MealEnders Blog

10 Filling Low-Calorie Foods

By Tami Lyon, MPH, RD
December 10, 2018

Filling Low Calorie Foods

The holiday season is a time of gathering, celebrating, and sharing in an abundance of food. While all the festivities are definitely something to look forward to, they also leave many of us worried about seasonal weight gain. Luckily, we have a way for you to quite literally have your cake and eat it too. The trick is to eat plenty of filling low-calorie foods before indulging in the more decadent dishes. This allows you to enjoy the holiday celebrations without feeling deprived and sacrificing your health goals.

The Physiology of Satiety

Your body receives satiety signals in three different waves. Most immediately, a feeling of fullness occurs as your stomach expands and stretches, which pulls on the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve sends the signal to your brain that you are getting full.

The second, slightly slower wave involves the release of hormones. When food enters the small intestine, endocrine cells within the intestinal wall release GLP-1, PYY and CCK. These hormones signal satiety by telling the brain that there is food in the GI tract. Since they are only released once food has entered the small intestine and they must travel through the bloodstream before arriving at the brain, their action is much slower than that of the vagus nerve. It usually takes about 20 minutes after you start eating to feel the effects of these hormones. (This is where MealEnders comes in handy. The tingling center stimulates the trigeminal nerve in the mouth, which signals satiety prior to the release of these hormone). Yet these hormones function for hours, meaning they will effectively keep you feeling full long eating.

The final and slowest mechanism of satiety involves the hormones insulin, leptin, and ghrelin. Insulin is released from the pancreas in response to rising blood sugar levels. It subtly decreases hunger by signaling that there is currently plenty of fuel available for our cells. This is one of the reasons why carbohydrates are so satisfying in the short term. They cause a quick spike in blood sugar and therefore, a release in insulin. Unfortunately though, a carbohydrate rich meal that is too low in protein and fat will cause your blood sugar and insulin levels to spike and then rapidly drop, leaving you ravenous an hour or two later. Leptin is released from fat cells and signals satiety by indicating that we have adequate fat reserves. To illustrate this further, you may have noticed that if you overeat one day, you’ll be significantly less hungry the next. This is partially because even the slightest additional food intake will cause an increase in fat stores. The extra fat causes an increase in leptin, which results in a decreased in hunger the following day. On the flip side, you can thank leptin for making you feel ravenously hungry every time you start to lose weight. The loss of fat means less leptin, which means more hunger. Ghrelin is often considered the “hunger hormone.” It is released from the stomach as the stomach empties, signaling that it’s time to eat again. One of the keys to satiety in the long run is suppressing ghrelin levels. If ghrelin levels are high, your stomach will rumble, and staying away from food will be nearly impossible.

So now that we have an understanding of how satiety works, how can we use this knowledge to our advantage? By understanding how food affects these various mechanisms. Foods that keep you full contain a combination of bulk (fiber and water), protein, and fat.

Bulk (Fiber and Water)

Consuming foods that will stretch your stomach and stimulate the release of all the hormones above will help to increase satiety. Fiber and water create bulk, which will immediately help stretch the stomach and stimulate the vagus nerve. Fibrous foods are also harder to break down and will therefore stay in your stomach and small intestine for a longer period of time, stimulating a steady release of GLP-1, PYY, and CCK.


Protein is beneficial because, like fiber, it is more challenging to digest.  A meal that contains adequate protein will exit the stomach and small intestine more slowly. This effectively makes sure that the vagus nerve stays active and that the hormones GLP-1, PYY, and CCK continue to be released. Research has also indicated that protein is particularly effective at suppressing ghrelin, which, as mentioned previously, is a major player in hunger.


Last but not least, fat is an important component of meals because it also slows stomach emptying. This means greater stimulation of the vagus nerve and greater suppression of ghrelin. Consuming fat will slightly increase the body’s fat stores as well, which increases the levels of circulating leptin. Don’t worry, this increase in fat isn’t a bad thing. Every  time you eat your fat stores increase ever so slightly , but this added fat is used for energy in between meals and overnight as you sleep. Thus, this fat doesn’t ultimately cause weight gain. And remember, high levels of leptin correlate to a smaller appetite. You want a healthy dose of leptin to be circulating in your blood.

