By Kathy Smith
7 tips on what to do when food means more than energy to you

Sometimes eating is not about hunger. Mood eating is one of the most overwhelming issues for any weight-conscious person to deal with. Recently, while my daughters were away at camp and I was alone in the house, I found myself out of sheer boredom devouring chips with salsa, handfuls of fresh blueberries, Ben & Jerry's Chunky Monkey ice cream . . . and I even topped it off with some Fig Newtons! All in one sitting! I realized shortly afterwards unfortunately, when my stomachache kicked in that I had obviously eaten for reasons other than hunger. I didn't need the food for energy. I was simply lonely and missed my daughters.

It's difficult to avoid giving in to cravings or embarking on some serious mood-related eating when we we're not thinking about what we're doing or why. We often turn to comfort foods for reasons other than fuel. And distinguishing the physical need for foods from the emotional need, especially in the heat of the moment, can be one of the hardest things to do. We know how good we'll feel once we satisfy that craving. It's like our secret drug to temporary happiness, or in my case, filing the void of not having my daughters around. Boredom and loneliness, as well as anger, sadness, anxiety, frustration, and fatigue are extremely powerful emotions. Similarly, our body's own internal chemistry can emit extremely strong signals both before we eat, and then as a reaction to what we eat. They key is to strike a balance between knowing what you're eating and understanding how you're feeling.

How can you find this balance? Try keeping a food journal. You can take this to any level you wish and record as much information about how you feel both before and after a meal, and come to a clear understanding of the connection between food and mood. Try and see if, through the journaling, you can reach a point where you're no longer eating in response to negative feelings.

Other tips to controlling the food-mood connection:

Get your Z's. Inadequate sleep translates to less serotonin getting released in your brain, and to compensate, you'll easily gravitate to high-calorie, low-nutrient foods with sugar without even knowing it.

Know your triggers. If eating a bag of chips or bowl of cereal at 3:30 PM every day has become a ritual (including going for that creamy ice-blended designer coffee), you're not alone. Mood eating to a particular and regular pattern that is, eating the same thing at the same time of day, in the same place, and with the same emotions running through your head is very common. It can be the stress of the day that triggers your need to sit and pop M&Ms slowly, or it can be the sheer afternoon boredom that gives you the false reason to snack unnecessarily. Think about your daily eating rituals that are less related to hunger and more related to stress or boredom. See if you can become more conscious of what triggers this kind of eating and avoid it. Remove the ritualistic foods from your kitchen. Do something else, such as going for a walk, during the time when you're likely to respond to these triggers.

Start controlling your cravings and triggers in the grocery store. Think about your temptations while shopping for food, and never shop when you're feeling hungry or blue. You're more likely to pick up the wrong foods and wind up with a danger zone in your kitchen. If you simply don't buy them, they won't be lurking around at your next craving or ritualistic eating session. Avoid having an abundance of starchy, high-fat, high-calorie comfort foods in the house.

Drink a glass of water. Sometimes your body mistakes the feeling of dehydration for hunger.

Don't completely deprive yourself. Find healthier substitutes for what you're craving. Or allow yourself a small portion of the dessert that you are coveting so much. No food is totally bad. It's all in how much of it you eat.

Any here's my biggest piece of advice: When you're moody and looking for a distraction or pick-me-up in the kitchen, consider an exercise routine instead. A better, longer-lasting, and healthier way to feel better is by moving your body and getting that circulation going. Exercise stimulates the feel-better chemicals called endorphins and improves your mood naturally. And don't forget to record that activity once you're done, so you don't forget how great the exercise made you feel.