Tucson, Ariz.--Chris Chapman was in her office listening to a middle-aged, somewhat overweight man complain about what he called an embarrassing passion: frozen pastries.
Any variety of pastry would do, the man confided, as long as they were frozen and his wife did not know that he was pilfering them. (Usually he stood at the freezer door and crammed them into his mouth.)
"I guess it is what I used to do as a kid," the man said, Ms. Chapman recalled. He then spoke of his sense of guilt and failure over being unable to conquer his habit.
Ms. Chapman, a patient woman accustomed to hearing about such transgressions, is a counselor here at Canyon Ranch, the well-known health spa.
"That's OK," she told the man. "You can eat frozen pastries if you want." She then suggested several different tactics, including cutting back on the number of times a week he raided the freezer or discussing his behavior with his wife and eating the pastries thawed at the dining-room table.
A kind of Ann Landers to the food-fixated, Ms. Chapman, who is working on a master's degree in counseling at the University of Arizona, has been a counselor at the ranch for eight years.
Her message is the same one that is increasingly being heard among diet counselors, physicians and psychologists across the country: that food is not a matter of good and evil and that when it comes to maintaining one's weight, eating should not be a question of morality. Their goal is to defuse eating of its emotional dynamite.
"Moralizing about food is destructive," said Ken Resnicow, a psychologist at the American Health Foundation, a non-profit research group in New York. "It sets off a binge-and-purge cycle. Once you have become immoral, then you are a bad person, and once you are a bad person, then what the hell? You can go for it now. That's the real problem."
Instead of blaming overeaters or criticizing their particular excesses, current approaches try to encourage those preoccupied with their weight to analyze their excessive behavior without passing moral judgment on it and to develop a sense of power and control.
Weight Watchers International, for example, has just introduced a new pamphlet titled "Challenges and Choices," which outlines common stumbling blocks and suggests a strategy for dealing with them.
"Calm yourself," the pamphlet advises people who have just gone on an eating binge. "Note your feelings and thoughts," and "Forgive yourself."
"We believe lapses are normal and predictable and not a big deal," explained Ronna Kabatznick, a psychological consultant to Weight Watchers. "The big deal is learning how to handle them."
Kelly D. Brownell, a professor of psychology at Yale University who has done extensive research on obesity, agreed. Analysis rather than punishment or shame is key, Dr. Brownell said.
"First you have to evaluate what the risks are," he said. "Then you must categorize and plan strategies." Someone who has had a stressful day at work and would be tempted to stop at a favorite fast-food restaurant should take a different route home, he suggested. But "nobody's perfect," Dr. Brownell added, and "if you do drive in to the fast-food window, it's not the end of the world."
It is this kind of advice that Ms. Chapman finds herself giving day in, day out at Canyon Ranch. She has heard it all, and no matter what is said, she finds herself telling people, "It's OK."
Jane Lavine, a 43-year-old restaurant consultant and caterer in Boston, who met with Ms. Chapman at Canyon Ranch after battling her weight for years, said, "She took away the guilt. She made me realize that I can eat just about anything as long as I plan for it."
Ms. Lavine, who helps edit the Zagat survey of Boston restaurants, confessed that one of her problems was simply controlling the amount of food she eats, particularly in restaurants.
Ms. Chapman advised Ms. Lavine to decide just what portion of her entree she thought she should eat and to place the rest at the other end of her plate.
"Meeting one on one with people gives me the opportunity to set things straight," said Ms. Chapman, who is 43 and, at 5 feet 7 inches tall, weighs 133 pounds.
She knows firsthand the battle against junk food and candy, and until eight years ago, her own weight frequently fluctuated as much as 25 pounds.
One of her downfalls for years: M&M's. "Every Sunday night I used to eat a pound of them," said Ms. Chapman, who went on to explain that she would eat the entire bag because she always planned to start a diet that Monday. "Since I was never going to eat M&M's again, I thought I might as well eat all the M&M's now."
"My theory about guilt is that it blocks communication between the mind and the stomach," Ms. Chapman said. "It's like there's a little voice that says, 'You shouldn't have that,' and it is impossible to recognize that you have had enough."