We all have triggers when it comes to food—those things that cause us to binge on certain foods. It could be a certain mood or place; for others, specific people or times of the year can set off uncontrollable cravings for less-than-ideal foods. Other all too common food triggers include:
The feeling of being bored can often be an unpleasant one. When we’re bored, we tend to feel tired, apathetic, unfulfilled, and restless. To help distract us from this uncomfortable feeling, we often turn to food, even if we aren’t necessarily hungry. And with today’s junk food, we get a powerful hit of dopamine that can catch us in a nasty cycle of binge eating before we know it.
When we get stressed, our HPA-axis goes into overdrive, which causes cortisol and blood sugar levels to rise. These increases result in our body craving high-calorie “comfort foods” to calm those systems and help us feel less anxious, helpless, and stressed. As an interesting side note, research shows that healthy food options may pack just as much of a stress-reducing punch as those unhealthier “comfort foods.”
Research suggests that emotional eating may be a factor in 60%-90% of mild to severely obese individuals. As social beings, we need, and crave, connection with others and strong social relationships. When we’re deprived of this social interaction, it’s not uncommon to try and recreate this feeling of connection and satisfy these missing needs with food.
Spending too much time staring at our screens has been linked to a host of health issues such as sleep difficulties, neck and back problems, depression, anxiety, and obesity. This year, a study found that each additional hour of social networking, texting, and watching TV was significantly associated with binge-eating in kids.
Lack of sleep
Tossing and turning can do more than just make us tired the next day. Not getting enough sleep, having issues falling or staying asleep, or regularly feeling sleepy during the day have all been associated with triggering poor eating habits.
Whatever your food triggers are, the key is to be honest when evaluating what they are for you, recognize them, and learn techniques to overcome them when they strike. Thankfully, there is an effective technique to help you identify and respond constructively to your most sabotaging thoughts. The exercise and examples below are from The Beck Diet Solution: Train Your Brain to Think Like a Thin Person by Judith Beck, Ph.D. We encourage you to check out the book, as it’s an excellent resource for using cognitive therapy to change the way you look at eating.
Food Triggers: Changing Sabotaging Thoughts
Creating response cards and regularly referring to them will help you develop healthier responses to your sabotaging thoughts. Doing so will ultimately make you more successful with your weight loss goals and establish healthier habits long-term.
For this exercise, you’ll need to grab a stack of index cards—digital notes aren’t going to cut it. Good old pen and paper excel when making information “stick” in our memory. Start by brainstorming your most undermining thought. Once you’ve identified it, use an index card to create a response card. Write the thought on the front, then your healthy response on the back. Continue to do this with as many sabotaging thoughts as you can think of.
For example, let’s assume Jane ate an unplanned cupcake. After doing so, she has the all-to-familiar thought of “Well, now I’ve really blown it. I might as well just eat whatever I want and start again tomorrow.” This sabotaging thought results in her overeating for the rest of the day. Creating a healthy response card can help Jane avoid this automatic reaction to eating something, not on plan in the future.
When creating your response cards, think of your sabotaging thoughts and what you would like to be able to tell yourself the next time one of them enters your mind. Asking yourself these three questions can help:
- What was the situation? What happened?
- What sabotaging thoughts did I have?
- What can I say and do differently the next time?
Top Sabotaging Thoughts and Responses
To help get you started, here are some of the more common undermining internal thoughts individuals have regarding food triggers and healthy responses from The Beck Diet Solution.
Sabotaging Thought: This food is not on my diet, but I really want it now.
Response: I’ll get a few moments of pleasure, but I’ll feel bad and guilty for much longer.
Sabotaging Thought: I want to eat whatever I want!
Response: I can eat whatever I want, or I can be thinner. I can’t have it both ways.
Sabotaging Thought: I don’t have time to read my why card this morning.
Response: It will take less than a minute to read my why card, and it’s worth one minute if it helps me lose weight. (Read our article on how knowing your why can boost your weight loss here!)
Sabotaging Thought: I don’t deserve to give myself credit for doing the right thing—it should be easy to follow my diet.
Response: No, it’s not easy. If it were easy, nobody would be overweight. It’s important to give myself credit to build my confidence, and then dieting will become easier.
Sabotaging Thought: I can’t keep snacks out of the house and make my kids and family suffer for my weight problem.
Response: I’m entitled to ask my family to make temporary changes to help me stick to my program more successfully. These snacks are not as important as our health.
Sabotaging Thought: I’m craving that food!
Response: Food cravings go away when I decide not to give in. Cravings do not get worse and worse.
Sabotaging Thought: This is too hard today. I’ll get back on my diet tomorrow.
Response: While it feels hard, it’s not impossible, and I can do it! If I give in now, it will make it harder to resist next time. I want to exercise my resistance muscle and weaken my giving-in-muscle.
Sabotaging Thought: If I’m upset, the only thing that will make me feel better is food.
Response: If I’m upset, I’m entitled to feel better. But I’m also allowed to achieve my weight loss goals, so the comfort I need cannot come from food.
Sabotaging Thought: I’ve already blown it for the day, so I might as well just keep eating and get back on track tomorrow.
Response: As soon as I stop “blowing it,” I’ll feel better. Every single bite I eat today matters. I feel great about myself when I’m on track, so the sooner I’m on track, the better.
Sabotaging Thought: If I recognize my progress, I’ll get too confident and start to loosen up.
Response: I will be able to catch myself and give myself credit. I will strengthen my resistance muscle.
Sabotaging Thought: Oh no, I won’t have control over food while I’m on vacation. What if I gain a lot of weight?
Response: I have developed my vacation diet strategy. I can and will stick to my plan.
Sabotaging Thought: The people I’m with will think I’m no fun if I don’t drink.
Response: That may or may not be true. What’s more important to me anyway? What they think or that I’m doing what it takes to lose the weight.
Sabotaging Thought: This is a special occasion; I deserve to treat myself.
Response: If I want to lose weight and keep it off forever, I have to learn to celebrate in different ways. If I keep celebrating with food, I’ll put myself at risk of gaining weight. It isn’t worth it!
Sabotaging Thought: I have to please others by eating, no matter what the cost is to me.
Response: I have to work toward my goal, especially since the cost to others is momentary and minor. My not eating won’t spoil their entire year. It’s good for me to say no.
Sabotaging Thought: I have always thought this way. I don’t think I can change my thinking.
Response: This is a skill I can learn. It wasn’t easy learning how to drive a car or ride a bike, but I eventually got good at those things. If I practice and use my coaching, I can get good at responding to my sabotaging thoughts.
Food triggers can wreak havoc on your diet plan and your weight loss goals. But they don’t have to. By taking a proactive approach to recognizing and acknowledging them, and approaching them positively, it is possible to overcome your triggers and be more successful in your weight loss journey.