By Hallie Levine Sklar
When Lisa Downs, 43, is in a good mood, she sits in front of the TV and munches on Lay's Potato Chips. When she's stressed at work, she gets relief from black jelly beans and Twizzlers, and when she's bored, she turns to Snickers bars or Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. So this past fall, when her husband was temporarily out of work, it was no surprise that she found comfort in food. "I would sit in my office thinking, How are we going to pay all our bills? while shoving cookies into my mouth," says Downs, an office manager in Greentown, IN. "Within four months, I had gained 35 pounds."
Downs — like many other women — was wrestling with a powerful opponent: emotional eating. An Internet survey of 17,000 failed dieters (almost 90 percent of whom were women) found that virtually all of them had relapsed because of emotional issues. These stats don't surprise Roger Gould, M.D., a UCLA psychiatrist who conducted the survey: "I often see clients who are committed to losing weight, but as soon as they get into a fight with their husband or have a bad day at work, they'll plow through a whole box of donuts. From a very young age, we're taught to use food as a psychological coping mechanism — it's a reward if we've done well, or a comfort if we've had a tough day."
Women are particularly susceptible because they're conditioned from childhood to suppress certain feelings, say experts. "Girls are often taught that it's bad to be sad, upset, or angry, so instead of vocalizing their emotions, they use food as a form of self soothing," explains Judith Matz, coauthor of The Diet Survivor's Handbook: 60 Lessons in Eating, Acceptance and Self-Care. Another problem: When women need comfort, they don't turn to healthy bites. Research shows that the top foods overeaten by females are ice cream, chocolate, and cookies. "These sweets temporarily raise your level of serotonin [a feel-good hormone] and lower the level of cortisol [a stress hormone]," explains Pamela Peeke, M.D., a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and author of Body for Life for Women.