Chemicals in the brain trigger cravings.

People eat when they're not hungry. No surprise there, emotions play a big part in what we choose to eat and when we choose to eat it. And, no surprise, emotional eating can lead to weight gain.

But we can blame it on dopamine, norepinephrine, endorphins, galanin, neuropeptide Y and serotonin, ominous-sounding names for brain chemicals associated with appetite.

They're released after eating certain foods — dopamine by protein foods, endorphins and serotonin by sugar — and may be triggered by stress.

High levels of chemicals feel good, low levels can trigger cravings, explained Amy Collins, K-State Research and Extension agent from Stafford County, at a meeting Tuesday in Pratt.

A disagreement with her husband may send her to the kitchen for a snack, she admitted. An evening alone may call for snacks in front of the TV, eating her emotions or her boredom.

Not carrots or rice cakes. Chocolate.

Trying to eat healthy foods can be frustrating. Collins showed a bottle of drinkable yogurt she had encouraged her daughter to try as a good breakfast choice. Careful label reading revealed it has more sugar than a Hershey bar. Just about every processed food you can imagine will have added sugar, she said.

Sugar releases chemicals that make the brain believe everything's wonderful.

All that sugar is not wonderful.

Nutrition experts used to proclaim, "a calorie is a calorie is a calorie." Some now believe that sweetened drinks might be just as dangerous as the high fat diets we were warned about in the 1970s. Over time, many people have adopted diets that are lower in fat, yet heart disease continues to skyrocket. There is evidence that the liver can convert excess sugar to a particularly bad form of cholesterol, Collins said.

She suggested a few strategies to avoid emotional eating. Instead of reaching for the candy dish, take a walk, do some stretches, call a friend, play an instrument or listen to music, or even do some light cleaning. Brushing teeth may discourage eating afterwards.

Ironically, at the end of the lesson, luscious squares of cake were served to those present.

"It's okay in moderation," Collins reassured.