"Comfort eating" is a phrase (and activity) you may be quite familiar with. It is widespread and a common cause of being overweight.

By definition, when we comfort eat we are not physically hungry. Instead, we are eating to bury our feelings and unmet needs.

It may be, for example, for company, love, appreciation or activity.

The origins of comfort eating probably go back a long way. We may have been given sweets when we hurt ourselves as children (parents, please note).

Perhaps we were promised chocolate if we didn't cry when we were left with a babysitter.

After enough years, it eventually becomes a difficult habit to break.

It doesn't take a genius to realise food only provides very momentary consolation.

It lasts only while you munch. Hence the temptation to go on and on eating.

As soon as you surface, you are hit with an enormous sadness.

In addition to the unhappiness you were trying to cover up in the first place, there are new feelings of anger and low self-esteem because, once again, you have demonstrated you have no willpower.

Only positive action can lead to raised self-esteem. Some soul-searching will help. If you know what is troubling you, one tiny step towards a solution will begin to lift you out of your mood.

If the solution isn't in your hands or if you don't even know what is bothering you, read on.

I suggest you make a list in preparation for these cravings.

You'll need different lists depending on when and where cravings have hit you in the past. Say you're watching TV and you're drawn to the fridge but you have not long finished a good meal and you are certainly not physically hungry.

Make a list - include crazy suggestions, too - of all the things you could do to keep yourself busy for at least five minutes to allow the craving to pass.

Here is a sample list:

*Phone a friend *Do some exercise *Have a bath *Write a letter (or email) to someone else (or even to yourself)

*Surf the internet *Manicure your nails *Sit with your feet in hot, soapy suds *Go for a walk *Stick photos in an album *Clear out a cupboard *Do some sewing/DIY *Get some elastic and see if you can work out how you did "cat's cradle" when you were little That's a pretty basic list and costs little. Be imaginative and make it fun.

The next thing to do is examine the list and choose one action you can build in as your reflex reaction to comfort eating.

It's what you'll do the second the craving to raid the fridge hits you.

Mine, for instance, would always be to jump on my exercise machine, even if only for five minutes, or to go up and down the stairs five times.

You might need more than one list. If you are given to mindless eating at work, for example, list the diversionary activities you could do there.

You may need different lists for different times of the day or week, too.

You only have to stop the comfort eating just once.

Then the next time you can say to yourself: "If I did it once, I can do it again." And you can.

You can get support from Dr Judy Citron and her team of DietCoaches by joining her telephone weight-loss classes, right from your own home. "You lose weight and you're not on a diet. It's amazing." Phone free for more information on 0800 074 0260 or visit the web site at www.thedietcoach.com