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The Mental Voodoo You Can Use to Make Dieting Suck Less

Portion control is easier when you just remember one thing

Left to our own devices, we eat like rabid dogs, Hoovering up whatever food is on the plate in front of us until it’s gone. But a new study suggests there’s a much easier method to prevent gorging, and it doesn’t involve guesswork or complex meal preparation.

There’s a reason dieting is so difficult. The food system that keeps our stomachs full is hell-bent on fattening us up at every turn. By some estimates, portions have grown as much as 138 percent since the 1970s. In other words, a standard portion of French fries used to be around 200 calories; now it’s over 600. Bagels jumped from 3 inches to 6. Problem is, if the whole big stupid delicious bagel is right there in front of you, it’s pretty hard not to eat it.

As Marion Nestle, a nutrition expert and New York University professor, puts it, “The system is stacked against you, and it’s up to you to figure out how to cope with it.”

That’s where this mental strategy comes in. It’s almost too simple to be believed.

We just have to tell ourselves to think of the food we’re about to consume as bad for us. That way we don’t eat too much. Yes, the “trick” is to tell yourself that what you’re consuming will be shitty to your body.

That was the essence of a new study carried out in Germany at the University of Tübingen, the results of which were presented at a conference on ingestive behavior, Forbes reported. In the study, researchers asked three groups of people to have one of three conversations with themselves about the food they were about to consume. They could think about 1) how great the food would taste and how much they’d enjoy it; 2) how full it might keep them feeling; or 3) how this particular food would affect their health.

The results:

  • People who talked to themselves about the health impact of the food were successfully able to avoid overeating.
  • People who thought about staying full for a long time or how good the food would taste chowed down.

It was particularly hard for people whose brains were juiced up on how good the food was to reduce the amount they ate. Their brains actually lit up more thinking about it. But the folks who focused on how full they could stay had the worst luck.

There are lots of ways our brains can convince our bodies to eat less. They range from changing how we serve it to how we chew it. But the goal with each one is to trick our brains into believing we’re still eating like kings when really we’re subsisting on crumbs, so to speak.

For instance:

Use smaller dishes

One popular method of reducing portion gigantism is to simply serve ourselves food on smaller plates so we’re eating less but it looks like more. In one study, consumers ate 16 percent more cereal when it was served in a larger bowl — but they thought they’d eaten less.

Eat alone

Even though eating with other people is more fun, it’s also more likely to make us hefty. Studies show that eating with people who also overeat makes us overeat. We also eat more in groups than when we’re solo.

Eat pre-packaged portions

Another method to minimizing overeating has been the reduced-quantity approach: Either buy commercially divided-up 100-calorie packs, or pre-apportion the amount yourself. If you whip up a big pot of rice and then store it in smaller containers that fit your caloric needs, you’re less likely to consume too much in one sitting.

In one study, patients who ate prepackaged meals twice a day initially lost 8 percent of the weight compared to the control group, which lost only 6 percent. Three months later, 74 percent of those eating controlled amounts had dropped and maintained a 5 percent weight loss; just over half of the control group had the same result.

Don’t eat family-style

If you put a giant bowl of spaghetti on the table in front of you, reaching for a second helping is an almost automatic, reflexive act. But if you stick that pot of spaghetti back on the stove and force yourself to do a second-helping walk of shame back to it, you’re less likely to overfill the tank.

Only eat half the entree

Restaurant portions are so large now that even one entrée can exceed the entire day’s calories, and some 92 percent of restaurants are said to serve portions that qualify as too big. To remedy this, many people simply eat half of what’s on the plate and take the rest home for a second meal. A recent tabloid report claimed Nicole Kidman asks restaurants to serve her only half the entree portion, even if it’s a bowl of soup; she doesn’t bother taking the rest with her because it would be wasteful. (Kidman’s rep claimed this was absolutely not true and that Kidman just watches what she eats.)

Memorize “correct” portions

Memorize correct portion sizes by “ballparking” the correct amount of food for one sitting with its corresponding household object or common shape. Protein should be a deck of cards; dried fruit should fit in an Altoids tin.

Drink water

Some people swear by downing a glass of water about 30 minutes before you eat to trick your brain into feeling full. One study found that those who do this prior to all three squares a day lost about 10 pounds in 12 weeks.

Count your bites

Some nutrition experts say you can simply count the number of bites you have in a day and vow to cut it down by say, 20 to 30 percent. In one study, researchers found that those who did dropped about four pounds in a month, or a pound a week.

Another bite-counting method says whenever you’re indulging in something sweet or fattening, just limit your bites to three. (Whether you can toss it directly into the garbage and out of your sight after three bites is, of course, another matter.)

Don’t eat too fast

It takes a few minutes before your brain tells your body to cool its jets and stop the chomping. Experts say it’s somewhere between five and 20 minutes. What’s happening in that time is not necessarily that you’ve technically filled up the space in your stomach, although that’s part of it. It’s a combination: one, your brain recognizing that the stomach has expanded to accommodate something; and two, chemical messengers noting that the something is actual food. In response, the brain reduces the good vibes that come from rewarding your body, and in turn, reduces your feeling of hunger for a period. When your brain realizes this is happening, it also slows down the movement of the food for a minute so you stop eating. If it rushed everything through immediately, you’d never stop funneling.

This is why experts always tell us that eating too fast actually messes with our body’s ability to know when to stop, until it’s too late, we’ve eaten too much and we want to vomit and die.

Eat more filling things

This is also why experts say that what you put in your stomach will prevent you from overdoing it. If the food has protein, water and fiber in it, it will keep you feeling satiated for longer, making you less likely to overeat.

As Hilary Coller explains in this video, that only works for a few hours before it’s time for another meal, when “your gut and brain begin the conversation again.”

Now what?

Tell yourself this

Before your gut and brain act up, you need to step in and tell them something different. In effect, you need to remind yourself of how healthy the food you’re about to eat is (or isn’t) so you can avoid eating too much of it — as the study showed.

“This influence of pre-meal mindset on food choices may contribute to the vicious cycle we observe in obesity,” lead study author Stephanie Kullmann told Forbes. “Focusing on food for pleasure leads to bigger servings and increased brain responses to food reward, while the sensation of fullness is perceived as less satisfying.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean you couldn’t think about how good the food tastes or how long it might keep you full before eating, if you do so at the appropriate time. It seems best to use those conversations for when you’ve otherwise eaten well and are now treating yourself to something rare. No point in feeling guilty on a cheat day.

Or likewise, if you’re specifically eating foods that will really fill you up, like potatoes, and focusing on how long-lasting their positive effects will be, telling yourself this meal will keep you full until dinner time could really keep you from snacking again too soon.

It’s just that the rest of the time, it seems best to remind yourself that more is usually way too much more when it comes to portions, until it’s less because it makes you miserable and unhealthy. Unless of course the more is the sort of food you can’t eat too much of, like celery. In that case, maybe tell yourself you’re really eating pizza.