Hunger is a fickle beast. Sometimes you can tame it with a light snack. Other times you’ll have to fork down several helpings before it settles down.
One thing’s clear: How hungry you feel—and how much you eat in response—depends on a lot more than what you swallow. Recent experiments have shown everything from the color of your plate to the TV program you watch during your meal can change the amount of food you consume.
Here are seven ways you can eat to rein in hunger and weight gain.
‘SLOW DOWN. CHEW YOUR FOOD’
That was Bill Murray’s advice to Dan Aykroyd in the first Ghostbusters film. And research backs up Dr. Venkman on this.
A study from Japan’s Osaka University found men who eat fast are nearly twice as likely to be overweight as guys who take their time at the dinner table.
It takes your stomach a few minutes to register the presence of food, and to send “stop eating” messages to your brain, the study authors say. (Those signals actually work both ways, but more on that in a minute.)
Slow down and give your tummy time to keep pace, and you’ll find you don’t need to clean your plate or go back for seconds in order to feel full, the study suggests.
TAKE SMALLER BITES
When forced to eat with tiny utensils, one group of people consumed about 30% less than others who ate with larger forks or spoons, found a study in PLOS ONE.
The study’s authors say taking smaller bites or sips of food slows down the pace of your meal. Again, the slower you eat, the less you eat.
Small utensils may also fool your brain into believing you’ve eaten more than you have. The more times you dip your fork or spoon and raise it to your mouth, the more likely your brain is to decide you’ve had enough, and to start sending “I’m full” messages to your stomach, the study suggests.
CHANGE THE CHANNEL
Anything that distracts you from your meal can cause you to keep eating even after you’re full. But action-packed movies or TV shows take the prize.
Compared to those watching a news program, people watching action-oriented TV ate nearly twice as much food before calling it quits, according to a study in JAMA Internal Medicine.
SERVE YOUR FOOD ON SMALL PLATES
Your mom probably told you to “clean your plate” when you were a kid. Even as adults, we tend to eat whatever’s in front of us—whether it’s a massive portion or a mite-sized one.
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania refer to this as “unit bias.” And they’ve found that by shrinking the size of the unit—that is, serving meals on smaller plates—people tend to feel just as full as they would have after eating a larger portion from a larger dish.
NEVER GRAB THE WHOLE BAG
Research from Cornell University shows people tend to eat less if they have to get up and refill their plates, as opposed to having more food on their dishes to begin with.
Another similar Cornell study found people ate 77% more if they were snacking from a whole package—compared to snacking from a plate that held just a fraction of the package.
This goes back to the “unit bias” thing. If you have a whole bag of chips or tub of ice cream in front of your face, it’s hard for your brain and stomach to decide when to stop. You’re always better off dishing out a small portion.
EAT WITH YOUR OFF HAND
A University of Southern California team found eating with your off hand—that is, your left if you’re a righty, or vice versa—can cut the amount of food you eat by 30%.
Because eating with your non-dominant hand requires more focus and effort, you’ll actually notice when you’re full—rather than mindlessly gobbling more food than you need to satisfy your hunger, the researchers say.
TAKE A WALK TO KILL CRAVINGS
Research from Austria’s University of Innsbruck found a brisk walk—just 5 to 15 minutes—can wipe out unhealthy food cravings.
Some specific gut hormones can spike your jonesing for junk food. And, unfortunately, a lot of stuff—including stress and a poor night’s sleep—can spike your levels of those hormones. But a little exercise has just the opposite effect, the Austrian researchers say.
So if you feel a sudden urge to hit the vending machine, spend a few minutes walking and making some work calls. Chances are good your craving will subside.