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Trigger Foods: Love ’em or Leave ’em?

ItalianCooiesDo Halloween treats call out your name?

Do Happy Hour chips and salsa compel you to snack when you’re not hungry?

Do you welcome, or fear, the holiday cookie platters soon coming our way?

How you relate to trigger foods helps you lose weight more easily or creates constant struggle. Take time to decide how you want to manage this… especially before the abundance of holiday sweets appear.

What is a Trigger Food?

A trigger food is one that causes you to lose self-control once you begin eating it. You then overeat to the point of feeling physically uncomfortable, emotionally upset with yourself, or both. Common trigger foods include fat and sugary foods such as cookies and ice cream, or fat and salty foods such as potato chips and dip.

A trigger food may prompt an overeating episode even when you’re not particularly stressed. You see the food, feel the urge, start to eat and can’t stop. Sometimes an emotional reaction prompts the urge to eat specific foods. For example, you have a difficult conversation or a tough day at work and immediately react by grabbing potato chips.

There are two opposing approaches to manage trigger foods. One says avoid them; the other says give yourself permission to eat whatever you want. Let’s take a closer look at both.

Approach #1: Avoid Trigger Foods

A traditional approach to addictions is to avoid addictive substances. While there is debate about whether certain foods, mainly sugars, are physically addictive, many people agree that a psychological addiction can occur.

Avoiding trigger foods altogether is one way to deal with foods that you are unable to eat in moderation. For some, this is all or nothing; for others there’s flexibility. For example, you may not bring certain foods home but decide to eat them at a party.

If you choose this approach, reflect on these questions:

  • Will you feel deprived if you never eat these foods?
  • If so, will that trigger a yearning to binge eat?
  • How will you handle it if family members bring these foods home?

There is great freedom in taking a stand against something that causes you harm. Those who use this approach successfully keep an empowered mind-set. Instead of thinking they “cannot” eat these foods, they “choose” not to eat them.

Approach #2: Allow Trigger Foods

A second approach is to give yourself permission to eat all foods. This helps you break free from a self-depriving notion that you “should not” or “cannot” eat certain foods. The idea is that by removing the restriction you feel liberated from the tension surrounding these foods.

If you choose this approach, reflect on these questions:

  • Will you be able to satisfy a taste craving with a reasonable portion?
  • Will you be tempted to binge eat on these foods when stressed?
  • If you eat for emotional reasons, have you successfully found other coping strategies?

It’s sometimes easier to set boundaries on our behavior when we feel we have choice. If you allow yourself to eat these foods, you may experience a freedom that, paradoxically, minimizes your desire.

A Conscious Choice

Take time to think this through, especially with holiday season approaching. Use the reflection questions to decide what works best for you.

As you improve your lifestyle habits, develop new coping strategies and maintain a confident mind-set, your relationship with trigger foods will change. You may no longer want to eat them, or you may still enjoy them, but you’ll no longer feel tension around them.

Your struggle will be over.

Which approach works best for you?

(Photo Credit: ItalianCookies)

22 Responses

  1. roxana

    So good description for “trigger food”: “one that causes you to lose self-control once you begin eating it. You then overeat to the point of feeling physically uncomfortable, emotionally upset with yourself, or both.”
    I know it so very well.

    The most successful I am if I avoid trigger foods. But this is realistically when I live alone.

    And my answer to this question:

    How will you negotiate with others in your household if they want these foods?

    When I live with my partner and I have this food in my home, it’s not easy to keep away from it (and this happens in the evenings). I can manage this if I’m busy with something: business, meetings without foods or making love.

    thanks for this true, very interesting article.

    1. Diane

      Dear Roxana,

      I’m glad you enjoyed this article. Thank you for your comment! Yes, living with others sometimes makes this more challenging. I hope you find a positive way to manage this for the long term.


  2. Marilee Jikey

    I have learned from your analysis of trigger foods, Diane. My two are peanut butter and ice cream. Rather than eliminate these foods I am trying to learn to eat them in moderation. To me, eliminating them is masking the problem. My job, I feel, is to make a conscious effort not to eat them obsessively. I have made a conscious effort to cut out processed foods so my peanut butter if choice will be purchased from my local health food store and I am searching for a more “Healthy” light ice cream. The challenge for me will be learning to enjoy small portions. Wish me luck!

