Eloise is searching for a man who excites her as much as a baked potato. Jackie says she doesn't have a problem with food "if I just don't eat until around . . . 11 at night."

They and the 36 other characters in the movie "Eating" talk of love, marriage, motherhood, careers, ambitions, fashions. But through it all they talk of food. Food is an escape, a best friend, a worst enemy, a substitute for love or acceptance, dependable and non-judgmental.Filmmaker Henry Jaglom suggests that while sex was the taboo topic of 25 years ago, these days food is every woman's secret.

"Every woman I have known all my life has had a major issue with food," Jaglom said from his office in California. "Every woman has had a major, complicated and profound relationship with food."

Estimates are that half the adult women and 30 percent of adult men in this country are dieting. Americans spend billions of dollars every year on diet foods, books and other products.

While men are not immune to weight gain, the majority of people who suffer from eating disorders are female. That makes perfect sense to Jaglom, who says he was not "given the message that my whole happiness and identity was going to be based on how I looked that summer in a bathing suit."

"Eating" takes place at the home of Helene, who is throwing a party for her 40th birthday and for two friends, turning 30 and 50. Among the women is Martine, a visitor from France who is making a documentary about women and eating.

As the sunny California day progresses, the women talk to one another and to Martine's camera of their feelings about food. While the movie seems long at 118 minutes, it also is funny and touching and sad and, sometimes, annoying.

In one marvelous scene, three birthday cakes are paraded into the living room and, when they are cut and slices are passed, each woman in turn declines and the plates go around and around the room.

"I didn't even have cake at my son's wedding," says Sadie (Marlena Giovi), who is turning 50.

Only Helene's mother, Mrs. Williams (Frances Bergen), takes cake. Throughout the day, she expresses bewilderment and worry at the way everyone else talks about food.

"I've never been able to hold a job, a boyfriend, nothing . . . my father's attention. . . . And food is there, it's accessible, it's easy," says Jennifer (Daphna Kastner), who plays Sadie's daughter, a young woman who secrets cake away to the bathroom and eventually acknowledges her habit of overeating and then vomiting.

"Eating" has been playing for six months in Los Angeles, where the audiences are 80 percent women, Jaglom said. It also has opened in a few other cities, and opens May 3 in New York City and then in 60 to 65 other cities.

Thousands of people have written to him after seeing the film, Jaglom said. The movie seems to have touched an essential part of women's lives.

Men tend either to find it a revelation or to want to ignore it, "unaware of the enormous profundity of the issue for women," he said.

Jaglom's moviemaking is unusual, and the actresses - there are no men in the movie - are telling their own stories underneath the fictional story.

"We create fictional characters, and we create circumstances. But we don't create fictional emotions," he said. "I like to carve the story out of their own lives."

In an accompanying book also called "Eating," some of the actresses discuss their feelings about food.

"It wasn't until I was asked to do `Eating' that I realized the scale of what this eating `thing' is and what an enormous amount of women suffer from it," wrote Marina Gregory, who plays Helene's stepdaughter. "I found a sense of sisterhood with this knowledge. But I can't say that now that I recognize my disease (food addiction), I've found solace."