Suzanne Roach's father died in January, and she and her brothers cleaned out his house. It was an emotional time.
"I was getting up in the morning, and not eating, then hitting the house," the Clinton woman remembers.
She did eat each day when one of her brothers brought takeout from a fast-food place. She also ate on her way home, and more when she got there.
"My food intake was off the chart -- thousands of calories," she said. "I didn't even realize I was doing it."
She realizes it now.
"One of my brothers, who is also overweight, made a comment -- something about eating in stressful situations," she said. "It was like a light-bulb moment."
A few days later, she visited her doctor for a physical.
"I told her I was frustrated because I tried all the diets," Roach said, "I wanted to know why it wasn't working."
After asking some questions, the doctor referred her to a nutritionist.
"She had me keep a food diary for a two- or three-week period, and I had to write down when I ate, what I ate, where I was when I ate, and how I was feeling at the moment," Roach said. "It confirmed that I was an emotional eater."
She is far from alone.
"About 75 percent of the population overeats at one time or another, and it's usually caused by emotion, so they're eating in response to feelings instead of hunger," said Carolie Meccico, a certified eating disorder specialist and a licensed clinical social worker with a private practice in South Ogden.
Feeding with feeling
There are a lot of emotions associated with overeating.
"Happiness triggers overeating all the time," said Meccico. "We celebrate with food."
It can be a big problem during the holidays, when parties and traditions center around food, she said.
"Even the changing of the seasons can cause us to emotionally overeat, wanting more high-carb and comfort foods when it's cold and dark," Meccico said.
But happiness isn't what most people worry about with emotional overeating.
"When people talk about it, they're usually talking about negative emotions, and eating because they're sad, lonely or depressed," said Charlotte Scott, a registered dietitian with McKay-Dee Hospital.
That's the way it is with Roach.
"When I'm happy, it doesn't change my eating habits. It's not 'Oh, I'm happy -- I need a cupcake,' " she said. "It's 'I'm in a bad mood, and I should be going to aerobics or cleaning, but I'm going to sit down and eat this cupcake here in dark.' "
Occasional emotional overeating isn't cause for alarm. It is a problem when it happens regularly, causing weight gain and health problems, or when food is a crutch.
"We turn to food to heal our emotions and it can become a habit," said Meccico. "People turn to food instead of learning skills to resolve emotional issues."
It can start at a young age. "Many of us learn food means comfort, at least in the short term," said Meccico. "That's a learned, reinforced response -- we know that from the time we're a baby."
Becky Lindsay remembers when she was just 5 years old, and going to a salon to get her hair done.
"They told me to lean back, and I slammed my head against the sink. I was crying because my head hurt, and every single woman in there tried to give me something to shut me up, and it was all some kind of food," she said.
"The only legitimate reason to eat is biological," said Lindsay, who owns a Curves franchise in Clearfield, teaches water aerobics, and has a master's degree in counseling with an emphasis on behavioral modification. "We've learned to turn to food for emotional support, but the good news is, we can retrain our thought process to relearn and change our habits."
Most people discover they are emotional overeaters when they ask a doctor for diet pills, said Meccico. With some questions, the doctor may suspect some underlying issues and, as a result, refer the patient to a nutritionist or to a therapist.
"Diets don't work," Meccico said. "You have to change your relationship with food, and change your behavior and thoughts."
But emotional overeating should not be considered a mental illness or eating disorder, she said.
"It should not be confused with binge eating disorder, which is a serious mental illness," said Meccico, explaining that binge eating disorder involves compulsive, uncontrollable overeating.
"If you feel you're compelled, you might want to seek evaluation."
There are five areas Meccico explores with emotional overeaters: emotional (overeating in response to boredom, stress or loneliness); social (overeating in social settings such as parties); situational (overeating while watching television or at a buffet); intellectual (eating to escape negative thoughts such as low self-esteem, or making excuses like "I have no willpower" or "I have low blood-sugar"); and physiological (overeating because you're hungry from skipping a meal or are trying to cure a headache).
"You want to identify the triggers," said Meccico. Keeping a food diary can help identify patterns.
Roach looked at her patterns and decided to quit her book club, because the pressure to finish a book caused stress, so she'd wind up eating while reading. She also had to limit friendships that brought drama into her life.
Maintaining a food diary can help break the patterns.
Lindsay suggests writing in your food journal when you have the urge to overeat, but haven't done it yet, to think things through. Part of that is clearly identifying the feelings that trigger overeating.
"Anger can be a secondary emotion to hurt, disappointment or fear," she said. "Once you identify exactly what the emotion is, then you're on the right track."
Counseling, and a support system of family, physicians, dietitians or therapists may also be helpful.
Jessica Isaacson, of Clearfield, was diagnosed as an emotional overeater while still in high school.
"It's taken me a long time to realize how to overcome it," she said, noting that she's lost 65 pounds. "It's kind of like a no-brainer."
When she wants food, she listens to her body. "Am I really hungry, or just sad, or is something bugging me?" she asks herself.
If she's not hungry, she focuses on something else, such as crafting, exercise or genealogy.
Diversionary activities can help, said Meccico, and you should have a list of things to do until the urge to eat passes. She suggests reading a book, going for a walk, talking to a friend, listening to music, taking a bubble bath, anything else that you enjoy.
Roach is working on her diversion list for the holidays.
"With this being my first Christmas with both of my parents gone, I'm thinking about things to do," she said. "It's not about suppressing the emotions, but to be prepared for the fact that they're coming -- so how am I going to deal with them?"
YOU CAN'T EAT JUST ONE
What foods do you crave when you are in need of comfort? It may depend on your gender or age.
The No. 1 comfort food in America is potato chips. Ice cream is the second most-comforting food, followed in order, by cookies, candy, pizza and pasta, beef, fruits and vegetables, and soup.
Women put ice cream, chocolate and cookies at the top of their comfort food list. Men agree about the ice cream, but then turn to soup or pizza and pasta.
Young adults rate ice cream tops, while the middle-aged and elderly prefer warm foods for comfort.
People eating because they're happy prefer pizza or steak; sad people go for ice cream and cookies.
So who's eating all of the potato chips? It's the No. 1 snack of people who eat because they're bored.
Source: "Engineering Comfort Foods," by Brian Wansink and Cynthia Sangerman, published in American Demographics, July 2000. Available at http://foodpsychology.cornell.edu/pdf/engineeringcomfortfoods.pdf.