Break The Cycle: How To Conquer Your Trigger Foods
  • Allison Fahrenbach

Break The Cycle: How To Conquer Your Trigger Foods

What if I told you that I have been, and continue to be around former “trigger” foods of mine all the time and never, not once experience self-doubt or anxiety about it.


I don't feel the need to nose dive into a pizza.

Or a bag of sweet potato chips.

Or a jar of mixed nuts.

I am not longer an all or nothing person when it comes to food, and I'm proud of the fact that NO food triggers a binge, or a backslide into lack of self control.


If this "sounds" too good to be true, it's not, and if you feel like this is something you won't ever be able to have for yourself, trust me when I say you're wrong.


This type of confidence, self belief, and self trust around food is possible for everyone. But before I talk about how you can achieve this, and conquer your trigger foods once and for all, let's first define WHAT a trigger food actually is.




What is a trigger food?

When asked, most people say that “trigger foods” are foods that they have trouble eating a reasonable portion of. In other words, it's a food that causes them to "feel" as though they have no self control when they're around it. For example, if one bite of ice cream leads to the whole pint, then likely ice cream is a "trigger" food for you. Or if a slice of pizza results in you consuming the whole pie, or if eating a single tortilla chip causes you to then eat the whole bag.


Trigger foods are also foods that make us wary, and understandably so. Anyone who has lost control and hopelessly overeaten a certain food, knows what it feels like afterwards. It feels horrible, and the resulting guilt and remorse can cause you to be fearful of being around that same food again in the future. I always liken it to being bit by a dog. If you’ve been bitten by a dog, it’s normal to be tentative petting dogs in the future. You fear them, because you fear what will happen.


Unfortunately, this type of fear and mistrust creates a very unhealthy dynamic with food. Typically, a relationship with a trigger food is like an on-again-off-again romance. You buy the food, you love the food, you over-eat the food, feel terrible for losing control with the food, and then swear the food off for good. You throw it all out, remove it from your house and vow you'll never touch it again. But after a while, you inevitably cave and buy it (either hoping it will end differently this time, or already accepting that overeating it is the plan) and go through the cycle again.


Believe me I have been there. I used to watch other people eat certain foods - like just ONE cookie, or ONE handful of chips, and wonder how they were able to genuinely NOT need to "eat the whole thing", or how they could approach their favorite foods with such discipline, mindfulness and self control.


I won't say it was easy, but I will say that overcoming your trigger foods is entirely possible.


There are three things that you can do that will help you turn a trigger food into simply a food that you enjoy. The first step is to clarify who is in charge when it comes to your dietary choices. You. Not the food.


This is a big part of reframing how you view your trigger foods- ACCEPTING responsibility. The saying "with freedom comes responsibility" is true. Freedom from being controlled by food is going to necessitate you taking ownership of your attitudes and actions. You cannot conquer your trigger foods if you continue to point fingers, place blame, or play the victim. No more claiming "I couldn't help it", or "it just happened."

Is it hard to stop eating a trigger food after one bite, or one piece or even one taste? Yes. I will never say it is or should be easy. But difficulty need not be confused with impossibility.


While you may have felt like you lost control in the past, it doesn’t mean that you did. Food does not jump into your mouth. No one holds you up at gunpoint and forces you to eat the whole bag, the entire box, or the whole thing. I realize it can be very difficult to manage strong impulses, but you are never without control. You always have the option to stop, to push the plate away, to not take another bite. With help and practice, you can reclaim the control you think you've lost to your so-called "trigger" foods.


So the FIRST thing you need to do- is claim ownership of YOUR actions surrounding your specific trigger food.


The SECOND thing, is to realize that RIGIDLY swearing off, or forbidding yourself to consume a specific food leads to increased cravings for that food. Science has proven this.


So while swearing off your trigger food might work temporarily, long term, it's a setup for failure. Most people who find peace with all foods only are able to do so after they learn how to consume their former trigger foods in a planned, enjoyed, and allowed manner- GUILT FREE. This is crucial because associating guilt with a particular food has been found to predict continued weight gain and feelings of helplessness around that food item.


So please understand that the answer isn't to AVOID your trigger food, but instead learn to consume it mindfully, on occasion, in a controlled and disciplined manner. Avoidance of certain foods might seem like the best approach in the short-term (out of sight, out of mind) but that approach will still leave you feeling powerless when you are eventually exposed to your trigger food, because you haven’t developed the SKILLS of being mindful and moderate with that food.


