Updated: October 13, 2017

The chocolate chip cookie is in your hand. Your brain is shouting, "No! Put it down! Remember, you're trying to lose weight!" Your mouth is watering. Your hand is drawing the cookie closer to your lips. "Stop!" your brain pleads. "You've already had four of those. And before that, you finished off the leftover kung pao chicken and a buttered baguette the length of your arm. Put down that cookie!"

But you don't put it down. You finish eating the cookie, then tell your brain to shush as you scan the shelves of the fridge for a container of milk.

We're a nation of overeaters: Forty-one percent of us are overweight; 23 percent are obese. Just about all of us wish we could do a better job of listening to our brains when they tell us to stop eating. Despite our desire to be thinner and healthier, we shovel in everything from cheeseburgers to cheesecake. Why the heck can't we stop ourselves from stuffing our faces?

"We overeat because we're emotionally hungry," says Laurel Mellin, M.A., R.D., associate professor of family medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and author of The Pathway: Follow the Road to Health and Happiness (ReganBooks, 2003). That emotional hunger draws us into a cycle in which emotions -- such as stress, depression, boredom, fear, loneliness and emotional emptiness -- trigger overeating, which in turn triggers more stress, depression, boredom, fear, loneliness and emotional emptiness. And so the cycle continues.

How can we break the endless cycle of emotional eating? Dieting won't do it. What works is understanding why you overeat, then using the appropriate bust-the-cycle strategy to get your brain and your body on the same healthy path.

The following reasons for overeating and their solutions will help you break the harmful patterns standing between you and a slimmer, healthier body.

1. You overeat because of external cues.

You're watching TV, and along comes a commercial for Pizza Hut. All of a sudden, you're craving pizza. You're not hungry -- you finished dinner only an hour ago -- and yet you're feeling like you'd do anything for a slice of cheesy pizza. "Ads can make food look very, very good," says Kelly Brownell, Ph.D., director of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders and the author of Food Fight: The Inside Story of the Food Industry, America's Obesity Crisis & What We Can Do About It (Contemporary Books/McGraw-Hill, 2003). Because our bodies have evolved to survive food shortages by gobbling up lots of food when it is readily available, it really doesn't take much to trigger a binge -- even when we're not hungry.

Unfortunately, external cues to eat are all around us, from gas-station mini-marts to vending machines. Fast-food joints are open 24/7, and appeasing a craving is often as easy as a stroll to the corner convenience store, which used to sell staples like milk and bread but now offers everything from freshly baked oatmeal cookies to sizzling sausages. "Food is accessible as never before," Brownell says.

Bust-the-cycle solutions When something you see -- in an ad or at a store -- triggers an urge to eat, Brownell suggests you try one of these strategies:

Move. Go for a walk or a run, or jump rope for 60 seconds.

Ride it out. A craving is like a wave: It builds, crests, then fades away. If you don't eat, the intensity of your craving should subside.

Create a distraction. Call a friend, take a bath, read a book, listen to music.

Eat something other than the pizza. "Very often a small amount of healthful food -- a piece of fruit, for example -- can take away the pang," Brownell says.

Talk to yourself. Ask: Am I really hungry? Is it really good for me to eat this food? Is this really what I want?

Refer to your "action" list. When you discover a strategy that helps you cope with externally triggered eating, note it on a list, and refer to this list the next time you find cheese-filled-crust pizza irresistible.

2. You diet excessively (and deprive yourself).

"We have a false belief that dieting is an effective way to lose weight," says Wendy Oliver-Pyatt, M.D., a psychiatrist in Reno, Nev., and author of Fed Up! The Breakthrough Ten-Step, No-Diet Fitness Plan (Contemporary Books/McGraw-Hill, 2003). In fact, many of us overeat because we feel starved. We diet continuously, keeping our bodies in a near-constant state of hunger. When resolve gives way to intense hunger -- as it always does -- we stuff ourselves. Mortified with our weight gain, we turn back to dieting, and the cycle goes on.

Bust-the-cycle solutions

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.

Bust-the-cycle solutions

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.

Bust-the-cycle solutions

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.

Before you eat that pint of ice cream, ask: Is this really what I need? Will this make me feel better? Think about how you'll feel after you binge -- bloated, lethargic and ashamed. Is that how you want to feel? "Eventually you'll learn to say, 'I love myself too much to keep treating myself like this,' " McCubbrey says. Forgive yourself after a binge. "If you can forgive yourself," McCubbrey says, "you help break the cycle because you don't go on to the next binge." And you'll feel more free.

Keep your fingers on the pulse of your inner life frequently, says UC San Francisco's Mellin. Check in with yourself throughout the day. Ask yourself: How do I feel? (Angry? Sad? Exhausted? Happy?) What do I need? (A good cry? A long walk? A nap? A hug?) "When you become emotionally connected to yourself, you turn off your need to overeat," says Mellin.

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