The Big New Diet Fad: Playing Mind Games With Your Stomach

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Who knows, that cake could contain hunger-fighting ingredients, right?

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Want to lose weight? Try playing mind games with your gut.

It turns out there’s a collection of nerve cells — as much as in a cat’s entire brain — that call the human digestive tract home. These cells, which make up the “gut brain,” communicate with the actual brain to signal hunger and fullness.

(More on TIME.com: See 10 new diet books for 2011)

So how does the brain know the stomach is full? Once food enters the stomach, the organ expands and the “gut brain” sends a message to the brain, which then triggers the release of peptides into the blood. The brain also gets an “I’m full” message if there’s too much fat in the ileum, the lower area of the small intestine.  Many food companies have tried to mimic the ileal “brake,” which tells the brain to stop eating, but these foods often taste bad and even cause nausea.

Nestle has developed a high-tech way to determine what tricks the “gut brain” to help people feel fuller, for longer. The Swiss company’s “digestion lab” features a model of the human gut that’s the size of a refrigerator. Researchers use the machine to observe how food moves through the digestive system.

But even if Nestle or another food company develops the miracle hunger-stopping food, the gut-brain connection isn’t the only thing that makes us feel hungry. Social cues like the time of day, psychological cues like stress or even the delicious smell of pizza can cause you to feel hungry. So if you’re looking to shed pounds, an old-fashioned diet might work a bit better than fooling an internal organ. (via Wall Street Journal)

(More on TIME.com: See Healthland’s guide to a healthy 2011)

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