How To Stay Full In A Caloric Deficit – Low Calorie Filling Foods


Main Take-Aways

1. Including filling foods, high in fiber/protein, can drastically increase your chances of success.
2. Even in a deficit, you can keep things flexible. However there are certain trade-offs you should be aware of.
3. Where traditional diets is cutting calories super low right off the bat. In this article you’ll learn how to do things more effectively

Can you lose weight without getting hungry?
What foods can help you lose weight?
How to make dieting suck less?
How to stay full in a calorie deficit?

In this article we’re going to help you successfully lose weight, while keeping it as enjoyable as possible, without you feeling the need to annihilate a full tub of Ben & Jerry’s and a jar of peanut butter.

Why so specific? Because that was me years ago (Yes, I’m also guilty of doing the restrictive diets)…

WARNING: the foods we’ll talk about are not special in any way. They’re simply low calorie foods that keep you full, and so can help you lose weight 

Table of Contents

What Happens When You Diet

Weight loss all comes down to energy balance (1). In order to achieve weight loss, you need to be in a calorie deficit, which literally means consuming fewer calories than the amount that you burn.

When you are (actually) in a deficit, your body will burn some of its fat stores to make up for that deficit. Now, there’s good news and there’s a bit of bad news, I’ll start with the latter.

The bad news is that you will be hungry.

Hunger is actually a sign that you are in a calorie deficit and that you are losing weight. Your body doesn’t want you to lose or gain weight. It just wants to keep you at homeostasis, a state of balance.

When you’re in a deficit, ghrelin (a hunger hormone) increases and leptin (a hunger-blunting hormone) decreases, signaling your brain that it’s time to start looking for food (2,3).

If you try to see it from an evolutionary standpoint, it kinda makes sense.

Lack of food > the body goes ‘Wtf? We need more fuel!’ > hunger ↑ > you, the cave-man/woman go out to look for food > consume more food > back at energy balance > the body is getting enough fuel to fuel all processes again = homeostasis.

Additionally, your caloric ‘budget’ is much smaller, so there’s less room for flexibility. You’ll also experience (some) decreases in performance, recovery, energy, cognitive function, and increases in hunger and cravings..

Hey, I’m not trying to scare you here. Honestly it won’t be too bad, I’m just making sure that you truly understand how the body works and responds, so that you can work with it in order to achieve your long term, sustainable goals

Now for the good news. You and I are going to mitigate that hunger, lack of energy, etc. and will make sure that once you do go into a weight loss phase, it’s not going to feel like pure punishment.

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What Most Diets Do Wrong

Whether you follow MyFitnessPal’s insanely low macro/calorie recommendations (pls, don’t!) or you go with a restrictive approach like a one-size-fits-all meal plan, juice cleanse, Keto, low-carb, meal replacement shakes, etc..

.. chances are calories are being cut super low right off the bat.

Why? Because:

  • Regardless of diet history, it pretty much guarantees that anyone loses weight.
  • You’ll see some pretty awesome, short term weight loss.

Wait, so how is that a bad thing?

  • Your metabolism will adapt sooner, making long term weight loss more difficult.
  • Most of that short term weight loss is not fat loss, but instead comes from having less food in your stomach, less carbohydrate (glycogen) stored in your liver and muscles (your fuel tank) and because of that less water retention. But for some reason, they don’t tell you that.
  • Next level hangry-ness, low energy and a higher chance of weight regain.

How To Make Dieting Suck Less: Include foods that keep you full

Let’s be honest, no one really likes dieting. It’s never going to be super fun, but we can make it suck less. Much less actually. There’s this common misbelief that dieting means you have to just eat ‘clean’, in tiny portions. Or that you need to barely eat altogether.

However, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

If there’s one thing a lot of our online weight loss clients have in common, it’s being surprised about how much they’re able to eat while making amazing, sustainable progress.

That goes for food volume, but even for the amount of calories they’re on. How? Because we usually don’t start off with a calorie deficit. Instead, to set them up for long term success, we spend time optimizing their metabolism first.

Then once they’re ready to go, we usually start them off on a 10-20% calorie deficit to make sure they’re in a deficit. After that, it’s all about getting away with as much food as possible, for as long as possible.