    Hugs, Marilee

    1. Hi Marilee,

      I’m glad this article was helpful to you. Thanks for responding. While it’s different for everyone, I agree that sometimes eliminating a food only masks a deeper issue. Seems you’re on the right track. Keep me posted! Wishing you great success.

      Hugs back,

  3. Lcraft

    Depending on the stress or my emotional state of mind, determines how well I cope w/any given situation. I find allowing myself my naughty foods once a week in an environment outside of my home helps. The need to coexsist w/these foods is key. The guilt and shame just adds into the emotional whirl wind of binge eating. Definitely, there is a connection w/certain foods that seem to have an addictive affect on me. Once I start eating these foods I find myself bargaining w/my head as to how it is I can sneak them in w/out any weight gain. This lie works for about 4 weeks and then I begin to notice my jeans and clothes starting to become tighter and tighter. In my closet I have size 5 on up to size 16. I am very aware that my mind is tricking me into believing that these foods won’t lead to weight gain.. and I still continue to cave in and allow myself to have permission to eat them. It appears I cannot have them in my house. So in order to out smart the addiction, choosing not to have them in the house, allows me to maintain a healthy weight.

    1. Dear lcraft,

      Thanks for your comment.
      Sending you well wishes as you find your best way to manage trigger foods and, also, the confidence to release those self-sabotaging thoughts that enter your mind.


  4. Cheryl Ahuja

    This is almost funny talking about “trigger” foods. I was diagnosed with clicking thumbs and my doctor gave me a pill. During the course of the medicine I read an article that dark chocolate can cure clicking thumbs or sometimes called trigger thumbs. Chocolate is a food I can’t have around so I decided to investigate and found a Dark Chocolate bar with almonds and no sugar added and it was 3.5 oz. Every day, for a week, I would have 1/2 oz. piece because it doesn’t taste that great, not like a “Snickers” or one of my other favorites I am able to only eat that one small piece daily and my clicking thumbs are gone. I think because it is not sweet that I am able to resist and sometimes don’t even have my allotted 1 piece.

    1. Hi Cheryl,

      Thanks for posting. How interesting. I have a friend with “trigger finger”. I’ll pass on your information. Seems you found a great way to handle the chocolate. Thank you for sharing and I wish you the best.


  5. Debbie

    Trigger foods may actually create a crisis for some people. Your hands get sweaty, you get anxious and you are faced with a huge decision: to eat or not to eat. I have changed my focus from the food to the cost of the food. In these crisis situations I embrace the wonderful garbage disposal. After a generous serving of chips or chocolate the rest of the package or candy bar is fed to the disoosal and it is immediately turned on. The grinding releases me from further temptation and I can rest once again.

    1. Hi Debbie, Thanks for your comment. You are so right. Trigger foods do sometimes create a crisis situation for some people. I know others who do what you do. They satisfy a taste craving and then dispose of the rest. I’m glad you found a solution that works for you. Thank you for sharing. Warmly, Diane

  6. Lori

    I like to snack and chips, crackers, and cookies can be trigger foods for me. I would feel deprived if I prohibited myself from ever enjoying them. I keep them in the house, but I have a rule…I don’t eat them directly from the bag or box. I weigh out single servings in advance and put them in snack bags. I put the snack bags in the cookie jar or back in the bag or box. I also write the calories on the bag with a sharpie. When I get a craving, I allow myself to indulge.

  7. Marilyn

    This is an on going dilemma for me. I have tried both methods. When I keep my trigger foods out of the house I find I don’t think about them as much. Out of sight out of mind. Since others in my home have problems with over eating as well it is probably the best method.
    When I have my trigger foods in the house I find it very challenging to control the urge to over eat that particular food. Do I eat it away from home. Yes I do but in a more controlled manner. Am I defining my behavior and dealing with it. Probably not but you do what you have to do. It would be so nice not to have to worry about this choice but for now I will keep triggered foods out of my home.

    1. Hi Marilyn,

      Sounds like you found a good solution for now.

      I’m not sure if this applies to you, but for those who eat for emotional reasons, when they find other ways to cope with and soothe their feelings, these foods no longer feel like “triggers”. My wish for you is that some point soon you no longer “worry” about this choice as you say, and you find a way to make peace with this so it no longer feels like a dilemma.

