Medically reviewed by Saurabh Sethi, MD, MPH
Written by Jenna Fletcher
When a person eats, nerve receptors inside the stomach sense when the stomach is full. These receptors then send signals to the brain, which the brain interprets as a sensation of fullness. This process helps prevent overeating.
However, some people may feel full after consuming a very small amount of food. This is known as early satiety.
Over time, early satiety can lead to nutritional deficiencies and associated health complications.
Read on for more information about early satiety, including its symptoms, causes, and potential treatment options.
What is early satiety?
To maintain adequate nutrient levels, a person must consume an appropriate amount of calories per day. This amount varies according to:
- height and weight
- activity level
Early satiety occurs when a person cannot eat an adequately sized meal or feels full after only a few bites. In the short-term, this can lead to nausea and vomiting. In the long-term, a person may experience nutritional deficiencies and associated health complications.
The most common symptoms of early satiety include:
- an inability to consume a full, adequately sized meal
- feeling full after eating a very small amount of food
- nausea or vomiting while eating
If early satiety is due to an underlying medical condition, a person may experience additional symptoms. These symptoms will vary according to the condition.
In general, a person should talk to a doctor if early satiety is accompanied by any of the following symptoms:
- difficulty swallowing
- dry cough
- sore throat
- chest pain
- difficulty breathing
- stomach pain
- weight gain or loss
- black, tarry stool
- swollen ankles
- poor wound healing
There are many potential causes of early satiety. Some are relatively harmless, while others are much more serious.
According to the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, one of the most common causes of early satiety is gastroparesis. This condition causes the contents of the stomach to empty slowly into the small intestine.
People with gastroparesis may experience the following symptoms in addition to early satiety:
- pain in the stomach or abdomen
- loss of appetite
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), one of the primary causes of gastroparesis is diabetes. This is because diabetes can cause damage to the nerves that affect the stomach and how it functions.
Some other potential causes of early satiety include:
- stomach ulcers
- gastroesophageal reflux disease, wherein stomach acid goes up into the esophagus, or food pipe
- gastric outlet obstruction, wherein food cannot easily enter the small intestine
- irritable bowel syndrome
- enlarged liver
- fluid in the abdomen, or ascites
When diagnosing early satiety, healthcare providers must make sure that the symptoms are not due to another gastrointestinal issue.
To make an accurate diagnosis, a doctor will take the person’s medical history and conduct a physical examination. They may also order the following diagnostic tests to confirm the diagnosis, or to rule out other causes:
- Complete blood count: This is a blood test that helps identify internal bleeding.
- Stool test: This is a stool analysis that helps identify intestinal bleeding.
- Abdominal ultrasound: This is an imaging technique that uses sound waves to look for abnormalities within the stomach. -Upper gastrointestinal series: This is an imaging technique that uses X-rays to examine the gastrointestinal tract.
- Upper endoscopy: This is an imaging technique that uses a small camera to look inside the upper digestive tract.
- Gastric emptying breath test: This is a procedure that uses breath carbon dioxide levels to assess how quickly the stomach empties food.
- Gastric emptying scintigraphy: This procedure involves eating a meal containing a small amount of a radioactive substance. A scan then shows how quickly the food empties from the intestines.
- SmartPill: This is an ingestible capsule that measures pH levels, pressure, and temperature throughout the gastrointestinal system.
The treatment options for early satiety depend on its underlying cause.
However, some general treatments that a doctor may recommend include:
- eating several small meals throughout the day
- consuming pureed or liquid food
- consuming less fiber and fat
- taking medications to help alleviate stomach discomfort
- using appetite stimulants
Some causes of early satiety may require surgery. Depending on the type and severity of the underlying condition, a doctor may recommend one of the following procedures:
- Gastric electrical stimulation: This is a procedure that sends small pulses of electricity to the stomach to help prevent nausea or vomiting.
- Feeding tubes: These are tubes that go in through a person’s nose and down into the stomach. They allow liquid nutrition to bypass the esophagus.
- Total parenteral nutrition: This is a feeding method that uses a catheter to provide liquid nutrition directly to a vein in the chest.
- Jejunostomy: This is a feeding method that uses a feeding tube to deliver nutrients directly into a small part of the intestine.
Early satiety may be the result of a benign or serious condition. A person should see their doctor if they are frequently unable to eat a full meal, or if they feel full after only a few bites.
Prolonged cases of early satiety can cause problems such as malnutrition and starvation. They may also lead to other health complications associated with poor nutrition.
A healthcare provider will work to diagnose the cause of early satiety. Treating the underlying cause can help alleviate early satiety and prevent future episodes.