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When you come home from work, collapse on the couch and into a bag of chips, you are likely feeding more than your appetite.

It's the same as when you're going through a breakup and you must have chocolate. Or when you polish off a carton of ice cream because you've had a stressful day.

It's called emotional eating and happens when we eat to feed our feelings instead of our bellies. We all do it, says dietician and health educator Nora Bulloch.

So what's the problem?

First off, if we eat when we're not really physically hungry, we're consuming extra calories that will be stored as fat. Even feel-better comfort food can be too much of a good thing if we binge on it. And all that leads to more health problems.

Emotional eating is to blame for 70 percent of overeating that leads to obesity and eating disorders, said Bulloch, who discusses emotional eating in her weight control classes at the Northern California Center for Well Being in Santa Rosa.

Blame it on our parents, ancestors, advertising and hormones.

It starts early, said therapist Ellen Breisacher. "Eating when we're sad, upset, lonely starts when we're children. Don't cry. Have a cookie."

But even before that, "our old dinosaur brains were constantly triggering us to eat," said Bulloch.

"An increased appetite is a survival mechanism," she said. "Our ancestors needed to be reminded to eat. If they didn't eat they would die."

When they were running from a tiger, their stress levels went up, which increased the cortisol hormone, which triggers appetite, said Bulloch. She added that while modern people don't have tigers, we do have stressors that make us suddenly need to eat.

We also have commercials that constantly remind us that happiness is a warm cinnamon bun.

In some ways, it's natural that we go for the sugary, fatty stuff to boost our spirits, said Bulloch.

There's some evidence, she said, that sweets raise serotonin, the happy hormone, and that saturated fats raise levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain's reward and pleasure centers.

A big problem with emotional eating is there is nothing telling you when to stop.

"When you're eating because you're hungry, you know when you're full," said Kevin Tripp of Santa Rosa. "But when you're feeding the stress, there's always room for more. And when you're done, you just feel awful."

There are other differences. Physical hunger comes on gradually; emotional hunger hits suddenly.

Physical hunger can be satisfied by different foods. Emotional hunger demands a certain food. And it's not always junk food.

Christy Watson of Sebastopol said, "I don't always binge on bad food." In fact, her favorite feel-good food is granola. Several bowls.

She's learning how to identify "when the hunger is in my head or in my stomach." In the past, when she felt upset she might "normally stomp into the kitchen to feel better," but now she "goes somewhere and breathes."

She's also making sure her 4-year-old son learns a healthy approach to eating.

"We don't use food as a bribe. Or as a treat," she said.

Tripp, a hospice chaplain, knows his emotional eating is tied to stress. His challenge is to "be more mindful of my stressors and their affects" before impulsively pulling into a McDonald's for a burger and fries.

Santa Rosa therapist Breisacher said emotional eating is "often what we use to cover, mask or avoid emotions or difficult situations. It might come from a loss, grief, anger, frustration, hurt or rejection. The eating becomes a substitute for feeling and a way to avoid or deal with stress.

"The problem is that it really doesn't fill the hole for more than a fairly brief moment and then the feelings are still present."

Distraction is one solution. Bulloch urges emotional eaters to come up with enjoyable activities to combat the mindless munching. Go for a walk, read, garden, play with the dog, take a bath, call a friend.

And be kind to yourself if you do succumb.

"Just because you had chocolate cake isn't bad," said Bulloch. "Instead of beating yourself up, better to say, that's okay. I don't eat chocolate cake every day. Tomorrow I won't.

"Feeling crummy about yourself can reduce any motivation to change behavior." And then, discouraged, you eat.

No one's perfect, said Bulloch, who admits to lusting for a certain brand of vanilla cookies when she's feeling overwrought.

Susan Swartz is a freelance writer and author based in Sonoma County. Contact her at susan@juicytomatoes.com.