As much as I don’t like to say it, a calorie deficit is restrictive in nature. But, that doesn’t mean that restriction is something you want to focus on. Instead, let’s focus on adding more of the good stuff: voluminous, nutrient dense, minimally processed foods.

Also in a deficit, I recommend a flexible dieting approach. Now instead of the usual 80/20 ratio of whole/minimally processed foods vs ‘the fun stuff’, I do recommend considering leaning more towards a 90/10 ratio in this scenario.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you to calculate your 10-20%. Just keep in mind that in a deficit, it can be a good idea to go from ‘eating minimally processed foods most of the time and enjoying the fun stuff in moderation’ to ‘eating even more minimally processed foods to increase your chances of success’.

Priorities & trade-offs
As a human being, there is no such thing as ‘the right time’ for fat loss. There will be bumps in the road. Hell, sometimes you might run into a full-blown roadblock. And that’s ok. You don’t have to be perfect, because life isn’t perfect.

If anything, those obstacles you may encounter along your journey to that next level physique are the perfect learning opportunities. There’s always going to be a party, a fun weekend, dinner with friends, vacation, holiday…

So instead of worrying about those moments that are outside of your usual routines, let’s learn how to navigate those scenarios.

To prepare yourself for the road ahead, let’s talk about your priorities and trade-offs. Can you drink alcohol or sugary drinks, and still lose weight?

Sure. Can you eat pizza, burgers, chocolate, cookies, etc.? Sure.

Is it a good idea to prioritize those foods and drinks in a deficit? Only you can be the judge of that, there’s no right or wrong answer here.

Just get very clear on which trade-offs you are willing to make, and which you do not want to make. In the case of alcohol, which does give you 7 ‘empty’ calories per gram, is it going to be worth it in a deficit? Or can you save the big nights out for a later stage, back at maintenance?

Remember that every calorie will count, and you only have so much in your caloric budget.

Here are a few strategies that will allow more flexibility that can also be beneficial from an adherence standpoint.

  • Diet breaks. You don’t have to stay in a deficit for months on end. You can include a week at maintenance here and there. Example: 3 weeks deficit, 1 week maintenance, repeat.Trade-off: this does extend the length of your weight loss phase.
  • Refeed days. Because energy balance doesn’t come down to daily calories, but rather your weekly calories, you can also include 1-2 days per week at maintenance.
    Trade-off: you will have to go lower during the other days to make up for the extra calories you’re having over the weekend.

How To Stay Full In A Caloric Deficit – Low Calorie Filling Foods

Yes, a calorie IS a calorie. And technically, food quality does not matter for weight loss if calories and protein are equated.

As long as you create a calorie deficit, regardless of your methods, you will lose weight.

But! There is something to be said about sustainability, health and actually being able to stick to your diet.

Certain foods come packed with vitamins, minerals, and water, which are all essential (not optional) for health. Then there’s the macronutrient composition (protein, carbs, fats) and fiber content (very satiating, plus it’s important for gut health and pooping) of a food.

Hint: I’m talking about those low calorie foods that keep you full in a calorie deficit.

Lastly, different macronutrients have a different ‘thermic effect’, which we’ll get into soon. But first, as I like to call it, the boiled potato study.

Satiety Index Of Common Foods
Some foods will keep you full for a long time, while others may only give you a quick hit of fuel before leaving you craving for more in no-time. In a deficit, I highly recommend leveraging what we can learn from The Satiety Index.

“The results show that isoenergetic servings of different foods differ greatly in their satiating capacities. This is relevant to the treatment and prevention of overweight and obesity.” (2)

This 1995 study by Holt, S H et al., published in the European Journal Of Clinical Nutrition, created a satiety index (SI) of 38 common foods. Although the foods all came in equal servings of 240kcal, there was a significant difference in satiety. They found that the more protein, fiber and/or water a food contained, the more filling it was. On the other hand, the fattier the food, the less filling it turned out to be.

If you’re trying to stay full on a diet, potatoes are a secret weapon (lol). Compared to croissants, which showed to be the least filling in this study, boiled potatoes (which were 7 times more satiating) outperformed any other food on the satiety index.

