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Emotional eating: The trick to staying slim

Your idea of a good time after a bad day is a scoop of dulce de leche ice cream piled high atop a fudge brownie. You’re digging in because each creamy mouthful makes you feel inexplicably happy. Is that really so bad?

Surprisingly, emotional eating doesn’t have to be a problem, says Dr. Michelle May, author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat.

"Trying to talk yourself out of getting a mood boost from food only sets you up for a bigger overeating problem—like bingeing," she says. You can comfort yourself with food and stay thin with these simple ground rules.

Why we snack our way happy
"We’re hardwired to eat for emotional reasons," May says. "From the moment you’re born and your mother holds you close to feed you, there’s an emotional connection between being fed and being loved. That’s why it’s counterproductive to say to people, ‘Just don’t do it.’"

The treats we crave most are packed with powerful natural chemicals that bring on pleasure.

Chocolate, for example, contains serotonin and another happy-making neurotransmitter, anandamide. And once that double-fudge brownie makes its way to your stomach, your body responds with a rush of endorphins, giving you a kind of snacker’s high.

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Emo-eat only what you love
Before you crack open the Ben & Jerry’s, though, do what May calls the "Four-Really Test": Ask yourself if you really, really, really, really want it. "Reach for something you don’t really want, and you’re likely to eat more of it because it isn’t satisfying," she says.

That’s the danger of answering a craving with a lighter version of what you want or with something else altogether. Not only does it defeat the purpose of giving yourself a gooey treat, but it sets you up for a pig-out. "If I’m not hungry, but I need a little pleasure in my life, isn’t it ridiculous to eat a rice cake?" May asks. "Not only do I not need that fuel, but it’s not even going to give me the pleasure."

Make it blow your mind
Step away from that laptop, TV, or iPad, so you can focus fully on the treat you want to eat. Here’s why: If you don’t take a moment to enjoy everything about it, "then the real reason you’re eating it won’t be served," May explains, and you’ll be more likely to give in to other high-calorie foods—not to mention more of them.

Don’t eat it on an empty stomach
"If you’ve had a good meal with protein, vegetables, and a healthy fat, your dessert has a better chance of being emotionally satisfying," says Julia Ross, director of the Recovery System Clinic in Mill Valley, Calif., and author of The Diet Cure. "But a lot of women skip meals to save calories and go straight to dessert, so their blood sugar spikes, then crashes, and they end up going back for seconds and thirds."

Going back for another and another also puts you scary-close to emotional eating’s danger zone: overeating. "There’s no harm in meeting any need with food—unless it becomes chronic or extreme," Ross says.

Bag the guilt
It’ll strip the pleasure right out of your splurge. "Nobody should feel guilty if they use food to celebrate or feel comfort," Ross says. Besides, hating yourself for loving that chocolate shake will only make you need another (high-calorie) mood boost. It comes down to this: When you eat to feel good, let yourself feel good. Then move on.