      To your health and happiness.



  8. Pam

    Peanut butter and ice cream are also my trigger foods, especially peanut butter. Not keeping it in the house is better. I do not crave it when its not here,but definately would be eating it if it were.

  9. amber

    This is very interesting! I’ve always been interested in the psychology of dieting, and I have bought the books “Beck Diet Solution” (based on cognitive behavioral therapy, which teaches you to consciously talk back to sabotaging thoughts) and “Intuitive Eating” (which teaches you to listen to these thoughts, and listen to what your body says). Years of dieting has caused me to be quite unsure of what my body is really saying, and I had bought the Beck Diet Solution first, which worked for me, until I relented and gave in to my old bad habits. Then I decided to read Intuitive Eating, but the concepts it introduces is sooo foreign to me and so different from what I used to know that I couldn’t finish it.

    In your article, you presented the both extremes when facing trigger food. Avoiding the trigger altogether requires conscious thought of rejecting it and reminding oneself of the reasons, while accepting it is more of an intuitive approach to me. Having struggled with this choice so many times in the past (“I want to eat that… No, you can’t, you’d eat tooo much of it, it always happens… Well then it’s time I learn to manage myself…” If I ever buy it, most of the time I end up binging on it again 🙁 ), I’m surprised to realise that NEITHER WAY IS WRONG. That both ways can work, *if* we accept the implications and consequences. It’s refreshing to know this!

    Back to my own story… so, my trigger food is peanut butter. I just *have* to finish it until I’m scrapping the bottom of the jar. My record was finishing a 500g peanut butter within 3-4 days. It’s crazy. Few weeks ago I convinced myself that I could manage my cravings, and I bought a 1kg jar which was on special offer. Over the next 2-3 days I had so much of it I felt sick. I looked at it and wondered when could I ever finish it. Then I realised that I just don’t like being around this trigger food. I KNOW I can’t control myself around it, so it’s a lie to say that I will learn how to control myself. Well, maybe in 10 years, but definitely not now, not then, when I was at a quite stressful period of my life. Keeping it there was mocking me in the face. I realised that while it seems like buying the food gives me some freedom over not restricting myself, it actually ties me down because I’d feel so ‘controlled’ by the food. In this case, making a conscious choice to avoid it altogether makes me feel better, and this actually makes me feel more free from my addiction. In the end, I threw the remaining jar away (Yes, it’s a waste, but I’d feel worst eating it or keeping it at home).

    I hope I had expressed my thoughts properly… You certainly had highlighted something I had never thought of before. Thank you for the insight! 🙂

    1. Hi Amber,
      Thank you for writing and I’m glad my article helped you. I enjoyed reading your post.

      What you wrote here about peanut butter (which could be any trigger food) is very powerful:

      “Keeping it there was mocking me in the face”;
      “…it actually ties me down because I feel so ‘controlled’ by the food”; and,
      “…making a conscious choice to avoid it altogether makes me feel better…and more free from my addiction.”

      I’m highlighting this because I think it can help others.

      I don’t believe mindful eating works with a trigger food until it no longer IS a trigger food. Until then, there is great freedom in saying ‘No’ to something that potentially causes harm.

      I’m so glad you discovered this freedom!

      Wishing you much peace and happiness.

      My best,
      P.S. Throwing it away was a good decision in my opinion!

  10. Maria

    Trigger foods is what I struggle with especially that I had a snowball of events these past 4 years, bankruptcy, the passing of both of my elderly parents, and now a divorce. Sometimes I meditate, try to stay positive but salty chips is what I crave the most. I know that I am dealing with a lot. I even felt that journaling was a way to avoid myself but now I am working on moving forward and taking one day at a time. I have begun journaling again and taking steps to eating in moderation. Actually this article is very helpful.

  11. Jeri

    Your article is very informative and especially defining.
    I have recently started to “pay attention” and avoid mindless eating. Sugar is my trigger and chocolate is oh, so satisfying…but I can’t stop. I go through bouts of empowerment because I seem to be able to avoid sugar and suddenly I have a lapse and feel terrible, both physically and mentally. I am working on the mental game and appreciate knowing that others are having similar experiences.

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