Many of us have, at one time or another, eaten beyond our hunger—and I don't just mean at Thanksgiving. Millions of people regularly turn to food during times of stress, sadness, anger or frustration. They eat in response to their emotions instead of their appetites. And once they get used to dealing with their feelings in this way, they find it almost impossible to remember what true hunger feels like.

In fact, I've found that only about one in ten emotional eaters succeeds in changing his or her behavior for longer than five years. The problem is that those who eat (or deprive themselves) in response to external circumstances think they just need to be (or are being) more disciplined, better organized and so on. They may not realize that to break their self-destructive habit, they need to be aware of more than what they put in their mouths. They must also figure out why they're choosing to eat at those particular moments. Otherwise, every time they're faced with a stressful situation or feel unfulfilled, they'll find their resolve weakening and turn to their best friend: food.

When I first meet with a client who appears to have some issues with food, I ask her to draw a circle with eight slices—a pie chart. I tell her to write the name of an important area of her life in each segment. To get her started, I reel off a few examples such as health and fitness, family, friends, career, spirituality. Then I ask her to cross off the areas she feels are going pretty well. That's a big key for me. The slices that aren't crossed off represent the parts of her life in which she might be feeling unfulfilled—I call this dissatisfaction or emptiness the void. And no matter how much fried chicken and how many hot-fudge sundaes a person gulps down, food won't fill the void.

I'm not saying we shouldn't enjoy eating (though emotional eaters rarely do). We are really off track if we try to minimize how important food is in our lives. A meal can represent a joyful social gathering, a source of energy and nutrition, or a truly sensuous experience. Overcoming emotional eating isn't about depriving yourself; it's about comforting yourself in a way that helps relieve the real problem.

Next: O readers share their food issues


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