Thermic Effect of Food (TEF)

Now this is where it gets really interesting. After eating a meal, there is an increase in metabolic rate. This is called the Thermic Effect of Food, aka the amount of calories you burn through digestion. While TEF is not really something we’re going to calculate, it does account for about 10% of your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (3), which is quite significant. 

⇒ For a full breakdown of TEF check out: Thermic Effect Of Food – Smaller Meals For A Faster Metabolism?

You can imagine that in a deficit, you’re going to be eating less, so the overall Thermic Effect of Food will be lower. But here’s the cool thing, you can still use TEF to your advantage by going with a higher protein, mostly whole food approach.

“The intake of nutrients is known to increase energy expenditure. Measured thermic effects of nutrients are 0-3% for fat, 5-10% for carbohydrates and 20-30% for proteins.“ (4)

“Average energy expenditure for the Whole Food meal (137+/-14.1 kcal, 19.9% of meal energy) was significantly larger than for the Processed Food meal (73.1+/-10.2 kcal, 10.7% of meal energy).” (5)

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Healthy Foods That Will Help You Lose Weight

High-protein foods 

  • Lean cuts of meat
  • White fish
  • Shellfish (pretty much pure protein!)
  • Egg whites
  • Low or non-fat greek yogurt/cottage cheese/skyr
  • Soy

⇒ Check out The Definitive Protein Cheat Sheet for more options.

*These foods are all very lean, and will give you mostly protein. You can also include fattier options if you’d like to. Just be aware of your overall intake, and how much of your calories you want to spend on fats.

Protein is already the most important macronutrient, but especially in a deficit. You just learned that protein performed very well in the Satiety Index study, and that its thermic effect is much higher than carbs and fats. Protein also plays a major role in muscle retention. Do we need any more reasons to keep protein nice and high? I don’t think so.

Healthy fat sources to include in a deficit

  • Avocado
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Olives
  • Fattier fish
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Egg yolks

*If you want to make sure to keep your omega-3’s in, include fatty fish like salmon or consider supplementing with fish (or algae) oil.

Fats actually performed poorly in the Satiety Index study and have a negligible thermic effect. But that doesn’t mean that fats aren’t important. Fats are essential, and you still need a minimum to cover hormone production.

Although fats aren’t very satiating, you do want to include them in your diet. Fats slow down digestion, so having some with your meals can actually keep you going for a little while in between meals.

Once you cover your fat intake, you can fill out the rest of your calories however you like. The carb/fat ratio does not seem to matter for weight/fat loss results (6), however we do need to keep in mind things like adherence, satiety, TEF, gym performance and more.

Best carbohydrates to consume for weight loss

  • Boiled potatoes
  • Porridge
  • Whole wheat bread
  • Whole wheat pasta
  • Rice
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Quinoa
  • Beans & legumes
  • *Bonus snack: popcorn! (see Satiety Index)

After covering your protein and fat needs, you can fill in the rest of your ‘budget’ with carbs. Carbs keep you full (remember that boiled potato), and are the main fuel source for your workouts. If body composition changes are the goal, you’re going to want to hold on to as much muscle mass as possible. Carbs can help you get the most out of your workouts, so that you can provide the muscles with enough of a stimulus to stick around.

Fruits & Vegetables: The Ultimate Low calorie foods to stay full in a caloric deficit

Although these foods really fall under carbohydrates, I wanted to address them separately from the above mentioned starchy carbs. Both fruits and vegetables come with lots of micronutrients, water, and fiber. Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that is not broken down and used for fuel, but instead passes through your body. Although there is no such thing as a ‘free food’, it’s going to be very hard to overeat on fruits and vegetables. Feel free to load up!

Foods that make you feel full but are super low in calories:

  • Zucchini
  • Carrots
  • Leafy greens
  • Cucumber
  • Green beans
  • Broccoli
  • Brussel sprouts
  • Cauliflower
  • Tomatoes
  • Pickles
  • Watermelon (!!!)
  • Apples
  • Oranges
  • Peaches
  • Pineapples
  • Strawberries
  • Raspberries
  • Blueberries

*Fruits are generally going to be slightly higher in calories than vegetables.