A simple way to think about all this is that bulk (fiber and water) helps you to feel full immediately, protein keeps you satiated for few hours, and fat keeps your overall hunger levels in check.

Below are a few low-calorie foods that in one of more ways will help keep you feeling totally satiated.


Cruciferous veggies (broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, radish, turnips, mustard, and cabbage), tomato, bell peppers, green beans, carrots, squash, eggplant, cucumber, and celery

Non-starchy vegetables are both extremely fibrous and filled with water. This means they are low in calories, but can fill you up pretty quickly. 1 cup of raw chopped broccoli contains only 31 calories! Compare that to 1 cup of sweet potato, a starchy veg, which contains 114 calories.

There are tons of winter recipes staring non-starchy veggies, making them an easy go-to during the holiday season. If cooking at home or planning your own dinner party, try making this Twice-Cooked Broccoli with Hazelnuts and Garlic, this Kale and Brussel Sprout Slaw, or try serving all your favorite veggies with various appetizer dips. If you can, avoid dips that contain cream cheese or sour cream.Instead, opt for dips that are bean and vegetable based. If you are craving something creamy, try replacing the sour cream with nonfat greek yogurt– you’ll get over twice the protein while avoiding the saturated fat.


Spinach, Kale, Collard Greens, Arugula, Swiss Chard, etc.

Leafy greens are another filling low-calorie food to load up on this winter. A type of non-starchy vegetable, they are rich in fiber and water. Additionally they are loaded with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Another advantage of eating leafy greens is that they are low in calorie, and when raw, they s can easily fill a plate. This tricks your brain into thinking you are consuming more calories, which  will help you feel satiated while eating less. . Just make sure you have a portion protein and fat with your salad. Leafy greens on their own will fill you up immediately, but it’s the protein and the fat that will keep you full over time.

Try this chicory and herb salad for a unique way to eat leafy greens.


Oranges, grapefruit, lemon, berries, apples, pears, and melon

By weight, melon, citrus fruits, berries, apples, and pears are mostly water. As we know, The higher the water content, the fuller we feel with fewer calories. The best part about fruit is that it’s convenient and can be eaten on the go. Try grabbing an apple on your way out to a  holiday party. This way, you won’t be starving when you arrive and will be less likely to overindulge.. Another fun way to take advantage of the satiating effect of apples is to substitute apple pie with some warm apple slices drizzled in almond butter and sprinkled with cinnamon and nutmeg.

Another great way to increase both your fruit and veggie intake is to start off the day with a smoothie. The best smoothies contain a serving of fruits (think 1 apple, 1 small banana, or ½ cup of berries), some veggies (the mild flavor of spinach makes it a great option), some protein (try adding yogurt, milk, or protein powder), and a little bit of fat (for example, a tablespoon of nut butter or 2% greek yogurt). This formula will allow you to get all the satiety triggering foods packed into one meal: fiber, water, protein and fat.


Soybeans, from which tofu is made, are low in fat and are one of the few plant foods that contain all 9 essential amino acids. Furthermore,  the process of making tofu concentrates protein, packing a large amount into a small portion. This makes tofu an exceptional source of high quality protein. 1 cup of firm tofu contains only 94 calories, about 10 grams of protein, and only 6 grams of fat (most of which is healthful polyunsaturated fat)! And as you remember, having enough protein in your meal is key to making sure adequate amounts of GLP-1, PYY, and CCK are released and that ghrelin is suppressed.

Another reason to add tofu into your diet is that it is incredibly versatile. In many dishes it can be used as a substitute for meat. For example, check out this Winter Veggies Casserole with Tofu Crumble.


