to lose weight by mindlessly cutting calories. If we tilt our diets too far toward light and low-calorie foods, we're going to spend a lot of our lives feeling ravenous and miserable. This is a key reason why diets tend to fail.

Photo credit: MR+G

Thankfully, the relationship between calories and how filling a food is isn't quite as simple as it seems. In fact, some foods can fill us up for a long time with surprisingly few calories. And on the other side of the spectrum, there are foods with horribly high calorie counts that hardly satisfy our appetites at all.

Here's the punchlines: both types of foods offer us opportunities to beat the system by creating a diet around foods that are both filling and healthy. And in today's post, we're going to hack into the secrets of the satiety factor of foods to find out how to take in fewer calories without feeling hungry or deprived.

Before we get started, let me define four terms:

Satiety: In a dietary context, satiety is just a fancy word for being full to the point where you limit further eating.
Satiety Factor: The relationship between how full a food makes you feel and how many calories that food contains.
High Satiety Factor Foods: Foods that fill you up yet contain relatively few calories, and therefore foods you should eat more of if you want to lose weight.
Low Satiety Factor Foods: Foods that don't fill you up yet contain a large amount of calories, and therefore foods to avoid if you want to lose weight.

Let's get back to beating the system. Thanks to a study done in Australia in the mid 1990s, we now have a way to measure a food's satiety factor. The authors of this study fed a group of adults a variety of foods, measuring the effect each food had on the subjects' appetite over time.

Idiosyncrasies of the Satiety Factor Scale
Here's where we get to the intriguing part. It turns out that some foods offered extremely high satiety on very few calories, while some foods offered a horrendous amount of calories and didn't fill the subjects up at all.

Here's a list of the types of "good foods" that offer an exceptionally beneficial trade-off between calories and satiety:

High Satiety-Factor Foods:
Boiled potatoes, skin on
Whole grain pasta
Fiber-rich whole grains, especially oats
Lean meats, such as chicken, white turkey meat or lean cuts of beef
Leafy greens (swiss chard, collards, kale, spinach and cabbage)
High water content/high fiber vegetables (grapes, apples, oranges, grapefruit, carrots, bell peppers, eggplant, etc.)

On the other hand, some foods, like donuts or candy bars, are shockingly high in calories, yet they offer very little satiety. Here's a list of typical "bad foods" that offer a terrible trade-off between calories and satiety:

Low Satiety-Factor Foods:
Candy Bars
Ice cream
Potato Chips
White bread
Corn flakes
White pasta

I know I have some of the smartest readers in the food blog world, so I'm certain that by now that you've figured out the secret of hacking the satiety factor: Eat more foods from the first list, and limit foods from the second list. Yep--that's pretty much the secret.

By the way, there are some notable surprises on both lists, aren't there? Some relatively fatty foods like cheese offer surprisingly attractive satiety factors, in part because high-fat foods take a long time to pass through the stomach. At the same time, some seemingly healthy foods don't offer as good a tradeoff as you'd expect. For example, corn flakes and white pasta have shockingly low satiety factors--they're not much better than cookies.

Two additional insights:
1) You can make a big difference in your weight without experiencing any extra hunger if you simply cut out just one or two "worst offender" foods from the second list and replace them with one or two foods from the first list.

2) You'll also notice that many of the foods on the "preferred" list are first-order foods that lack embedded processing, cooking or branding costs. Many of these foods, including potatoes, lentils, eggs, beans, leafy greens and oats, are extremely nutritious and cost very little money. Still more evidence that food does not have to be expensive to be healthy.

Yes, there really are foods out there that offer us the caloric equivalent of a free lunch!

Related Posts:
When High-Fat Food Can Actually Be Healthy For You
The Pros and Cons of a High-Carb/Low-Fat Diet
Make Your Diet Into a Flexible Tool
Scarred For Life By a Food Industry Job

Resources for Further Reading:
The Fullness Factor at
What Really Satisfies at

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Julia said...

Good stuff, Dan! I'd be curious to know how you (or is it "they") would categorize spicy peppers. It's my understanding that the capsaicin helps with the satiety factor of food. So overall, a spicy dish will be more filing than its equivalent in non-spicy form. But the only cultures I know of that would eat chilies whole and plain are the Thai and the Indian.

Unknown said...

Great post, Dan!

My personal experience matches this list almost exactly.

I had a question, though...did they mention soup in the satiety rankings anywhere? That's one of my satiety tricks that's not on the list.

Soup fills me up, even though it's mostly water. (Probably because I add ingredients from the high satiety list.)
*And is it just me, or is it tough to type the word "satiety"?

Mike V

Amy said...

I've been reading Casual Kitchen for a few months now. I love it. Just thought I'd finally stop lurking and mention that :)

(oh, and my blog has a lot of low-satiety baking on it. don't hold that against me! I'm actually very fit and very health conscious!)

Daniel said...

Julia: Me too, you're definitely on to something. The study unfortunately didn't measure satiety by way of spiciness, but I bet the results would be compelling. I've also found the happy coincidence that spicy foods cause me to eat less.

Mike: thanks for chiming in. Unfortunately the study didn't look at soups per se, but you could clearly make a soup with high-satiety factor foods as you say. And yep, it is a bit hard to type the word staiety. :)

Amy, thanks so much for de-lurking and sharing your feedback! And I would never hold low-satiety food against anyone--even fattening foods have a time and a place. Just not too often. Thank you for reading!


Melissa said...

I don't know what I would do if it was BAD for me to eat spicy food. I'd die of food sadness.