Bonus Tips For More Successful Weight Loss

Drink plenty of water, and feel free to include carbonated drinks like sparkling water and diet soda’s, which are totally fine to drink by the way. The carbonation in these drinks can help keep you full, and can almost act like a little treat.

Manage your overall stress load, as it can have a big impact on adherence and affect your long term weight loss results.

Sleep at least 7 hours a night (Read my sleep deep dive here) as crappy sleep can influence your mood and decision making, but even affects your hormones. As little as one night of sleep deprivation can increase ghrelin levels and feelings of hunger (7).

Keep moving! Get your minimum of 8-10k steps a day and lift weights 3-5 times a week to keep your energy expenditure up, while maintaining muscle mass.

Good luck!

You now have all the tools you need for a successful weight loss phase. Now plan for it, get ready to put in the work, and make it count. At the end of the day, it’s not going to be the most fun time of your life. But luckily there’s a whole lot you can do to make the process as effective and enjoyable as possible.

And the more you include those low calorie foods that keep you full (best of both worlds really), the more likely you are to succeed.

Just don’t cut calories super low right off the bat, but try to get away with as much food as you can fit in while losing weight at a sustainable rate. Get clear on your priorities and trade-offs, and accommodate for your non-negotiables. Keep your protein and fiber up, and include filling foods that also have a high thermic effect.

Again, let’s make this count.

A calorie deficit is not a destination, it’s really just a temporary tool that will help you achieve your fat loss goals. Once you’re done, and you’re ready to reverse back up to maintenance, you’re going to have tons of calories to play with to enjoy more flexibility.

What works for you, is really going to depend on many factors. Maybe you go with a higher-carb approach, maybe you go with a more balanced approach. Maybe it’s going to take you a bit of time figuring out what’s really going to get you through that deficit. At the end of the day, there’s not one approach that’s going to work for everyone. 

Because the best diet for you, is the one that you can actually stick to (10).

  1. Hill, James O et al. “The Importance of Energy Balance.” European endocrinology vol. 9,2 (2013): 111-115. doi:10.17925/EE.2013.09.02.111
  2. Lockie, Sarah H, and Zane B Andrews. “The hormonal signature of energy deficit: Increasing the value of food reward.” Molecular metabolism vol. 2,4 329-36. 19 Aug. 2013, doi:10.1016/j.molmet.2013.08.003
  3. Holt, S H et al. “A satiety index of common foods.” European journal of clinical nutrition vol. 49,9 (1995): 675-90.
    Trexler, Eric T et al. “Metabolic adaptation to weight loss: implications for the athlete.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition vol. 11,1 7. 27 Feb. 2014, doi:10.1186/1550-2783-11-7
  4. Tappy, L. “Thermic effect of food and sympathetic nervous system activity in humans.” Reproduction, nutrition, development vol. 36,4 (1996): 391-7. doi:10.1051/rnd:19960405
  5. Barr, Sadie B, and Jonathan C Wright. “Postprandial energy expenditure in whole-food and processed-food meals: implications for daily energy expenditure.” Food & nutrition research vol. 54 10.3402/fnr.v54i0.5144. 2 Jul. 2010, doi:10.3402/fnr.v54i0.5144
  6. Gardner, Christopher D et al. “Effect of Low-Fat vs Low-Carbohydrate Diet on 12-Month Weight Loss in Overweight Adults and the Association With Genotype Pattern or Insulin Secretion: The DIETFITS Randomized Clinical Trial.” JAMA vol. 319,7 (2018): 667-679. doi:10.1001/jama.2018.0245
  7. Schmid, Sebastian M et al. “A single night of sleep deprivation increases ghrelin levels and feelings of hunger in normal-weight healthy men.” Journal of sleep research vol. 17,3 (2008): 331-4. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2869.2008.00662.x
  8. Johnston, Bradley C et al. “Comparison of weight loss among named diet programs in overweight and obese adults: a meta-analysis.” JAMA vol. 312,9 (2014): 923-33. doi:10.1001/jama.2014.10397
  9. Leidy, H J et al. “Circulating ghrelin is sensitive to changes in body weight during a diet and exercise program in normal-weight young women.” The Journal of clinical endocrinology and metabolism vol. 89,6 (2004): 2659-64. doi:10.1210/jc.2003-031471

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