How a behavioural switch can help you stop eating

How a behavioural switch can help you stop eating

One of the reasons many of us eat more than we need is that we eat beyond the point of feeling full. It’s so easy to keep eating when the food is delicious but day-in, day-out this can lead to feeling out of control around food.

Learning how to stop eating when we’re just full means we can carry on eating the foods we love, just less of them at each meal. The beauty of learning how to do this means that you then get hungry by your next meal, which means it will taste delicious!

I’ve become very interested in how to help people learn to stop when they’ve had just enough food. Using the Appetite Pendulumâ while you’re eating can help gauge when to stop, and learning what animals do when they’ve had enough gives us a really helpful insight into how to stop.

When pigeons and rats finish a meal…

Back in the 1960s, scientists noticed that when animals stop feeding, they switch to doing something else. Rats move on to grooming and then resting. Pigeons have a drink, preen themselves and then fall asleep. The scientists called this pattern of behaviour the “Behavioural Satiety Sequence” (BSS). Satiety refers to the state of not wanting to eat after a meal. What fascinated the scientists is that the behavioural sequence shown by animals when they stopped feeding was highly predictable and consistent.

Research showed that the behavioural satiety sequence is triggered at a biological level by gut hormones such as cholecystokinin (CCK). As the gut registers fullness, biological signals tell the brain to move on to something else.


illustration from Spudeit et al (2013)

Why aren’t we like pigeons?

Some people do actually behave in the way pigeons, mice, rats and other animals do when they’ve eaten enough – spontaneously switching attention to doing something else. The rest of us don’t.

Those of us that are more likely to keep eating may have developed this habit for many reasons. Perhaps because we’re enjoying what we’re eating and want to max-out on the pleasure of this meal. Or maybe overeating helps us dampen down unpleasant feelings. These are both good reasons to keep eating, but if you end up feeling like you wish you hadn’t, I’ve got a suggestion that might help.

The animals as role models

I first read about the Behavioural Satiety Sequence whilst I was developing Appetite Retraining and was struck that this is what I needed myself at the end of a meal. Stopping at the point of being just full (+3 on the Appetite Pendulum) didn’t come easily to me, so I thought I could learn something from our furry friends.

I realised that if, before I started a meal, I planned exactly what I was going to do when I stopped eating, it would be easier to move away from the food and start doing something else. Experimenting with doing just this showed me that by switching my attention to a new behaviour (I chose doing a puzzle) stopped me thinking about the food. After half an hour of doing the puzzle I was able to just get on with my evening. Doing this day-in, day-out meant that it became a habit and stopping when I was just full became much easier.

Can we change to be more like the mouse?

Potentially yes – it will help you to stop eating when you’re just full if you plan out what you will do as soon as you stop eating. The key things this plan needs to achieve are

  1. To be something you can just go and do
  2. To capture your attention so your mind is now occupied with something non-food related
  3. To engage in a behaviour which is incompatible with eating (a ‘competitor’ behaviour)
  4. To last about 30 minutes by which time your brain will have registered more fullness (from the slower signals from your gut as your meal is digested) and you’ll have less desire to keep eating


How to create your own Behavioural Satiety Sequence

  • Your BSS should take you away from the kitchen – apart from making a hot drink if that’s part of your BSS – where you might be tempted to carry on eating
  • Your BSS should occupy your hands and mind and be something that absorbs your attention
  • Work out exactly what you are going to do (eg move away from the food, make a cup of tea, take it into the other room, sit in your comfy chair and start reading your book)
  • Set up anything you need in advance so you can move away from eating and begin your BSS easily. (put the tea-making stuff out ready and have your book waiting by your comfy chair)
  • Ideally your BSS will last for up to 30 minutes – until you no longer want to go back for more
  • It may help to include menthol mouthwash as part of your BSS as research shows that if you do this you are less likely to eat again soon

If you are a carer or have young children, 30 minutes of planned downtime may be complete pie-in-the-sky for you. In which case, would it be possible to re-jig your schedule to do a particular task (bath-time) or chore (ironing) straight after eating? This would give you a hands-and-mind activity away from food if it is do-able.

What about the washing up?

If you like the idea of creating your own BSS you may need to change your washing up routine, so you’re not surrounded by food whilst you’re trying to focus your attention away from eating. Perhaps you could do it a bit later on after you’ve spent 20 or 30 minutes on your BSS.

What else will help?

When you are eating your meal, focus on the tastes and textures of the food so that you really get to enjoy the pleasure of eating. You might find this gives you as much satisfaction as you used to get eating more without really noticing!

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Spudeit W.A. et al (2013) The behavioural satiety sequence in pigeons. Physiology and Behaviour, 122: 62-71



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