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Early satiety is when you feel full after a few bites of food or before you finish a normal-sized meal. Early satiety is more common in women than men.
You may also feel nauseous and want to vomit while eating a meal. What makes a normal-sized meal depends on many factors, such as:
- what you’ve recently eaten
- how many meals you eat per day
Your activity level will also directly affect how many calories you need each day. In the case of early satiety, you may feel full after eating only a little of the recommended serving of calories.
Early satiety may seem like a minor problem, especially if you don’t have other symptoms. But ongoing early satiety can be unhealthy and lead to nutrient deficiency, starvation, and poor wound healing.
It can also be a sign of serious medical conditions, such as cancer, ulcers, and diabetes. Some of these conditions can lead to internal bleeding and low blood count if left untreated. Make an appointment with your doctor if you consistently feel full after eating only a little food.
In general, anything that impairs the emptying of your stomach can make you feel full quicker. This includes scarring or compression of your small intestine. Sometimes, readjusting your posture can help with feelings of early satiety.
Gastroparesis is the most common cause of early satiety. People with gastroparesis have early satiety because food stays in their stomachs longer than it should. Most of the time, the cause of gastroparesis is unknown.
According to the National Institutes of Health, diabetes is the most common known cause of gastroparesis. It can cause damage to the nerve that regulates stomach movement.
Other causes include:
If you have gastroparesis, you may have other symptoms that accompany early satiety, such as:
- stomach pain
- loss of appetite
It’s also common for people with gastroparesis to have feelings of anxiety and depression. This is because gastroparesis can interfere with their normal daily routine and cause discomfort.
Early satiety is also a common side effect of cancer treatments and cancer itself. According to the book “Nutrition and the Cancer Patient,” early satiety is one of the top 10 symptoms for cancer, although it’s not included in most symptom assessments.
Early satiety in people with cancer tends to accompany weight loss, anorexia, and taste changes. To a lesser extent, people who have early satiety and cancer may also experience varying degrees of tiredness, weakness, and dry mouth.
Irritable bowel syndrome
Another known cause of early satiety is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). IBS is a disorder that affects your large intestines, or colon, and causes abdominal pain. You may also feel:
- stomach cramping
The symptoms for IBS can change from time to time. The difference between IBS and mild bowel discomfort is that IBS is ongoing or reoccurring.
Other known causes
Make an appointment with the doctor if you feel like you have early satiety and show symptoms of:
- black, tarry stools
- stomach pain
- chest pain
- dry cough
- difficulty swallowing
- sore throat
- weight gain or loss
- abdominal distention, or swelled stomach
- difficulty breathing
- ankle swelling
A combination of these symptoms along with early satiety may mean you have:
- a stomach ulcer, which is a sore that develops on the lining of the stomach
- gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), where stomach acid flows back into the esophagus
- gastric outlet obstruction, where food can’t enter the small intestine
- constipation, or difficulty emptying bowels or hard stools
- ascites, which are an accumulation of fluid in the abdomen
- an enlarged liver
Make an appointment with your doctor if you consistently feel full after eating small amounts of food, even if you don’t have any other symptoms.
It may be a medical emergency if your early satiety is accompanied by:
- vomiting, with or without blood
- black, tarry stools
- abdominal pain
- chills and fever
Early satiety shares many similarities with other symptoms, such as bloating, abdominal distention, and loss of appetite. The process of finding out which condition is most likely the cause of your health concerns is called differential diagnosis.
To determine early satiety, your doctor will check your medical history, perform a physical exam, and order a blood test to check your blood count and blood sugar.
If you have other symptoms, they may also order the following:
- upper gastrointestinal series (UGI), to check for signs of gastroparesis through X-rays
- upper endoscopy, to closely examine your digestive tract through a small camera
- abdominal ultrasound, to make pictures of abdominal organs
- stool test, to check for intestinal bleeding
- gastric emptying scintigraphy, to track how quickly food empties into your intestines
- SmartPill, to see how quickly food travels through the digestive track
- gastric emptying breath test, to calculate how fast your stomach empties
The treatment of early satiety depends on the cause. Your doctor may suggest:
- eating more, smaller meals per day
- reducing fat and fiber intake, as they slow digestion
- consuming food in the form of liquid or puree
- taking appetite stimulants
- taking medication to relieve your stomach discomfort, such as metoclopramide, antiemetics, or erythromycin
Your doctor can also refer a dietitian who can help you make diet changes to meet your daily nutritional needs.
In more severe cases, your doctor may recommend procedures that require minor surgery, such as:
- gastric electrical stimulation, which sends electric pulses to the stomach to control nausea and vomiting
- feeding tubes, which go through your nose and down your stomach to carry liquid nutrition
- total parenteral nutrition (TPN), which is when a catheter is placed inside a vein in your chest to carry liquid nutrition
- jejunostomy, where a feeding tube bypasses the stomach to directly inject nutrients
- into a part of the small intestine called the jejunum, for extremely severe cases
Early satiety that’s ongoing or reoccurring can lead to insufficient calories and nutrients. When you eat too little, your body doesn’t get enough calories and nutrients. This includes, among others:
- vitamin B-12
- folic acid
Without enough calories and nutrients, you may experience:
- unintended weight loss
- muscle weakness
- low energy
- impaired brain and organ function
Not having enough of these nutrients can cause problems like anemia and osteoporosis, or weak bones.
To prevent a decreased quality of life due to these symptoms, it’s important to identify the underlying cause of early satiety. You may find it easier to consume more calories by pureeing your food into a soup or blending it into a smoothie.