Great info Dan. It reminds me, on Sunday, I worked overtime here at the office and I had intentionally left a bowl of my spicy-citrusy black beans I made last week in the refrigerator to have while I worked. It was a big bowl, but I ate them all... and then I wasn't hungry again for something close to 6 or 7 hours! It's not that I wasn't aware of the varying satiety of foods, but I was still kind of floored by how full I was hours and hours later, just from eating a bowl of beans. Eating greens, avocados and beans are easily some of my favorite ways to stay full. I need to remember this as I try to lose weight again!

Laura said...

Great post! I'm starting a 15-week weight loss/healthier living challenge next Monday, and this list will definitely come in handy. Thanks, Dan!

By the way, a lot of people overlook African food, but much of it relies on the foods in the first list. Traditionally prepared it can contain a lot of fat, but it's easy to adapt for lower fat content. Delicious, inexpensive, easy to prepare (for the most part), and, at least in the case of Ethiopian food, it rivals any other cuisine when it comes to spiciness. A good deal all around.

Daniel said...

Melissa: I know what I would do. I'd keep eating spicy food. ;) Also, I like your insights about finding out what foods have high satiety factors for you. Everybody's body is a bit different and we all have differing associations with food. Take advantage of the foods that make you feel full for longer.

Laura, thanks for your comment! Great idea on the various foods of Africa. I'm a big fan of Ethiopian food myself. Lots of first-order and high satiety factor foods there.


Erin from Long Island said...

this is a great post! i was really shocked by the penuts, as I thought nuts would be more like cheese. I heard nuts recommended (in small portions) as a snack all the time. I know adding herbs, spices etc are helpful and so are soups, but those arent really specific enough for this study I think.

On a slightly related hard do you laugh when you see "negative calorie foods?"

Charity said...

This was great!

I agree that each person needs to find out what their high satiety-factor foods are. Fruit, for instance, doesn't fill me up a bit. In fact, if I eat an apple, I'll be ravenous 30 minutes later. On the other hand, as Erin pointed out, a handful nuts can be much more filling. [I still eat fruit, of course, but always in conjunction with other things.]

About a year ago, I started eating breakfast consisting of a bowl of oatmeal with ground flax seed & some fruit (usually banana or blueberries), an egg, and 2 Morningstar Farms "sausage" links. I can last for about 5 hours on that, whereas before, when I was eating a bowl of (high-fiber) cereal, I'd be famished 2-3 hours later.

This concept is great for people who just plain don't like being hungry all the time, and especially for those of us who try to watch our weight. Thanks again for the great post!

Daniel said...

Erin, actually I don't laugh at all--one the one hand there's no such thing as a negative calorie food (uh, with the exception of icewater which technically has negative calories), some low-calorie foods take enough effort to chew, swallow and digest that your body burns a net (or nearly net) positive amount of energy simply by processing them.

Foods that come to mind are high water content foods like celery or leafy greens (obviously sans dressing or dips). Yes they have calories, of course, but your body will burn most of them away by digesting them.

Charity: I hear you. And some of us here at Casual Kitchen are big converts to low cost, extra-filling oatmeal. I wish I could get past the texture though.

Also regarding breakfast, I often encourage people to eat something that's energy dense and high in satiety, because it helps you avoid making rash and ill-thought-out eating decisions later in the morning.


Julia said...

I just saw a label for "Andi Score" in my local whole foods. It seems reality to the satiety factor. Have you seen this?

Daniel said...

Hi Julia, thanks for stopping by. I hadn't heard of the ANDI score, but after googling it, it looks like it's more focusing on nutrient content per calorie, not satiety. Although I'm happy to see my precious collard greens rated highly! It's an intriguing way to think about food, however, and I'll have to keep it in mind going forward.


Sally said...

About the ANDI score. This was developed by Dr. Joel Fuhrman for his nutritarian eating plan. ANDI -- aggregate nutrient density index. There's also MANDI -- menu aggregate nutrient density index. So, one can be aware of the nutrient density of individual foods (ANDI) or of your entire menu (MANDI). The goal is to have menus of very high nutrient density. I've noticed his books/products at Whole Foods, so there must be some kind of partnership if they're displaying ANDI scores on products.

His program is very high on vegetables, especially leafy greens, fruits, beans/legumes and low on starchy vegetables and grains, very low on any animal products and without added fats.

I define satiety much as you do, but I think I should be able to get to the next meal without feeling like I need to eat something else.

I followed his program for awhile and I was never satisfied. While it did teach me the importance of nutrient dense foods, I only started feeling satiety when I added animal products and fat back into my diet.

I think this may be at least part of the reason low-fat eating and low-fat diets have caused us to gain weight. Fat leads to satiety. It doesn't take a lot. It can be greens sauteed in some olive oil, a salad dressing with oil, butter on your bread or potatoes, or cooking the cheaper cuts of meat which tend to be higher in fat.

I found that by adding fat to my diet, I'm eating less and am satisfied between meals. And yes, I'm losing weight. Beyond that, many of the nutrients in greens are fat soluble, so by including some fat leads to absorption of more nutrients.

MikeV is right about soup being filling. Part of it is the higher satiety foods, another part is the water. This is from research done by Dr. Barbara Rolls: "But when water is mixed with food, as in a brothy soup with chunky ingredients, the body handles it like food. As soup fills your stomach, it activates stretch receptors that send satiety signals to your brain. As the soup empties from your stomach, satiety hormones flow into your bloodstream, helping you feel full."

Daniel said...

Great insights Sally, I think you are definitely onto something here. Thank you for sharing.