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If you're trying to lose weight, here's good news: You can control your appetite and feel satisfied eating less food and fewer calories without feeling deprived. That's because appetite isn't governed only by the area of the brain that controls hunger and thirst.
"Appetite also is independently influenced by portion size, the sight of food and what the people around you are eating or ordering," says Gerard J. Musante, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and founder of Structure House, a residential weight-loss center in Durham, N.C.
How you feel also can impact your desire to eat. "Many of us misidentify emotions, such as stress and fatigue, and call them hunger," says Dr. Musante.
To take charge of your appetite, the first step is to take care of your physiological needs by fueling your body adequately.
"Structure your diet by eating three adequate meals a day and not eating between meals or after dinner," advises Dr. Musante. Consider measuring portion sizes for several weeks and keeping a food record so you know exactly how many calories you're consuming. After that, you should be able to eyeball portion sizes to gauge calories, though you may need to re-measure from time to time to make sure you're still on track.
"Go with the mind-set that those three meals are the only food your body physically needs and that any other time you want to eat isn't a hunger issue but something that relates to a personal relationship with food you've developed over a lifetime," he says.
If you feel hungry between those three meals, ask yourself: Do I feel stressed? Am I tired?
"Try to understand what your body is telling you," says Dr. Musante. Then, instead of heading to the cafeteria or the vending machine, meet the actual need by, for example, going for a walk around the block if you're feeling anxious.
In addition to this temptation-taming strategy, Dr. Musante suggests the following ways to manage your appetite if you're serious about losing weight and keeping it off.
When you're eating out with others, be the first to order so you're not swayed by what everyone else is choosing.
If everyone is in an indulgent mood and selecting the prime rib and twice-baked potatoes, for example, you're more apt to go with the flow. Conversely, if you set a healthier tone by ordering a salad and salmon for your entrée first, everyone else will likely follow.
Similarly, when you're eating out or at home, try to have your entire meal at once, rather than eating a first course, for example, followed by an entrée.
"Course eating can lead to consuming more calories than if you eat everything together," says Dr. Musante. "Seeing all the food together gives you a better appreciation of your food intake."
The mere sight of food, such as candy at the office, can stimulate your appetite and trigger unplanned eating. To protect yourself from the "see-food diet," minimize your contact with food. At work, store it in an enclosed area, such as your desk drawer, not out in the open. At home, keep chips and crackers hidden in a cabinet, rather than on the kitchen counter.
When you're at a party, you'll need strategies to help you avoid overeating since the food choices are likely to be high in calories and plentiful.
When there's food on a buffet, quickly formulate a game plan to manage your meal.
One strategy is to think of a structured meal you can eat instead of nibbling on everything.
In general, "the more you understand how and why you use food and your relationship with food, the more empowered you'll feel about controlling your appetite instead of letting it control you," says Dr. Musante.