Are You Trigger Happy?
Get to Know Your Food Triggers
If you are like most dieters, you’ve experienced the joy of success and the disappointment of failure. You’ve lost weight, gained it back, lost it, just to gain it back again. It seems to be an endless cycle – but it doesn’t have to be. You can end the cycle.
Consider that one of the reasons for this on-again, off-again cycle could be that you have given all of your attention to what you eat and not why you overeat.
Paying attention to what you eat is essential to losing weight; however, you can’t stop there. To keep the weight off, you need to identify and be in command of your triggers.
Ever wonder why:
You always eat popcorn at the movie even if you aren’t hungry or don’t really like movie popcorn;
Whenever you’ve had a difficult day and feel helpless and frustrated, you have a (seemingly) uncontrollable urge to eat foods that comfort you;
You must have a chocolate chip cookie when the aroma wafts through the mall, even though you are dieting and you went to shop, not eat;
The reason you eat in response to these or similar situations is that you are responding to a trigger. A trigger is any food, situation, or emotion that cues you to eat even when you are not hungry, or to overeat when you are full. These triggers seem to beckon you to “eat now”. Don’t think; just eat.
Every time you eat in response to a trigger, you are strengthening the power of that trigger.
Triggered overeating can be confused with mindless overeating, but it is actually a bit different and more complex. Both are primarily about eating without full conscious awareness; however triggered overeating is an habitual (conditioned) response to certain foods, emotions, social settings, while mindless overeating is more about simply not paying attention to what you are eating.
Using the examples above…
Situational triggers – you eat popcorn because you’ve made a connection between the theater and eating popcorn. There may have been times when you’ve planned on eating the popcorn and enjoyed it, but now it’s just a triggered habit.
Food Triggers – Your mother always made homemade chocolate chip cookies and you recall the wonderful smell of them baking in the oven. Now, even if you aren’t hungry, just the sight or smell of the cookies stirs up a desire to eat them. Usually, it doesn’t stop at desire. You wind up eating one, two and more cookies. Food triggers can overlap with emotional triggers.
Emotional Triggers – Sometime in your past, you were emotionally distressed and someone gave you food to comfort you. At the time, it seemed to work. Now, when you want to avoid emotional pain, you eat – usually some food that represents comfort or momentarily eases your pain. If you eat consistently in response to distress, then distress becomes a universal emotional trigger, spanning a wide range of uncomfortable feelings such as sadness, anger, frustration, helplessness, and stress.
How to Control Your Triggers
To regain control of when you eat and what you eat, instead of letting your triggers direct your actions, you have two options.
You can remove your triggers. It may be easier than you think with some trigger foods and trigger situations. Easy if you realize you always eat chips when you watch TV at home — just don’t keep chips in the house. Not so easy, if your mother-in-law coming for dinner is a trigger.
You can outsmart your triggers. If you don’t allow the triggers to ‘push your buttons’ you won’t be so easily derailed.
Outsmarting Your Triggers
- Identify and record when you eat, where you eat, why you eat, and how much you eat. Observe the connection between specific feelings and your desire to eat certain foods. Become aware of when you can’t say no to the second, third or fourth helping of a food. Take note of the situations and locations that you’ve connected with overeating. Awareness if often enough to break weaker triggers.
- Assess the damage in excess calories. Often this wake-up call is powerful enough to break the connection, and is especially useful for the milder triggers.
- Break the connection, but you must be consistent. You can’t shift back and forth between reacting to triggers and ignoring them. New habits cannot be formed with contradictory actions. Does this mean you can never eat popcorn again? No. It means, to gain control of the trigger effect, you should stop eating it at a trigger place, each and every time you are there. You can certainly eat popcorn at home or elsewhere, just don’t eat it because you are at a movie. The popcorn isn’t the trigger. The movie theater is.
- Do you have to eliminate your favorite chocolate chip cookies? Not necessarily, but you do need to put any food trigger to the test. Can you control the amount you eat at certain times and in certain places? If the answer is a sincere yes, then you don’t have to eliminate it. You just have to be aware of the times or places when you can’t stop at just one. Control means that you, and not the trigger, decide where, when and what you will eat. If you can’t control the quantity, no matter where or what the circumstance, then yes, you need to make the decision to eliminate chocolate chip cookies from your diet.
- Figure out the reason for the trigger, and then write down 5 really good reasons not to respond.
- Recognize that overeating does not change your feelings. It is a temporary fix at best. Unequivocally, it does not make the problem go away, and it creates more problems – guilt, weight gain, frustration, remorse, loss of confidence.
- Put space and time between the trigger and eating: Delay eating for just 3 minutes. If the urge passes, nothing else has to be done. If it doesn’t, delay for another 2 minutes. This will give you time to stop, think, consider the situation and your actions, and time to remember your ‘better reasons’ not to eat.
- Decide whether you are hungry or not and whether you will eat or not. All eating is a decision. There is always a moment of decision: To eat or not to eat. You have the power to decide not to eat in response to a trigger.
- Distract yourself to keep your mind off of eating – call a friend, write in your journal, take a walk, think about all the reasons why keeping your resolve to lose weight is more important than eating at this moment. Basically, fill in the space with a positive thought or action that distracts you long enough so that the impulse to eat has dissipated.
Remember, that you are in control and the food is not!
(Note: To overcome some triggers, especially emotional triggers, you may want to talk to a mental health professional.)