By Dr. Mallika Marshall, WBZ-TVBy Dr. Mallika Marshall

BOSTON (CBS) – Two years ago, Heather Ruthroff from Hudson, Massachusetts lost 42 pounds but because she overeats when she’s feeling overwhelmed, she gained it all back.

“When you are stressed out,” she says, “I graze a lot and I just reach for all those comfort foods…lots of pastas and breads, which I am trying to stay away from but I was eating them a lot more thinking I can just have them this time but that became all the time.”

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Heather suffers from stress eating. “Stress eating, also known as emotional eating,” says Sherry Pagoto, a clinical psychologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, “Is when we eat in response to some sort of negative emotion.” Pagoto says that could be anxiety, anger, sadness, even boredom.

To battle the boredom, Pagoto and colleagues are developing a stress eating app for the smartphone.

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Like with other weight loss apps, users track their diet and physical activity, but this app will also ask about stress throughout the day and make suggestions for brief stress-reducing exercises, like mindfulness meditation.

“So it gives people a tool to use right there in the moment,” explains Pagoto, “To manage their stress as an alternative to turning and grabbing a cookie or going to the vending machine.”

Another unique feature, counselors will have access to the data to help set goals for their patients, like Heather who is looking forward to using the app to curb her emotional eating. “So that you realize okay I’m not really hungry,” says Heather. “I’m just eating because I’m stressed so hopefully for me that’s going to stop before I start reaching for all those cookies and chocolate.”

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Pagoto and her team at UMass Medical School and the Worcester Polytechnic Institute were awarded a $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to finish designing the app. If clinical trials go well, it should be available to the general public within a couple of years.

Dr. Mallika Marshall