IRVINE, Calif. -- Robert Zumberge can't seem to get enough cowboy coffee -- a steaming concoction of hot java and dark chocolate miniatures. For Kim Almquist, it's candy.
There's something comforting about certain foods, something that feels good after so much bad news that started with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
''What's one more chocolate?'' asked Almquist, 24. ''It seems a little strange to be obsessing about something like that when there's so much more going on.''
Zumberge, 49, typically would think twice about indulging his sweet coffee craving. ''But now? Not so much,'' he says.
People across the country have turned to food -- from chocolate to instant mashed potatoes to peanut butter and jelly -- to deal with the anxiety of the terrorist attacks and anthrax scares, according to dietitians and psychologists.
''It's hard to measure because people don't know they are doing it. But you're hearing it and you're seeing it,'' said Connie Diekman, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association
''The No. 1 predictor of diet failure is stress. The last two months, without question, whether people feel it or not, has been a very stressful time. People aren't thinking about eating healthy.''
It's a point punctuated by a recent A.C. Nielsen survey of grocery store sales that showed a spike in comfort food purchases. It found snack food sales increased nearly 12.4 percent in September over the previous year; the sale of instant potatoes jumped almost 13 percent, according to Information Resources Inc.
Even Weight Watchers groups have reported an unusual number of members saying the attacks have added an element of stress in maintaining their diets.
''There's been a lot of discussion in meeting rooms. In addition to talking about food, they are talking about emotions. It's unusual to have the same topic on the top of everybody's minds and have it pose the same problems,'' said spokesperson Linda Webb Carilli.
For a few, the attacks have had the opposite effect -- an incentive to be healthy. Donna Guerriero, 35, says the events of the last two months have helped her with the diet she began the week before Sept. 11.
''I had already made a commitment to myself,'' said the Tustin office manager who has shed 20 pounds.
At Jenny Craig International, there was no discernible difference in the number of clients, said spokeswoman Gail Manginelli.
But while some may be focusing on health, others say they don't need the added stress of carefully watching what they eat.
''Why do I want to put myself through that right now? There's enough stuff going on,'' said Martha Johnson, 36, a Newport Beach receptionist.
Clinical psychologist Emanuel Maidenberg said Johnson's feelings are not surprising.
''Food of that kind is typically associated with pleasant feelings -- comfort, relaxation, calm,'' said Maidenberg, with the anxiety disorder program at the University of California, Los Angeles.
In New York, marketing consultant and trend watcher Faith Popcorn said she believes comfort eating won't disappear any time soon.
''It's not going to play itself out. I think it's going to get deeper,'' she said.
She admits she's fallen victim to it, too.
''I'm eating as much as I possibly can. I'm eating M&Ms and potato chips and soggy, soaky foods,'' she said. ''It's stress.''
Across the country at Irvine's Bistango Restaurant, manager Domenico Lomuscio said he has noticed differences in customer orders.
''We have garlic mashed potatoes and shoestring french fries. A lot of people order both now,'' he said.
But professor Kelly Brownell, director of Yale University's Center for Eating and Weight disorders, says that's the type of eating people need to watch.
''If it's a temporary phenomenon, it's not bad. It's a way to cope. For people who consistently use food to deal with stress, it's maladaptive,'' he said.
Brownell recommended exercise, reading a book or spending time with family.
But for Zumberge and Almquist, recent customers at Bistango, their small indulgence is worth the comfort.
''The coffee? I enjoy it. Life is too short not to enjoy what you like,'' Zumberge said.
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