Resolve never to "diet" again. Instead, learn to follow your body's own cues about when and how much to eat. Oliver-Pyatt recommends these steps:
Eat satisfying food. Instead of filling up on junk, eat healthful, nourishing foods that please your palate (e.g., whole grains, fruits, vegetables, peanut butter, nuts, yogurt). This leads to a more relaxed relationship with food and less bingeing.
Stop when you're full. Seems obvious, but most of us continue to eat even when we're full. Eat until your hunger is satisfied, not to clean your plate, please others or for emotional fulfillment. When you're physically satiated, you feel energized, not guilty and angry.
Trust your body's feedback. This isn't easy -- especially for lifelong dieters -- but with practice, you can learn to trust your body to tell you when it's hungry and when it's satisfied.
Don't go by the clock. Eat when you're hungry. Don't wait until your next meal -- by then you'll be ravenous. Likewise, if it's mealtime and you're not hungry, don't eat.
3. You eat to relieve stress.
When you experience stress, your body responds by unleashing the stress hormone cortisol. This is part of the "fight or flight" response, which occurs when you perceive danger -- so that your physical capability to defend yourself or flee is temporarily enhanced. However, when you have chronic, unrelieved, day-after-day stress, your body remains awash in cortisol, which causes you to eat as if you've just done battle with an enemy.
"The body assumes that with elevated levels of cortisol, physical activity will follow," says Pamela Peeke, M.D., M.P.H., assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland and author of Fight Fat After Forty (Penguin, 2001). The problem is, even if physical activity doesn't follow, you still want to eat as if it did. So if your stress comes in the form of a cranky comment from your boss rather than from an ambush in an alley, you still crave the fat and carbs that your body would have needed if you'd fought off an attacker. If you are chronically stressed, that means you're probably craving fat and carbohydrates frequently -- particularly in the afternoon and evenings, Peeke says, when stress eating tends to be especially bad.
Peeke recommends a four-step process to end the stress-overeating cycle:
Identify your stressors. Caregiving? A bitchy boss? A bad relationship that's going nowhere?
Be aware of when it's going to get ugly, and plan ahead, Peeke advises. If your stress-fueled food cravings generally hit at 3 p.m. on most days, for example, plan a preemptive strike at 2:45. Smear a tablespoon of peanut butter on some multigrain crackers, or throw some berries into yogurt and head off your craving before it hits.
Ask for help, find a new job, dump the bad-news boyfriend. Be proactive! If it's that stressful, do something about it.
Walk. Exercise helps diminish your body's stress reaction; even a five-minute walk can tame a cortisol rush.
4. You mistake emotional needs for physical hunger.
Difficult emotions cause pain, and pain sends many of us into the kitchen. "When we're dealing with a difficult emotion -- loneliness, anxiety, depression -- many of us turn to food for comfort and escape," says Dorie McCubbrey, Ph.D., L.P.C., of Boulder, Colo., author of How Much Does Your Soul Weigh? (HarperResource, 2003). "When the food is in your mouth, you've forgotten that emotional trigger. You've escaped into a fantasyland where the problem is gone. You don't want to come back, so you eat some more."
When you do come back to the real world, however, not only do you experience the original negative emotion, but you're also burdened with the self-loathing and guilt of being an emotional overeater. "It just keeps on going -- it feeds on itself," McCubbrey says.
Work on understanding the various emotions that are triggering your overeating:
After a binge, reflect on what contributed to it. Was it an argument with a friend or family member? Financial worries? Boredom? Spiritual emptiness?
Discover nonfood ways to cope. Write in a journal or discuss how you're feeling with a friend. Don't hesitate to seek the help of a therapist: "Undiagnosed depression is a major culprit in overeating," Oliver-Pyatt says.