5 ways to outwit your appetite

Published: October, 2019

You may have good intentions to limit your portions, but what happens when your appetite or cravings kick in? Your appetite is influenced by more than hunger. It's also influenced by the sight of food, the ambience of the room, and what the people around you are eating. That's why it's important to pay attention to external cues that tend to trigger overeating—for example, the size of your dinner plates.

It's also helpful to pay attention to your body's internal cues. Do you eat when you're actually hungry, or when you're bored? Do you tend to stop as soon as you're satiated, or keep eating until your plate is clean? Your own body and emotional state will serve as a better guide than a calorie count. Notice whether you tend to eat more in response to stress, anxiety, or nervousness, and think about strategies to avoid overeating when those moods strike.

Here are some ways to counteract common eating cues:

Hide snack foods—or better yet, don't buy them. People joke about the "see food" diet—you see it, you eat it. But it's not really a joke. You do tend to eat more snack foods if you see them lying around. If you have snack foods, put them in the back of a drawer, where you won't be tempted by the sight of them.

Serve in the kitchen. To discourage second helpings, pre-serve your portions onto each plate in the kitchen rather than bringing serving bowls to the dining table. Keeping the remaining food off the table makes it less likely you'll reach for more.

Don't multitask. Keep meals free of distractions: don't drive, watch TV, read, check email, or engage in another activity while eating. All of these can result in mindless eating. Instead, find a quiet spot and just sit down and eat. Multi-tasking while eating makes it easy to consume more food without even realizing it—while you're reading or working on the computer, for example. In contrast, mindful eating—paying attention to what you're eating, while savoring the flavors, aromas, and texture of your food—can help you enjoy your meals more and eat less. (That goes for snacks, too.) If you're eating on your feet, you're not paying attention to your food.

Learn to distinguish hunger from cravings. Next time your body is calling out for chocolate or chips, ask yourself if you're truly hungry. Physical hunger has a variety of indicators, including fatigue, lightheadedness, or an emptiness you feel in the pit of your stomach. A craving is more likely to be a sense of discomfort or agitation in your mouth or your head. Hunger disappears with any food you eat, while a craving is satisfied only by the particular food you're longing for. If you've recently eaten—and especially if the urge is for a specific comfort food like ice cream—it's more likely to be a craving. If so, try distracting yourself. Go for a walk, call a friend, or put on some music and dance around the house. Most cravings go away in 15 or 20 minutes. Hunger doesn't. It only gets stronger.

Pace yourself. It's standard advice to chew slowly, so that you'll feel full after eating less food than if you ate quickly. Eating slowly doesn't always work, but when it does, the reason has as much to do with the brain as with the gut. Scientists have known for some time that the fullness of your stomach is only part of what makes you feel satisfied after a meal; the brain must also receive a series of signals from digestive hormones secreted by the gastrointestinal tract. The complex signals that control appetite are only partially understood, but by eating too quickly, you might not give this intricate hormonal cross-talk system enough time to work.

To learn how to create week-by-week action plans, and to get our weight control tips and recipes, buy the 6-Week Plan for Healthy Eating, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.

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