To shrink one’s stomach capacity and feel full faster, experts recommend eating small meals evenly spaced throughout the day and eating bulky foods such as salad, vegetable soup and fruit. Other recommendations include drinking water before and during a meal and eating smaller portions.

Reduce the size of your tummy, say diet experts, and you’ll eat less and drop unwanted pounds. Here’s how.

You’ve always loved to eat. But lately, your stomach seems to have turned into a bottomless pit. You’re even craving snacks between your snacks. Is it possible that your stomach has expanded? Yes, say experts. “The more you eat, the more you can eat–and the more you need to feel full,” says nutrition and diet therapist Jeremey Thacks, R.D. Like a rubber band, your stomach can expand or contract according to the amount of food you consume. The good news: In just one month’s time you can shrink your stomach–which will reduce the amount of food you feel comfortable eating at one sitting and help you shed pounds.

The Shape Your Stomach Is In

The connection between big appetites and big stomachs has long been acknowledged by obesity experts. In a study of 14 overweight people, Allan Geliebter, Ph.D., a psychologist and leading researcher in eating behavior at the Obesity Research Center of St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in New York City, inserted a balloon attached to a tube into each subject’s stomach, then filled the balloon with water to measure stomach capacity. Each person needed about tour cups to experience a feeling of being uncomfortably full. Geliebter then put everyone on a low-calorie diet for four weeks. When he measured stomach capacities again, he found that his subjects needed only about three cups to feel uncomfortably full–a 27 percent reduction and the same amount needed by people of normal weight.

If your stomach can shrink in just tour weeks, how long does it take for it to expand? Not long. Some experts say stomach shape changes after you’ve overeaten on a consistent basis for about two to four weeks. No, a onetime or even occasional pig-out on your favorite fried food or rich dessert won’t instantly make your stomach bigger, but it does make it easier to give in to temptation the next time. What’s more, people who report feeling hungrier the morning after just one binge aren’t imagining things. Your stomach may not be any bigger yet, but your appetite could be. Bottom line: Well before the end of two weeks’ time, you can raise the threshold of what your stomach will tolerate and what you need psychologically to feel full.

Certain bad eating habits are almost guaranteed to lead to overeating–and expanded stomachs. Lawrence Cheskin, M.D., a gastroenterologist who heads the Weight Management Center at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, singles out “restrained eating,”–purposely eating very little throughout the day, then gorging at one huge meal in the evening. Dieters think they’re saving on calories by skipping meals, but it rarely ends up that way. “Eating just one meal a day puts you in a semistarvation state that’s hard to maintain,” agrees eating-behavior expert John Foreyt, Ph.D., director of the Nutrition Research Center at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. “Eventually you start nibbling during the day, then gradually escalate. Meanwhile, you’ve gotten used to your big meal at night.”

Another all-too-common nighttime problem, according to Dr. Cheskin: using food to deal with stress. Many people regularly turn to fatty and sugary foods like a bowl of ice cream or a bag of cookies as a form of relaxation or reward for getting through a long, hard day. It’s better to find alternative ways to unwind when you get home, such as taking a warm bath, talking to’ a friend on the phone, walking the dog, enjoying a cup of tea–anything that will keep you from the fridge for awhile. Then, when you’re relaxed, you’ll be able to gauge how hungry you really are.

Making the Calories Work For You

It won’t happen overnight, but Geliebter’s research shows that you can control your food cravings and feel fuller on less. The experts’ tips:

*Eat smaller meals at evenly spaced intervals. The key to controlling appetite and shrinking your stomach is eating regularly timed, moderate-size meals. Both Dr. Cheskin and Geliebter advocate three meals plus two snacks a day, all of moderate proportion.

A sample day’s diet: one serving of oatmeal with one-half cup of low-fat milk, a piece of fruit or a six-ounce glass of juice, and a slice of toast with one teaspoon of butter or margarine for breakfast (about 500 calories); a midmorning snack of a banana or an apple (100 calories); a sandwich with three ounces of turkey, ham, or tuna with light mayo, lettuce, and tomato, along with a calorie-free soft drink or an eight-ounce glass of low-fat milk for lunch (400 to 500 calories): a mid-afternoon snack of two large rice cakes and a six-ounce glass of fruit juice, or two regular-size cookies and an eight-ounce glass of low-fat milk (200 calories); and a one-cup serving of pasta with tomato-based sauce and a two-cup serving of salad, or a four-ounce piece of broiled fish with a half cup of rice or potatoes and one cup of steamed vegetables, topped off with a half cup of sorbet or low-fat ice cream for dinner (500 to 600 calories).

* Eat something in the morning. Even if you’re not much of a breakfast eater, spooning down at least a small bowl of cereal and a glass of juice will help curb the desire to overeat later. Your mantra, says Dr. Cheskin, should be “Don’t skip meals!”

* Control your portions. It’s easier than you think if you use these simple but helpful tricks:

Buy smaller portions of food at the supermarket, then use smaller plates so the amount doesn’t look so small. It also helps to put down your fork between bites to give your stomach time to register that it’s full. Then, avoid temptation by putting leftovers out of sight as soon as you’re finished eating. In a restaurant, ask the waiter to take away your plate immediately, before you start nibbling on food you don’t want.

On special occasions that come with birthday cake or pizza, set a limit instead of depriving yourself. It may help to eat a low-calorie snack beforehand, such as a container of low-fat yogurt, a piece of fruit, or a bowl of cereal. And if you just can’t refuse dessert, share it, split it, or otherwise subdivide it. Savoring seven bites can be just as satisfying as gulping down 20.

* Bulk up. Bulkier foods, including those high in fiber, fill you up faster. Consider, for example, a fresh, crisp salad or a cup of vegetable soup to begin a meal or a piece of fresh fruit to finish it. Each item contains less than 200 calories.

* Drink water. Geliebter recommends drinking at least one glass of water (or calorie-free beverage) before a meal and one glass during the meal to help take the edge off your appetite and make you feel fuller on less.

* Tame your cravings. Foreyt says you should reduce your desire for high-fat and sugary foods rather than try to cut them out entirely. You can do this by gradually substituting healthier foods for fatty ones–a baked potato for french fries. grilled chicken for a breaded cutlet. As you adjust to healthier eating, the compulsion to pig-out on the higher-calorie stuff diminishes. Of course, you’ll feel deprived for awhile straight a week or two–but the feeling will pass.

* Fake it. While you’re in the process of changing your eating habits, you can make yourself appear slimmer. “Stand up straight–it’ll take off five pounds instantly,” suggests diet therapist Flipse. Wearing control-top pantyhose will make you look thinner and clue you in to when you’re overdoing it. Think of the pressure from that control panel as a gentle reminder to put the brakes on.

But shrinking your stomach is not a smoke-and-mirrors trick. “I was just grabbing anything and eating on the run,” says one woman, whose busy schedule–working as a legal secretary by day and a musician’s manager by night–had led to a 37-pound weight gain. She began eating smaller, more frequent lower-fat meals as well as exercising–and within four months dropped the unwanted pounds. “Now I pay attention to the feeling of fullness I get, and stop eating sooner,” she says. “Yet I enjoy what I eat as much as ever and don’t feel deprived.”

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