Q I have gained about ten pounds in the last few months, without much change in my lifestyle. I have noticed that I am snacking more often and wanting to eat more food later into the night. It’s not that I am necessarily hungry. However, I feel like I could keep eating for hours if I let myself. It doesn’t seem normal to me. I just keep opening the refrigerator and pantry looking for something to chew. How can I stop this?

A The first step is to see what in your life has changed in the last few months? Has the stress increased? Is there a major change in your relationship or family set-up? Have you moved or have there been money or health changes that are scary or difficult to cope with? Any kind of major change will often destabilize hunger and eating patterns. Increase or decrease in movement or exercise will also change metabolism and therefore interest in eating. Start to bring awareness to what you are feeling when you are in front of the fridge or cupboard. Take a moment, breathe and sense your body and feel your emotions. This is actually more challenging than it sounds because it is a practice that is essentially asking you to stop and feel what you are probably avoiding through eating and binging.

Food is a powerful substance. Like a drug, it alters our mood, but it also has life-long associations of nurturing and soothing. Most of us can recall times when we were upset and our parents gave us something to eat. We also saw adults drink and eat as a way to socialize and deal with difficult news.

For some people food is safe sex. Many people start to get a bit lonely, bored and even down or depressed in the evenings and before bed. Food can soothe and settle people temporarily.

Of course we all know about comfort foods such as khichdi, mashed potatoes and pudding. This food is a like substitute for mother’s warmth and love. Some people like to eat crunchy foods such as chips and nuts where they get to use their jaws to bite and chew more. This is a very different experience than eating soft and warm food.

Mindful eating is a wonderful practice when you have a few minutes. Take a raisin or a slice of fruit and silently hold it, smell it and just notice its shape and size. Think about where this little piece of fruit was grown and all that it took to get it to your table. Then put it in your mouth and feel the sensation and texture. Let the flavor slowly seep into your mouth and throat before you even start chewing it. Chew slowly without letting your mind drift to more food or something else. This exercise will bring up associations, feelings, issues and impulses that will give you much insight into what is going on with your eating pattern.

Look at this and learn what you can without blame or judgment. Then you can more skillfully decide how to work with your deeper needs, rather than numbing or temporarily satisfying through food.

Alzak Amlani, Ph.D. is a counseling psychologist in the Bay Area. (650)325-8393. Visit www.wholenesstherapy.com.

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