What are they?
A trigger food is something that you eat (or drink) and struggle to control yourself. Once you start eating it, you find it difficult to stop and as a result you’re prone to eating more of it than you wanted to. With trigger foods, it’s common to eat more than you intended, or want to. It’s also common to eat trigger foods past the point of comfort – physical and emotional.
For you this might be a particular brand of chocolate, or a flavour of crisps that you just can’t keep your hands off. But usually, it’s not just any chocolate, or just any flavour of crisps. They are quite specific.
Why does it matter?
We care about trigger foods because we care about self sabotaging our goals. It can feel like you’re making progress with your diet and then you’re scuppered by these particularly tasty morsels, and things go off the rails. It’s not easy to make progress with your diet at the best of times, but if you believe that these foods cause you to lose control it can be especially challenging when they are introduced into your environment.
The overeating can have a negative impact on diet because through overeating you’re likely going to push yourself into a calorie surplus where you won’t lose body fat. But possibly more important is the impact on self control and therefore self talk – which has much longer lasting effects than one afternoon binging on Pringles.
Six things you can do to manage trigger foods
1. Don’t eat the thing at all.
This might be the right choice for you under certain circumstances. For example, a zero tolerance to alcohol might be a good idea if you’re regularly drinking too much and it’s having a negative effect on your life. The benefit of this option is that you can start saying “no thanks, I don’t eat/ drink [the trigger food]” and sometimes just saying this can take the choice out of the decision. That’s really powerful, since often the thing that fatigues your self control is considering each time you’re offered what decision you want to make in the moment.
2. Buy them pre portioned.
This is really useful for crisps in particular. Rather than buying a single large ‘grab bag’ and relying on self control to stop after you’ve had a few – buy a multipack of pre-portioned crisps. You’ve got the same amount of food, but because you’d have to get back up and go to the cupboard to fetch bags 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 you’re likely to stop before you’ve eaten the same number of calories.
3. Buy an alternative which you aren’t excited about.
Not all snacks are created equally. Finding a version of your trigger food which is okay but not great can be a natural way to self regulate. For example, if your trigger is a big bar of Galaxy chocolate – you could try buying an alternative brand, or even a supermarket own brand which you find less tasty. That way you can have some chocolate but you’re unlikely to go mad and eat it all in one go.
4. Buy the absolute best best version – pay full price, savour it and practice 80% full.
The opposite strategy to the one above. Buy the most delicious, palatable top of the range snack you want. Pay full price for it and don’t buy it on offer. Sit down, savour it and give it your full attention. Then practice eating to 80% full, meaning you pay attention to how full you are while eating and eat slowly enough to take the edge off your hunger, and not stuff yourself full. As soon as you stop savouring the food, stop eating. This sounds simple, but takes a great deal of awareness and is very challenging.
5. Put your fork down while you eat.
Another super difficult behaviour which on the face of it seems incredibly simple. We’re all so used to eating while busy – doing other things, rushing our food to get back to our work or whatever we were doing before it that this one is a challenge. While your mouth is full, put your fork down. Chew and savour your food, be aware of the flavours, temperatures and textures. Chew thoroughly before swallowing. It sounds simple but this is something I can’t do for an entire meal.
6. Practice self control like training a muscle.
Finally, the belief that “I just can’t control myself around [trigger foods] is just something that you’re telling yourself. You absolutely can control yourself, and it might just take practice. Control is a behaviour like anything else, and it might take a little practice to get to a standard that you’re happy with – but you won’t get there by telling yourself you can’t, and then never trying.
Start your practice with something easier – foods that you don’t especially like – and know that you can finish the meal later. You can just delay starting your snack for a minute, or five – and build your time up.