Whole grains and legumes are higher in calories than veggies, but are still an important part of a filling, low-calorie diet. Whole grains and legumes contain tons of soluble fiber. Soluble fiber becomes gelatinous in your gut and slows the rate at which your stomach and small intestines empty. This allows you to feel full for longer. They are also fairly high in water when cooked, and therefore will fill you up more quickly. Legumes are also a great form of plant-based protein.

There are so many delicious whole grain and legume based recipes. Embracing these two foods will give you nearly endless opportunities to be creative and explore plant-based dishes. For example, try making a Lentil “Meatloaf” or this Farro Salad with Roasted Eggplant, Caramelized Onions, and Pine Nuts.


Fish and poultry generally are lower in saturated fat than red meat and are therefore, a great protein addition to  your meals. Fish is particularly beneficial because it is rich in healthful omega-3 fatty acids. This is especially true of fattier fish such as salmon and sardines.Don’t let the  fat scare you here– although saturated fats are something you want to limit, omega-3 fatty acids are a polyunsaturated fat (PUFA). Research has demonstrated that PUFAs have a wide number of health benefits. Most notably, they have a positive effect on cholesterol levels.

When preparing poultry opt for skinless cuts, except for on special occasions. The skin, although delicious, is full of saturated fat.


Eggs rank very high on the satiety index, a measure of the degree to which a certain food can satisfy hunger, and are another great way to add more protein into your diet. In fact, one study found that when participants consumed eggs for breakfast, they ate less over the next 36 hours, as compared to when they had a bagel for breakfast.

Another advantage of consuming eggs as a source of protein, is that egg dishes can easily be modified to be low in fat. Before you start living off of egg whites though, know that the yolk is a rich source of valuable vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Plus, the fat in the yolk will help keep you satiated.

In order to get the most bang for your buck when eating eggs, pair them with high fiber veggies. Try baked eggs on top a bed of veggies, top off a salad with a fried egg, or whip up some scrambled eggs with all your favorite veggies.


This filling low-calorie food is thicker and contains more protein than other forms of yogurt. As a result, it tends to be slightly more satiating. In fact, one study found that women who had greek yogurt containing 20 grams of protein as a snack in between lunch in dinner, were less hungry at their next meal than women who consumed the same number of calories in other forms of yogurt. Try having some yogurt for breakfast alongside fruit, blend it into soups for added creaminess, or use it as a substitute for sour cream.


Soup isn’t exactly a food group, but we are including it in our list nonetheless because of its ability to be enormously satiating. The high water content of soup will quickly make you feel full, while the fiber from the veggies will help keep you full for hours. Adding in some protein such as chicken or beans will increase the satiating effects even more. Even just starting your meal with soup can be of benefit if you are trying to monitor your total calorie intake. Research has found that consuming soup as a first course causes an overall decrease in calorie intake during that meal. Researchers found that chunky, textured soups are the most effective, but smooth ones work as well. Of course, just try to stay away from heavy cream-based soups

Need some inspiration? Check out this list of 17 veggie-filled soups and stews.


Tea is a great beverage  to add into your diet if want to decrease your calorie intake, while increasing your level of satiety. The warm liquid will help you feel full faster while the steeped tea leaves offer a whole host of health benefits. There is evidence to suggest that tea can boost your immune system, soothe digestion and aid in the reduction of cholesterol. Drink it directly before, after or during your meal for the greatest benefits.

As you can see, there are lots of ways to fill up on foods that are low in calories but highly satiating. This is good news because it will help you stick to your diet goals without getting bored or feeling deprived. It also almost guarantees that there will be something healthy to fill up on at every social event. Pick a few of the veggies from this list and keep them in mind throughout the holiday season. It might be a good idea to refer back to this page every now and then as well until you are skilled at recognizing filling low-calorie foods on your own.




Looking for a Low-Calorie Filling Treat?

Try MealEnders! MealEnders are sweet, only 15 calories per lozenge, and the tingling center helps you to feel satiated. They are the perfect way to have a treat without feeling any guilt. Plus, they won’t leave you craving more sweets after you finish!

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