Consider the woman who continuously sips Diet Coke at work, 11 cans a day. Or the man who always has an open bag of licorice nearby.
Whether the object of desire is cola or candy, chips or even carrot sticks, some people can't make it through their waking hours without a particular food or drink within reach. These perpetual grazers don't exactly qualify as addicts. But their habit often verges on unhealthy dependence. Take away their movable feast, and the party's over.
"Adjunctive behavior" is the term that psychologists use to describe a familiar, reassuring activity that accompanies another, usually mundane, task. These activities can range from cigarette smoking to picking at one's hair, but in a food-obsessed culture, all-day grazing happens to be one of the most common pastimes.
People bite and sip and chew in order to raise the pleasure -- or tamp down the tedium -- of desk work, long-distance driving, household chores and TV-watching.
"In order to increase the enjoyment of activity A, you add in activity B," says G. Alan Marlatt, director of Addictive Behaviors Research Center, at the University of Washington. "But after a while, the two activities get paired so often, it's like Pavlov's dog, who salivated every time the bell was rung. The routine task becomes more noxious without behavior B."
Adjunctive behaviors aren't addictions. In true addictions, people develop physical tolerance for a particular substance, requiring more each time to produce the same high. Addicts also feel withdrawal symptoms when their habit is interrupted. While caffeinated drinks can produce these effects, most adjunctive behaviors are not rooted in physical dependence. Rather, Mr. Marlatt says, "it's a habit-management issue."
Round-the-clock nibbling can also be a sign of psychological unease. "Food is a way of self-medicating, or providing a release valve for stress," says Linda Crawford, an eating-behavior specialist at Green Mountain at Fox Run, a residential health and weight-management center in Ludlow, Vt.
Some people rationalize the habit, insisting it calms them or keeps them focused. But the underlying impulse is rarely pragmatic. Repetitious motions of the mouth, such as chewing or crunching, are emotionally soothing -- watch any baby with a pacifier. Consuming the same thing every day feels safe and familiar. Filling the stomach can substitute for filling the heart or mind. Eating small quantities of the same food throughout the day also conveys a sense of control, albeit a false one.
Most all-day grazers would be surprised at how fierce their habit is, and how much it disrupts their lives. This is why both Mr. Marlatt and Ms. Crawford ask clients to fill out an extensive daily diary.
"Awareness is at least half of what's necessary to change these things," Mr. Marlatt says. By writing down each transient mood and activity, people discover subtle cues that trigger the habit, whether it's walking into the office or seeing a mouth-watering image on TV.
"People think they're hungry," Ms. Crawford says. "But they actually feel angry, anxious, overwhelmed, misunderstood."
After awareness comes action. Mr. Marlatt notes, "The real issue is: What can I do instead?" One solution is what he calls "urge surfing": "Think of the urge as a wave. Your job is to keep your balance and ride it. You have to accept urges and cravings, not try to get rid of them -- but not give in to them, either."
Substituting a short walk or a one-minute meditation can help change one's mood and ease the craving.
Another tactic is to turn each meal and snack into an independent, almost ceremonial, occasion. Place the food on a special plate. Eat slowly. Feel a sense of closure at the end. Continuous feeders "lose track of physiological hunger," Ms. Crawford notes. "If you talk to grazers, they'll say, 'I never eat.' It's because they never actually sit down to a meal. They never have a chance to think about it."