Ready, set, eat!


FILL up on the vegetables. Skip the pumpkin pie, or at least the whipped cream. Forgo the gravy; go really, really easy on the stuffing. And just say no to alcohol, because wine and liquor is not only calorie-laden, it's apt to set off a damn-the-torpedoes frenzy of feasting.

Such sensible advice is often repeated this time of year -- and if we actually followed it, there's little doubt it would help with weight-gain damage control during this season of endless treats.

But let's be realistic. Ask yourself: On Thursday, how likely are you to pile your 14-inch plate with roasted Brussels sprouts and salad, and take the mere, tiniest sliver of pie? Exercising moderation at Thanksgiving, with its groaning board of crispy-skinned meat, onion-sage stuffing, marshmallow- and brown-sugar-laden yams, home-stewed cranberries, and nuts and chocolates and other little crunchy things in platters all over the place, is a pretty tall order.

Maybe there's another way. Instead of practicing conscious, painful self-deprivation, what if one were to draw from the arcane experiments of appetite researchers, whose job it has been to find out what makes people unconsciously want to eat more -- or, for our purposes, less? We're talking crockery. Lighting. Sounds. The clothes you show up in at Aunt Millie's for the meal. Who shows up at Aunt Millie's for the meal. Set up these things just right and maybe you won't have to dwell on how much you're eating. In a sense, you'll have license to gorge -- the trick being you won't want to gorge quite as much.

By all means try the familiar, sage advice, but consider adding these quirkier tips from appetite experts to bolster your beat-the-bulge efforts.

Some disclaimers: These maneuvers aren't guaranteed to work, though all have some evidence to support them. Nor will they necessarily maximize your Thanksgiving enjoyment. Then again, is saying no to pie a barrel of laughs?

* Shrink your stomach. Starting today, try toning your stomach. No, not with crunches. It is, after all, a stretchy organ capable of impressive expansions and contractions (at rest it's the size of a fist, and expands to hold one or two liters when you eat or drink). Studies and anecdotal reports suggest that people who routinely consume large quantities of food have stomachs that can stretch tremendously: bulimics, binge eaters, people with blockages in food flow, individuals who indulge in the edgy, cult sport of speed-eating. Britain's Peter Dowdeswell, winner of dozens of world-eating records (1,300 baby eels in 13.7 seconds, 144 prunes in 24 seconds, to name a couple) once described the type of meal it took to satisfy him as 3 pounds of sausages, 5 pounds of mashed potatoes, half a cabbage, peas, gravy and (of course) dessert.

Turning the concept on its head, your aim this week is a stomach that stretches less. "You can shrink your stomach by only permitting a certain volume of food at each meal," says Dr. Joseph Risser, director of clinical research for Lindora Medical Clinics. Split your meals into smaller servings to be spread through the day, he suggests. If dining at a restaurant, "have them put aside half the meal before it's even served."

Three days of that kind of drill and your stomach may be in better shape to fight temptation on the big day.

* Fast before the feast. It's Thanksgiving morning. At this point, despite the fact that you'll be pigging at the trough later on, many dietitians and nutrition experts recommend a nice, sensible breakfast. Their reasoning: You won't be as ravenous, making it less likely that you'll go hog wild at the table. You also won't feel as though you've earned a license to indulge. Indeed, data from a registry of more than 5,000 men and women who've lost weight and managed to keep it off for years do show that most of them tend to eat breakfast.

But Thanksgiving is not like other days. More than any other, it is about eating food -- and the psychology of that fact cannot be overlooked. "Our hypothetical eater is going to overindulge anyway, so the presence or absence of the 'skipped breakfast' excuse is irrelevant," says Peter Herman, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. Plus, even if the eater's not very hungry because he or she had breakfast, the meal will come at the appointed hour no matter what, and he or she will eat -- no matter what.

There's evidence supporting the morning-fasting notion. In a yet-to-be-published study, nutrition and psychology professor David Levitsky of Cornell University deprived some undergraduate volunteers of breakfast and monitored how much they ate for the rest of the day. The findings: Skipping breakfast did lead to slightly more calorie consumption later on, compared with days when they ate a hearty breakfast -- but not enough to make up the difference. By day's end, the skippers had eaten about 400 fewer calories overall.

* Avoid Viagra. Put drug-assisted sex on hold for the afternoon. In a recent study, a dose of Viagra's active ingredient, sildenafil, increased stomach capacity by an average of 16%. That suggests the erectile dysfunction drug might double as a treatment for people with "impaired gastric accommodation," the study's Belgian authors concluded. In the study, volunteers who ate after popping the pill had greater gastric relaxation -- which affects how much food the organ can hold -- for at least an hour. They were also slower to notice their stomachs filling up than did people who popped a placebo.

Let the good times roll another day.

* Don't drink a river before you eat. A common recommendation is to fill up with glasses of water before you sit down for the feast. But Barbara Rolls, professor of nutritional sciences at Pennsylvania State University, has found that drinking water has no influence on food intake. (Eating foods that are high in water content is another matter.)

In fact, notes Risser, thirst could reduce your food intake. In studies, parched rats refuse their chow, while hydrated rats tuck in. In humans, military studies show that troops eat less than usual when they're just mildly dehydrated. "When climbers like me are thirsty, we have no appetite," Risser says. Coming to the Thanksgiving table a bit thirsty might have a similar effect.

Don't overdo it -- and don't cut out water during Thanksgiving dinner itself, though. Study subjects who were deprived of fluid during one meal ate just as much as those who were not -- and they consumed more lubricating, caloric condiments like mayonnaise.

* Select your company with care. Sure, you'll have more fun with the friends and relatives you adore -- but you'll eat more too. Really want to cut down on the stuffing? "Eat Thanksgiving alone," says Brian Wansink, author of "Mindless Eating" and director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, which is devoted to figuring out why, what and how much we eat.

He's kidding. But the science is inescapable: Most people eat less when they're alone. This phenomenon (called "social facilitation" by those in the know) has been carefully quantified by scientists, such as John De Castro of Texas' Sam Houston State University, who have gone to great lengths to get at the numbers -- spying on people in coffee shops and pubs and measuring ice cream consumed in labs when people eat alone or in crowds. The bottom line: The bigger the crowd, the longer you'll linger at the table and the more you'll consume. Eating with just one other person leads to a 35% greater intake in calories. Expand the group to seven or more and that number climbs to 76% or higher.