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09/16/2014 08:55 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

3 Little Changes That Seriously Curb Cravings

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Simple changes to your surroundings can short-circuit your cravings and help you eat less.

By Sanjay Gupta, MD

If you're like most people, you get out of bed the same way every morning, and the particulars of putting on clothes and taking your first sip of coffee are nearly robotic. You probably never give much thought to actions like these. That's the point. They're habits -- behaviors wired so deeply into your unconscious that they can be accomplished on cruise control, allowing your brain to focus on more important matters. Of course, this can become problematic when your brain automatically begins to expect a brownie every day at 4 P.M. But take heart: Research shows that even the most hardwired routines can be disrupted. And the fix is often as easy as changing your environment.

1. Declutter to Eat Better

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Researchers at the University of Minnesota suspected that an orderly lifestyle could result in healthier behaviors. To find out, they assigned 34 students to work in either a neat or untidy space. After ten minutes, the students were asked whether they wanted an apple or a piece of chocolate. Those who spent time in the organized room were more than three times likelier to pick the apple. If your desk reflects a sense of discipline, you may be more apt to show restraint in other areas of your life.

2. Try Traffic-Light Labeling

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Since you were young, you've been conditioned to know that red means stop and green means go. That association can come in handy when you're trying to lay off sweets. In 2010, scientists at Massachusetts General Hospital began labeling healthy foods in the cafeteria with green tags and placing them on shelves at eye level while giving unhealthy options red stickers and moving them to lower shelves. The result: After two years, purchases of red items dropped 20 percent; sales of green items jumped 12 percent.

3. Dim the Lights

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If you find yourself overindulging at mealtime, eating in more relaxed surroundings might help, according to one 2012 study. When researchers changed the lighting and music at a fast food restaurant in Illinois to create a finer dining experience, they discovered that people consumed 18 percent less when the lighting and ambience were softer, compared with those who ate in a harsher, brighter environment. Why? The calmer setting may encourage you to eat more slowly, thus better cluing you in to when you're truly full.

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