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7 Easy Ways to Get Your Appetite in Check

Believe it or not, hunger and appetite are not synonyms. In fact, they're entirely different processes.

Hunger refers to the physical need for food in response to chemical changes in the body related to low blood sugar. Appetite, on the other hand, is the desire to eat—often a conditioned response to seeing food that looks or smells tasty. While the former keeps us alive, the latter keeps us, well, fatter. It's appetite that keeps us coming back for seconds, and it's often what makes dieting so darn difficult. But you can suppress your appetite and harness your hunger to work for your weight loss efforts with these 7 weird and wonderful tips to master your munchies once and for all:

Cut Your Food into Smaller Pieces

If you're looking to cut down your appetite, you might start by cutting your food into smaller pieces. So suggests an Arizona State University study that showed increases in portion size often lead to increased intake. College kids who ate a whole bagel cut into small pieces ate 25 percent less at lunch afterwards than those who ate the same bagel whole. The phenomenon held true in animals as well. In the same study, researchers found that rats, when given the choice of a single large pellet or 30 small ones, favored–and ate less of–the smaller portions. Try the trick yourself to get more meal satisfaction from less food throughout the day.

Make a Fist

Ever want to eat so badly you could just break something? Channel that tension into your muscles and you may be able to fight off a food craving without the calories. A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found people who tightened their muscles, regardless of which ones—hand, finger, calf or biceps—while trying to exercise self-control were better able to resist temptations. Study authors explain the findings as an example of mind-muscle connection: simply engaging in bodily activities that require physical and mental strength—like flexing—can serve as a subconscious impetus to summon willpower. Show the fridge who's boss with a double-bicep pose, and get firm willpower from your firm muscles.

Play a Game

For those times you feel your appetite has control over you, game the system. A study in the journal Appetite found that playing video games—specifically Tetris, a popular tile-matching puzzle from the 80's—stimulates the brain's reward system and reduces the desire to eat. After just three minutes of gaming, participants saw a 24 percent reduction in the strength, vividness and intrusiveness of food cravings as compared to a control group left sitting in front of a blank screen (they were told the game system was experiencing technical difficulties). Study authors say playing visually-stimulating games, even in short bursts, distracts the brain from creating enticing images of food, without which the craving fades. So grab your video-game control, or even a deck of cards, to quash those pesky cravings once and for all. Game Over.

Fantastize About Feeling Full

Dieting often requires reducing portions down to sizes that leave us with an appetite for more food, but new research suggests portion control is all a matter of perception. A study in the International Journal of Obesity showed people were more satisfied for longer periods of time after drinking a fruit smoothie they were led to believe was larger than it actually was. Researchers first showed participants ingredients for the smoothie: half were shown a small piece of fruit while the other half were shown a larger portion. Participants were then asked to predict how satiating the smoothie would be, and then—after drinking it—rate their actual satiety level. Participants who were shown the larger portion of fruit reported significantly greater fullness both before and after drinking the smoothie. But here's the twist: both groups were actually given the same small portion. Study authors suggest the key to losing weight could be in manipulating our beliefs about how filling we think food will be before we eat it. Try the trick at home by using smaller plates and glasses that make your portions look more generous, and meditate on the memory of how content and satisfying a good meal can make you feel—before you take your first bite.

Add Some Spinach

You could shell out serious dollars on highly-processed appetite-suppressing supplements that have questionable long-term impacts on your health, or you could grab a bag of spinach and crush your food cravings naturally. Recent research suggests compounds in the leaf membranes called thylakoids may serve as a powerful appetite suppressant. The Swedish study, published in the journal Appetite, found that having a drink containing spinach thylakoids before breakfast could significantly reduce cravings and promote weight loss. On average, the women who took the spinach extract lost 5.5 pounds more than the placebo group over the course of three months. A cup of spinach has only 7 calories, so throw a handful or two in your smoothies, salads and stir-frys to fill up without filling out.

Phone a Friend

The one million-calorie-question is …. How do you trigger the release of the appetite-suppressing hormone Oxytocin? Phone a friend! No, really, phone a friend. Researchers say simply the sound of a loved one's voice can trigger the release of oxytocin, a hormone that helps regulate food intake and can suppress the appetite. According to a study in the journal Aging, daily injections of oxytocin, which is naturally released during times of bonding, reduced the amount of food animals consumed. This regimen also decreased abdominal fat and body weight during, and for nine days following the 17-day treatment. Better news: You don't need shots or a physical bond to trigger a boost. A recent study showed the sound of a loved one's verbal reassurances caused oxytocin to rise and cortisol—a stress hormone that increases appetite—to drop at the same rate as physical hugs and kisses. So phone a friend and fend off a snack-attack.

Have a Ruby Red Starter

Appetizers aren't just for special occasions. Studies suggest regularly preloading meals with a low-calorie, high-volume snack like a piece of whole fruit can help fill you up and reduce total calorie intake of the course of a meal by up to 20 percent. And grapefruit may be the smarter starter. In one six-week study, participants who ate grapefruit before every meal saw their waists shrink by up to an inch. Other research has shown the scent of grapefruit can "turn on" calorie-burning brown fat cells, enhancing the breakdown of fat while reducing appetite. Researchers attribute the results to the antioxidant-boosting effects of limonene and vitamin C in the grapefruit. So show your appetite the red light with a Ruby Red appetizer.

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