Which brings me to the THIRD thing you need to do to overcome your trigger foods- begin collecting experiences where you successfully eat your former trigger foods in a way that leaves you feeling good. Every time you prove to yourself that eating this food does not automatically result in an overeating experience, you’ll gain more confidence in being around that food. And when you can accumulate months and YEARS of approaching your trigger foods from a place of power and self control and trust me, you'll forget it ever was even a trigger food to begin with.


I know it can be a daunting or even frightening task to deliberately eat a food you have previously struggled with managing, so here are tips on ensuring a good experience of practicing discipline and self control with food triggers:


1. Work on your inner dialogue. Remember that your eating behaviors are significantly impacted by your expectations, including how strongly you believe you will lose control when eating. Let's use cookies as an example. If you approach cookies EXPECTING to lose control after eating just one, you are more likely to have that happen. However, if you expect that once you eat and enjoy JUST ONE cookie, you’ll head to the park for a walk, or get up and leave the kitchen and do something else, you have a better chance of making that happen. Tell yourself that you CAN do this, and you're halfway there. And if you can do it ONCE, you can do it again. Bolster your inner dialogue. EXPECT yourself to be successful, and you increase the likelihood it'll happen.


2. Set yourself up for success by optimizing your surroundings. Everyone is different, but in general, over-eating is much easier when you are home, alone, emotional, have a large quantity of the food in front of you, it’s later in the day, it’s a weekend, you're sad, or lonely, you have nowhere to go, you're stressed, etc.


When you are working on reclaiming control over a food, you want as few of these factors dreaded increasing the challenge as possible.


Instead you want to make it as easy as you can to succeed. That means you may want to have company, be outside the house, only have immediate access to a single serving, on a day you’re feeling pretty good, and know after you have your treat you’ll be doing something else.


Start at the maximally supported situation you can think of, and get a few exposures to that food with success. Prove to yourself that it's possible. Using dessert as an example- as sugar is often a common trigger- you could start by going out to eat with your spouse, friends or family and ordering a dessert.


Consciously decide beforehand that you’re only going to have 1-3 bites, and you can even tell the company you’re with that this is your plan. Get the people you're with to help police your actions and encourage you to be accountable.


You’ll feel uncomfortable in the beginning, I promise. Don't anticipate otherwise. You’re rewiring your habit loops, so you’re going to be met with some internal resistance, but I promise it gets easier. When you approach your trigger food and successfully consume it from a place of control and discipline it proves to your brain that you can—in fact—JUST EAT A FEW BITES. Every time you approach dessert, have a few bites, and then WALK AWAY, you are reclaiming the control you used to surrender to this food. That's how you conquer trigger foods. Not by avoiding them, but by confronting them.


3. Determine if you want to move along the spectrum and open up the flexibility of your eating that food. By this I mean, you can determine if you want to begin bringing that food into your home, OR if you find it's easier for you to keep it out of he house.


If you find it’s easy to avoid overeating certain foods by not keeping them in your homeor by only buying single serve portions – great. Use that knowledge to help yourself succeed.


I've had clients find that they quickly build confidence and can bring the food home and be totally fine with it, which is great. But remember, if on the flipside, you choose to make certain foods “out of the house” foods, it’s not because you “can’t” but because it’s easier to eat it in the manner you enjoy if you choose to have it in a different setting. That’s not making a rule, or being restrictive, it’s making a wise choice. It's being an adult and making a command decision to set yourself up for success.


The relationship you have with a particular food, like so many other things in your life, is one you can choose and make reality. You might choose to set some boundaries, and reserve particular foods for certain circumstances, or eventually feel at ease having any food at any time in any scenario. There is no right or wrong. I've found that many people wind up not even really CARING about their former trigger foods anymore. The same dessert they used to consume mindlessly, becomes one slice, becomes a bite or two which often gets dwindled down to not even having a desire to eat the food at all. Which is where I currently am with many foods I used to consider triggers of mine.


Conquering your triggers is possible. It takes a lot of time and effort, but it truly is a worthwhile journey. For more help in attaining a healthy relationship with food and reaching your leanness goals without ever dieting again check out my BEYOND STRONG program here or my other virtual nutrition and health coaching options!


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