How to break the cycle? First you have to pinpoint which feelings trigger overeating. To figure this out, create an "emotional eating record," suggests Edward Abramson, Ph.D., author of Body Intelligence. Take a three-by-five index card and write down four headings: TIME; LOCATION; FOOD; EMOTION OR THOUGHT. Put the card in your pocket so you can keep track of any unplanned snacks. After a few days, you'll be able to decipher which emotions and situations triggered eating binges.
"Most people fall into more than one category of emotional eating, indulging when they're happy as well as when they're stressed or depressed," says Abramson. Although you'd assume that most overeating is prompted by negative emotions, the reverse seems to be true. Brian Wansink, Ph.D., author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, surveyed more than 1,000 people and found that participants were most likely to turn to comfort foods when they were happy (86 percent) or when they wanted to reward themselves (74 percent), rather than when they were depressed (39 percent), bored (52 percent), or lonely (39 percent).
Here, four common emotions that drive women to overeat — and the strategies that can help you resist.
If you eat when you're happy
- Be creative. The next time something fabulous happens — you get promoted, or your daughter makes the soccer team — invent a new kind of feel-good ritual. Instead of treating yourself to a special dinner with your husband, take an afternoon off and spend it with him. To recognize your daughter's accomplishment, join her in an activity like skating or biking. Begin to retrain your brain to celebrate without food.
- Plan ahead. Developing a popcorn strategy, for example, could save you from eating an entire bag at the movies. "If you tell your husband beforehand, 'OK, I'm only going to have two handfuls,' you may actually limit yourself to that much," explains Abramson.
- Learn how to party. If there are hors d'oeuvres, choose two of your favorites (and yes, one should be a veggie). Then eat just those items. Research shows that people who rely on a few diet staples are more likely to keep weight off than those who vary their foods. To prevent mindless grazing, stay more than an arm's length away from any snack bowls. And if you get a good conversation going, put your plate down. "The more you focus on people, the more distracted you get, and the more you tend to eat," explains Wansink.