You sit down to dinner with a rumbling stomach and finish the meal in record time — but then, half an hour after clearing your plate, you suddenly feel uncomfortably full, as if your tummy could pop.
People say there's a lag between taking your first bite and satisfying your hunger, and the general belief is that this time delay lasts around 20 minutes. But exactly how long does it take for your brain to register that you are full?
It does, indeed, take on average 20 minutes for your body to send signals to your brain to indicate that you have had enough to eat. However, the exact duration of the lag between when you eat and when you feel full depends on a multitude of factors, including the type of food you are eating and your typical eating habits, Dr. Nina Nandy, a gastroenterologist based in Texas and a spokesperson for the American Gastroenterological Association, told Live Science by email.
That's because the brain relies on several different mechanisms to determine if you are full, Nandy said.
Our feelings of hunger and fullness, or satiety, are largely controlled by hormones, particularly ghrelin, an appetite-stimulating hormone produced in the gut, and leptin, an appetite-suppressing hormone released by the body's white fat cells. Ghrelin fluctuates as we eat and fast, while leptin levels remain fairly steady. Additional hormones, such as PYY and GLP-1 from the gut and insulin from the pancreas, have also been shown to increase feelings of fullness after eating.
The brain also regulates hunger based on information from nerves that sense when the stomach gets stretched, as well as signals from taste buds and smell receptors, Nandy said. "When these signals collectively indicate that you've eaten enough, the brain reduces your desire to eat further," she said.
However, there's a roughly 20-minute delay due to the fact that it takes time for the body to adjust its production of hunger-related hormones, and those hormones take more time than nerve impulses to relay information to the brain. Electrical signals from the gastrointestinal tract travel along nerves with lightning speed, reaching the brain almost instantly. Hormones, on the other hand, travel via the bloodstream.
The time it takes for the body to generate satiety signals and send them to your brain also depends on the type of food you're eating.
Foods high in fiber, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains, tend to promote satiety, while low-fiber, processed foods delay the feeling of fullness, Nandy said. That's because fiber helps switch off the production of ghrelin, trigger secretion of appetite-suppressing gut hormones and exert pressure on the stomach's stretch receptors, according to a 2022 review published in the journal Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition.
People's eating habits are another factor that influences their satiety after meals.
Eating slowly gives the body more time to signal that you are full, while paying attention to your food and savoring every bite can help you better tune into these signals. This concept is known as mindful eating, Nandy said. Thoroughly chewing your food may also boost satiety by increasing the sensory feedback to the brain, according to a 2018 meta-analysis published in the journal Appetite.
Certain medical conditions, such as hypothyroidism and diabetes, can disrupt satiety signals by slowing down the passage of food through the stomach. This slowing can cause people to feel fuller for longer than they would otherwise. (The diabetes drug Ozempic and weight-loss drug Wegovy partially work by slowing down the rate that food empties from the stomach.)
Leptin resistance, a condition in which the amount or effect of this satiety hormone decreases, can make a person never feel full — they end a meal as hungry as they began it. The condition can lead to obesity by promoting excessive food intake, and it often arises from rare genetic mutations, as was the case with two siblings with intense, insatiable hunger.
This article is for informational purposes only and is not meant to offer medical advice.
Ever wonder why some people build muscle more easily than others or why freckles come out in the sun? Send us your questions about how the human body works to email@example.com with the subject line "Health Desk Q," and you may see your question answered on the website!
Sign up for the Live Science daily newsletter now
Get the world’s most fascinating discoveries delivered straight to your inbox.
Anna Gora is a health writer at Live Science, having previously worked across Coach, Fit&Well, T3, TechRadar and Tom's Guide. She is a certified personal trainer, nutritionist and health coach with nearly 10 years of professional experience. Anna holds a Bachelor's degree in Nutrition from the Warsaw University of Life Sciences, a Master’s degree in Nutrition, Physical Activity & Public Health from the University of Bristol, as well as various health coaching certificates. She is passionate about empowering people to live a healthy lifestyle and promoting the benefits of a plant-based diet.