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Outwit Your Appetite

If you've ever polished off an entire bag of chips while watching a half-hour sitcom, or plowed through a pile or nachos before your entree arrived, you might think you have little control over your appetite. Yet research shows that the drive to eat doesn't have much to do with actual hunger. "Your appetite can be influenced by the mere sight of food, the portion sizes, and what the people around you are eating or ordering," says Gerard J. Musante, PhD, founder of Structure House, a weight-loss center in Durham, North Carolina. Those are just a few of the factors that cue you to eat when you didn't plan to or to overindulge when you only wanted a taste. Awareness is key to controlling your appetite. And our temptation-taming tactics can help.

By Sandra Gordon

Temptation Trigger: Generous-size plates, serving spoons, and glasses.

The bigger the plate and serving utensil, the more you'll dish out. In one study, people at an ice cream social who were given a large bowl and a 3-ounce scooper ate 53 percent more ice cream than those given a smaller bowl and a 2-ounce scooper. With beverages, research shows that people pour 28 percent more into short, wide glasses than into tall, skinny ones, says Brian Wansink, PhD, director of the food and brand lab at Cornell University.

Slimming Solution: Downsize plates and utensils.

If your dinner dishes are larger than the standard 10.5 inches, use a salad plate for your main dish. Try a tip from Asian cultures and artfully arrange what's on your plate. A small serving of sirloin, for example, will be less likely to leave you hungering for more if sliced and fanned on a pretty plate. Also, use smaller serving utensils, such as soup spoons, for doling out portions. Replace any squat tumblers with tall, slender drinking glasses.

Temptation Trigger: Too many choices.

If you always try to have something new for lunch and dinner, your meals are probably more of a calorie splurge than you realize. "A varied diet stimulates your appetite," says Hollie A. Raynor, PhD, RD, assistant professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. The more flavors, textures, and colors a particular meal offers and the less often you eat something, the more you'll be tempted to load up your plate because the food looks good or you're curious about how it will taste.

Slimming Solution: Downplay diversity.

Come up with a standard repertoire of meals. It's easy to get into the habit of having the same healthy breakfast (whole-grain cereal, skim milk, and fruit) five days a week, so why not do something similar with dinner? Raynor suggests rotating five or six of your favorite healthy core entrees. You can branch out one night a week, if you feel you need to. To beat boredom and boost your diet's overall nutrient content, vary the fruits and veggies you use in the repeat meals. Dessert can be the same small dish of low-fat yogurt every night, jazzed up with almonds, walnuts, strawberries, kiwi, fresh pineapple, or whatever's in season.

Temptation Trigger: Eating while doing anything else.

Most people are guilty of driving, watching TV, or reading while noshing on something. "When we multitask with food we consume more without realizing it and sacrifice a feeling of satisfaction," says Susan Albers, PsyD, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic Women's Health Center in Wooster, Ohio, and author of Eating Mindfully (New Harbinger Publications).

Slimming Solution: Make meals important.

"No matter how busy you are, find a distraction-free spot to sit and eat," suggests Albers. Make a habit of taking one mindful bite at the beginning of each meal and then putting your utensil down. This serves as a speed bump and slows the pace of the entire meal. For a similar effect, ditch your fork and knife for chopsticks, no matter what type of cuisine you're having. And if you can't avoid eating while doing something else, pre-portion your food and tell yourself, "No seconds."

Temptation Trigger: The food on the counter.

If you frequently cross paths with the office candy bowl, you probably realize that the mere sight of food can cause unplanned eating. In a study in which office workers kept Hershey's kisses in either see-through dishes or in opaque, lidded jars, those with the see-through dishes ate two more chocolates daily. That translates to 50 calories a day and an extra 5 pounds per year.

Slimming Solution: Stash food out of sight.

At home keep cereal, crackers, and cookies hidden in a top cabinet, and store extras in the basement or pantry. Research shows that people tend to put their inventory in visible areas and consume it quickly until it's depleted to manageable levels. At work, place treats in dark containers, preferably in a distant office refrigerator, not in your desk drawer. If the communal goodie jar resides on the desk of someone who sits nearby, offer to fill it—and then do so with treats you don't like.

Temptation Trigger: Entree envy.

"Research shows that you can be influenced by other people's food decisions," says Musante. When out to eat, if everyone orders cocktails, appetizers, and dessert, you're apt to go with the flow.

Slimming Solution: Be the first to order.

Speak up quickly and order a salad and grilled salmon. "You'll have a positive effect on what others choose—and will be less likely to see lots of tempting foods," says Musante. If everyone wants dessert, order one and split it.

Originally published in the January 2008 issue of Family Circle magazine.

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