By Alice Lesch Kelly
March 04, 2010

We've all heard the phrase "emotional eating." It brings to mind the heartbroken woman working her way through an entire box of chocolates after being dumped, the homesick college student finishing off a large pizza, or the recently laid-off friend making her way to the bottom of a bag of sour cream and onion potato chips while trying to pay her bills. But most emotional eating takes place on a far more subtle scale-which may be the reason you can't drop those last 5, 10, or 25 pounds.

"About 75 percent of the people who come to see me for weight-loss advice eat to deal with their feelings," says Jane Jakubczak, R.D., the coordinator of nutrition services at the University of Maryland. "But because it's such an unconscious act, they often don't even realize they're doing it." For many of us, that mindless munching can sabotage even the best- laid healthy-eating plans. "In my experience, emotional eating is the top reason diets fail," says Linda Spangle, R.N., the author of 100 Days of Weight Loss. "You get into a pattern where every time you feel anything-sadness, loneliness, anxiety, boredom, even happiness-you turn to food."

While it isn't realistic to think you can banish every single emotional eating episode (sometimes a chocolate cupcake really can help turn a bad day around), it is possible to cut back on the behavior and ultimately avoid piling on pounds. But before you can do that, you need to understand why your emotions are making you indulge in the first place.

Keep reading to learn how to stop emotional eating

EMOTIONAL EATING: Searching for Comfort in all the Wrong Places

Most binges are connected with negative feelings-you're upset, anxious, or angry, so you divert your attention from whatever is causing you angst (your nagging mother-in- law, perhaps) by eating. "Food can act like a drug," says Geneen Roth, the author of Women, Food, and God. "It can take the edge off whatever is going on, similar to the way a drink does for alcoholics. People think to themselves, ‘I may be feeling upset, but at least I get to taste something good.' " Unfortunately, this tactic is a temporary fix at best. "After you're done eating, you still have to deal with the original problem," says Spangle. "It's like when a baby is crying because he needs a nap. If you feed him, he may stop screaming. But once you're done giving him his bottle, it won't take long before he realizes he's still tired and starts wailing again." On top of that, bingeing can actually make you feel worse in the long run. "Afterwards, you beat yourself up because you feel mad and guilty about what you just did," says Spangle. "And then you eat more to deal with that distress; it's a vicious cycle."

Keep reading to learn what you're really craving

EMOTIONAL EATING: What You're Really Craving

If we all soothed ourselves with crudités and fresh fruit, it wouldn't be so bad. But we're grabbing candy, cookies, macaroni and cheese, and french fries-and the reason comes down to biology. It turns out your body is hard- wired to make you pass right by the salad bar and head straight for the bakery aisle instead. "When we eat carbohydrates high in sugar or fat [like a brownie or cinnamon roll], our body releases the brain chemical dopamine," says Karen R. Koenig, the author of The Food & Feelings Workbook. "It stimulates the brain's pleasure center, so you'll want to keep eating to repeat the experience again and again." And if you aren't after carbs, you're probably craving sugar and fat- overconsumption of which ups other brain chemicals linked to pleasure and euphoria, according to a recent study from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. But while science shows why you crave certain types of food, the specific dishes you gravitate toward are often ones you associate with pleasurable memories. "Something fabulous was going on when you used to eat that food, and you want to replicate those happy times," says Roth. If you feasted on lasagna during fun meals as a child, for example, that's what you're apt to pile on your plate as an adult when you're looking to feel better. If your mom soothed you when you were upset with a big bowl of chocolate ice cream, a pint of Ben & Jerry's may very well be what you reach for when your job gets too stressful.

But you don't need to let biology and what happened to you as a child stand between you and a flat tummy. You can put a stop to your emotional eating patterns. The key is breaking up the automatic connection between food and mood, learning to identify when you're eating due to reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with your stomach, and retraining yourself to get pleasure from other things, like exercise and friendship.