If you reach for food when you're depressed, anxious or nervous, you're not alone. These are among the many emotions that often lead people to overeat, medical experts say.
For years, Stephen Levine found comfort in food -- lots of food.
"It was my drug, it made me feel good," Levine said.
The connection was driven by emotions.
"When you're angry or sad or mad or glad, emotional eating is huge," he said.
But when the high of what he ate wore off, shame set in.
"Sometimes you're in a binge and when you stop, you feel the guilt and depression and the 'I shouldn't have,' and what do you do to turn it around," Levine said.
Dr. Lisa Stewart, a Mental Health Counselor for Memorial Healthcare's bariatric program, said the first challenge is making emotional overeaters aware of what they're doing.
"I've got clients who never feel bad. They're always happy, but they always stuff the emotion with the food before they even realize they're starting to feel an unpleasant emotion," Stewart said.
Keeping a food journal is key to identifying emotional eating triggers.
"If they're really ingrained in their habits the food logging and food journaling seems tedious, but it forces them to stop and think," she said.
Studies have shown that cortisol, a stress hormone, can create cravings for salty and sweet foods.
Simple carbohydrates stimulate production of serotonin, the body's own 'feel good' chemical.
The problem is these foods have little nutritional value, which only leads to more binge eating.
"Instead of feeling satisfied, feeling full, feeling we have our nutritional needs me, we continue to crave it," said Stewart.
Bariatric surgery helped Levinie lose weight and counseling helped him gain control of his emotional eating triggers.
"I tell my wife I used to live to eat, now I eat to live," he said.
Experts point out that exercise also releases feel good chemicals called endorphins.
"The fact is, replacing food with a brisk walk has a double benefit. You don't take the calories in to feel good, you burn them up, and feel good just the same," said Stewart.