We’ve all been there, curled up on the couch, watching our favorite show as a reward for sticking to our diet all day, when an ad comes on. The cheese is gooey, the frosting is glistening, the steak is sizzling, it’s food porn. And whether you get off the couch and go fix yourself a snack off your plan then and there, or it takes a day or two before you break, the seed has been planted.
What you probably don’t know is that you are fighting off food triggers all day long. We no longer live in a culture where we only eat at meal times and only at the family table. You may eat breakfast in your car, lunch at your desk, snacks at the movies, game, PTA meeting or book club, and dinner on the couch. Nearly every situation has become a cue to eat.
And that doesn’t include the green mermaid, purple bell, yellow arches, and dozens of other logos lining our highways. As a brain and cognitive scientist specializing in the Psychology of Eating I can tell you, all the cues are triggering you subliminally all the time.
So what can we do about it?
Fortunately, it’s entirely possible to break free from trigger foods.
1. Accept That You Are In Control
Forgive the bluntness of this next statement, but it’s crucial to establish as a fact. Your brain controls the movement of your voluntary muscles, so moving your limbs, reaching out to put the food into your mouth, and swallowing it, is your choice. No person, or potato chip, or slick marketing can take over your limbs and jaws, even if you feel powerless or aren’t aware of your thoughts.
The insinuations that we weren’t in control at the moment do not help you change your behavior. You can’t effectively work on changing something you’re still partially in denial of. And if you’re reading this article, we can conclude you want to know how to change the phenomenon of trigger foods leading to overeating for yourself or someone else. So, commit with us right here that eating is a choice, and it’s a choice we can control.
That’s doesn’t mean it’s easy! That doesn’t mean we always choose in line with our values and goals — far from it. It just means we accept our responsibility for the foods we put in our mouths.
2. Set a timer
Delaying eating for 5 to 10 minutes could allow the eating impulse to pass. In that time, you might “cool off” and think more rationally about your feelings, or you may become involved in another activity or no longer feel the urge to eat.
3. Chug some water
Telling yourself you can eat after you drink a couple of glasses of ice water is another way to delay. If you still want to eat after you finish those two glasses of water, you can at least slow yourself by interspersing eating with drinking more ice water.
Intense exercise can help you sweat your feelings away, but a Why does exercise help? It is not just an activity that offers an alternative to stress eating and removes you from the situation. Exercising also improves your mood and relieves stress better than eating does. Furthermore, exercising can make you feel proud and empowered so you are less likely to stress-eat next time.
5. Break the Cycle
Many of us have picked up a food pattern since early childhood, and it’s that your hands + a certain food = a situation that hasn’t ended well. And that’s okay, there’s exactly zero helpfulness in blaming yourself. Let’s focus on breaking that pattern. You and your so-called trigger food can always reunite down the road, but a little separation, for now, will stop the recurring negative experience.
Do you need to get the food out of your kitchen or house? Do you need to chuck it, donate it, or just commit to a week of not seeing each other? Take charge and do it. Break the cycle of hurt and abuse, then you can re-form a healthy relationship.
6. Try a little spice
Cinnamon can reduce sugar cravings without adding sugar, carbs, or calories to your day. A hot cup of hot water or decaf tea with a cinnamon stick in it takes a while to savor and can satisfy sweet cravings.
Instead of eating ice cream from the carton, serving yourself a small portion in a bowl, sitting at the table, and savoring it can disrupt your semi-automatic stress eating so you can keep it within reason. Or, if you feel the need to order at the drive-through, changing your mind to order a kiddie fries instead of a large order can save hundreds of calories.
8. Create Safe, Supported Scenarios For Reintroduction
Think about the negative experiences you had with that specific food in the past. What was going on? Where were you? What were you feeling? What time of day was it? Were you at home, in your car, at the office or your parents’ house? These factors all contribute to the ease or difficulty of eating in line with our values. This means you can engineer an easier scenario by thinking about when, and where, and with whom you are least likely to overeat a particular food. You don’t want to just rendezvous any old time and place, you want things to be different this time.
9. Gradually Ease Up On Parameters As You Gain Confidence
Once you’ve had a chance to eat the food and stop at a place you feel good about, it’s not over. It will probably take many repetitions to bolster your confidence that this food is not, in fact, a volition-sapping delicacy.
Keep going. Get those positive experiences in when you are confident it will go your way. And over time, you’ll notice that confidence growing. Consider progressions like this:
- Having the food with company, out of the house
- Having the food on your own, out of the house
- Having the food with company at home (buying just enough for no leftovers)
- Having the food on your own at home (buying just enough for no leftovers)
- Having the food on your own at home, even if there are leftovers
10. Name your reason
Completing the sentence, “I want to eat now because…” can give you valuable information. If the sentence ends with anything besides, “I’m hungry,” chances are that eating will not solve the problem. Getting into the habit of asking why you are eating can, over time, help you eat less often when not hungry.
11. Log your food
Writing down what you eat can increase awareness of what that stress-eating episode actually included. Seeing, “six chocolate chip cookies and a pint of ice cream,” can make you wonder if those few mind-numbing moments of sugary indulgence were worth the calories. Plus, next time you are in front of the cookies and ice cream, you may try to limit it to one or two cookies if you know that you will be logging them.