Nothing cures depression like a pint of mocha almond fudge ice cream.
If you believe that even though you know better, count yourself among the emotional eaters -- in other words, just about everybody at one time or other.
Jumping up to get a candy bar from the machine when you are bored at work falls into the same category. So does celebrating a promotion with a big steak dinner. Most often, though, people use food to cope with negative emotions such as loneliness, stress, sadness, anxiety and anger. To make matters worse, they follow the ice cream, candy bar or steak dinner with a large helping of guilt and self-reproach.
Geneen Roth, author of When Food Is Love (Plume, 1992, $15) and other books on emotional eating, defines it as eating when you aren't hungry and not stopping when you have had enough. That's simplistic but useful. Some of us eat for other reasons -- because it's time to feed the family, or in response to an external cue such as the smell of hot popcorn at the movies. But her point is that very few people think of food simply as fuel for the body. They are responding to patterns, researchers believe, that may be set up as early as infancy when a mother nurses a fussy baby or when a child gets a cookie as a reward for good behavior.
"When people eat for emotional reasons," Roth says, "it's usually a sign that something else is going on. They are using food basically as the drug of choice."
Kathryn Katz, a school nurse in her 50s who lives in Hampden, spent a large part of last winter driving to and from upstate New York to visit her mother, whose health was deteriorating.
"Every time I went up I would start eating more the week before," she says, "in anticipation of having to make the five-hour drive in the snow that I knew would be stressful. I would eat more at school and at night. I would snack. I would eat more sweets and carbos."
Two things, she says, helped her get through a difficult time. She kept her exercise level up, and even though she was snacking on foods that weren't good for her, she also ate plenty of healthful foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables.
Eventually her mother moved south into an assisted-living facility near Katz's brother. Since then, and without dieting, Katz has gradually lost the weight she gained.
Perhaps most important, Katz says, she realized "there are events in our lives we can't control. I didn't beat myself up about how I dealt with it."
But the problem for most of us isn't the occasional crisis that triggers unhealthy eating patterns. Some people graze at night because there's nothing much on TV. Others overeat because they are feeling lonely. They use food, says Elizabeth Josefsberg of Weight Watchers, as "a quick emotional fix."
"Emotional eating is a tough one," she says, "because it becomes a behavior we don't even notice. Addressing it is one of the largest keys to sustaining weight loss."
She recommends "journaling" food, keeping a record of when you eat when you aren't hungry. It's a good way to recognize behavior patterns of which you might not even be conscious. If you find you look forward to food as a reward for a long day at work, for instance, try a luxurious bath instead.
"Of course," Josefsberg says, "taking a bath will take longer. Food is so simple."
At the very least, she says, wait 10 minutes each time you are about to eat. "Do something else. Make a phone call to a friend. If you're still thinking about food, maybe you really are hungry."
Karen Codd, 25, readily acknowledges that she's an emotional eater. She knows that almost anything can trigger food cravings -- boy troubles, depression and especially boredom. "When I have a job where I'm doing things, I can go for hours without feeling a hunger pang," she says. "But when I'm just sitting..."
Codd, who lives in Mount Vernon and works as a massage therapist and a receptionist, says she tries to "satisfy her jaw" with water or crushed ice when she's bored and gets the munchies, although she craves crunchy foods such as peanuts.
"When I'm bored I'll eat anything," she says. "I try to use mind over matter. You have to learn to decipher true hunger from emotional hunger. You can't feed emotions. You have to deal with them in a different way."
Edward Abramson, a clinical psychologist and author of Body Intelligence (McGraw-Hill, 2005, $21.95), tells his patients that if they have a boring task, to do it in an environment that doesn't have food. Take the ironing to the garage if you have to, he says. "If they were really engaged in what they had to do, probably the urge to nibble would be less."
Abramson's book is about how to lose weight without dieting. "Unfortunately we focus so much on what diet to use like Atkins or South Beach and what special food to eat, but virtually no time on how we're using food," he says. "Until we get a handle on that, we won't have much luck in losing weight."
He suggests people figure out what kind of emotional eater they are -- bored eater but not angry eater? -- and then they can concentrate on specifics. Anxious eaters can learn relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises. Depressed eaters could try going for a walk.
"Exercise seems to lift the mood," he says. "It doesn't have to be strenuous."
Emotional eating is a continuum. It's not a matter of people with serious eating disorders and everybody else. Some people are like Codd. They don't have a weight problem but snack or graze more than they want to and sometimes indulge in a favorite food for the wrong reasons. Some struggle to lose a few extra pounds, or keep them off when they do, because they are so focused on food. At the other end of the continuum are people with serious eating disorders such as anorexia, binge eating and bulimia.
Somewhere in between are the "vast numbers" of those with subclinical eating disorders, according to the nonprofit Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders Inc. Web site. Their preoccupation with food and weight isn't exactly healthy, but they don't have a diagnosed eating disorder. This is a group that has been getting a lot of attention recently, says Dr. Harry Brandt, director of the Center for Eating Disorders at the Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital in Towson.
You can't always judge how serious someone's eating problems are by how he or she looks. Brandt says he sees some patients with eating disorders whose weight is in the normal range.
"Anyone who is uncomfortable with their eating behavior should consider seeking help," he says. This might be, for instance, someone who feels as if he has lost control of his overeating.
If you are constantly thinking about food, fantasizing about food and talking about food, consider it a warning sign. "It suggests some unresolved issue."
Some professionals who deal with emotional eating (Brandt and Roth are among them) believe that dieting creates its own problems because it sets up cravings. But the reality is that people are going to diet, and they want help in changing their behavior.
Roth suggests the best way to deal with emotional eating is not to make extreme decisions that can't be maintained. ("I'm not going to eat any bread or chocolate until I lose 20 pounds.") She's counseled hundreds of people, she says, and has never found that a harsh, self-depriving attitude worked for anyone.
"I'm a great proponent of having what the Zen teachers call the 'beginner's mind,' " she says -- approaching emotional eating with "kindness and curiosity."
"Ask yourself, 'Why would I do this?' " she says. "I'm done with the ice cream, and I'm still depressed." (See box for more specific tips.)
The good news is that you can be an emotional eater, and not let it sabotage your efforts to stay healthy and happy.
Bernard Holnaider, a 37-year-old architect who lives in Bolton Hill, spends a lot of time working on the computer -- and snacking. "It's a comfort thing," he says. He knows he's going to eat, so he tries to bring healthful foods to work. "If it's there, I'll eat it. I keep yogurt, fruit and cheese on hand or I'll attack other things."
He understands that he's eating for emotional reasons, but he tries to do it in a reasonable way. "I've learned: Don't eat chips out of a bag," he says. "I take two handfuls and put it away. I try to use calories on things I like -- ice cream, but not sodas. It's just a balance. Don't deprive yourself of the things you really like."
Author Geneen Roth has these seven suggestions to combat unhealthy emotional eating:
Eat when you are hungry.
Eat sitting down in a calm environment. The car doesn't count.
Eat without distractions such as TV or music.
Eat until your body is satisfied.
Eat what your body wants, not your mind. (Ask yourself if you feel better or worse after eating whatever it is.)
Eat with pleasure.
Eat with the intention of being in full view of others. In other words, no "sneaky" eating.