Weight Loss Tips

Freeing yourself from food triggers: ObesityHelp



June 19, 2023

We all have different experiences with food throughout our lives and we each have a different relationship with food. The way society treats people who have a difficult relationship with food or who are overweight is shameful. These judgments often lead to stigma. The feelings of guilt, shame, and stress that result from viewing our relationship with food or our body as flawed can lead to unnecessary cycles such as overeating, binge-like behavior, or extremely restrictive behavior.

Admittedly, most people experience food triggers for a variety of reasons and that doesn’t make us imperfect. It makes us human. Emotions, past experiences, self-soothing, and current circumstances are just some of the drivers of our behaviors around food.

There are two important things to know:

  1. The will is a myth.
  2. Food triggers can be managed, but are unlikely to go away completely.

Manage Food Triggers

The first step towards managing food triggers is to identify the triggers. Does a certain food cause the trigger itself or does a trigger occur at a certain time of day? Do stress or other emotions trigger a trigger or a certain aspect of your routine, like sitting in one spot on the couch to watch TV?

The next step is to determine how it affects you. Do you see an impact on physical health, mental health, interpersonal relationships, or decreased engagement in the hobbies or physical activity you enjoy? Does this behavior leave you feeling anxious, lacking energy, or keeping you up at night?

After determining the what and the when, it’s time to examine the why and the how. Our brain chemistry plays a major role in our food choices. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is released when we experience something pleasant and lights up our reward center in the brain. It’s called our “happiness hormone,” but it also helps maintain mood, regulate heart rate, manage kidney function, and other important bodily processes.

Because we feel good when dopamine is released, it reinforces the behavior that caused the release in the first place. What causes a dopamine release for me will not necessarily cause a dopamine release for you. I may be more sensitive to sugary foods than you are due to the outsized impact on my brain’s reward center. I may also not have enough hormones that give my brain feedback that I am full or satisfied.

food industry

It is important to note that the trillion dollar food industry chemically engineers foods for the perfect balance of salt, fat and sugar to maximize the impact of dopamine on our brain’s reward center to to ensure that we eat more and more often.

In animal studies, foods with high amounts of added sugar have been shown to be more addictive than heroin and other drugs.

While willpower is touted to manage these triggers and responses, it cannot resist the chemistry that occurs in our bodies and brains. This does not mean that you lack willpower. In fact, you probably experienced significant internal conflict before you acted on the trigger. It doesn’t mean you’re lazy either. This means that your brain chemistry is powerful and significantly manipulated by carefully modified foods.

Now that you understand what drives your food choices and behaviors, you can begin to identify ways to manage it.

Take a look at how you engage in self-talk or black-and-white thinking.

If you think food or actions are all “good” or all “bad” (black and white thinking), you are putting unreasonable expectations on yourself. You are also likely to speak negatively to yourself. Negative self-talk and black-and-white thinking tend to keep us in a cycle of reward and punishment that reinforces or even exaggerates our food triggers. Remember that nothing is entirely good or entirely bad. Just because you want something salty and crunchy doesn’t mean you’re bad or have to find a way to punish yourself. It’s also helpful to recognize that food is a fuel that supports your daily functions on a cellular level and food choices don’t define you. If a meal or snack isn’t going according to your plan, think about what can be done differently. Would it be useful to avoid keeping a certain food in the house? Or would it help to have a wider variety of foods, like whole fruits or pre-prepared vegetables?

Consider your daily routine to identify areas that might change.

For some clients, simply sitting in another part of the house or living room disrupts the cue to eat a trigger food while winding down for the day. Maybe taking a short walk after a stressful experience or putting together a puzzle after a meal is enough to alter the signals sent to your brain.

Food tracking can be a trigger for unhealthy behaviors

For some people, food tracking can be a trigger for unhealthy behaviors, but for others it can be helpful in identifying trends. Decide what suits you best. You can also consider tracking other trends, like symptoms and other lifestyle aspects, by using an app or writing it down. Does your trigger food trigger other ailments like headaches or stomach problems? Are you sufficiently hydrated and sleeping? Do you take your prescription medication regularly? All of this information can be helpful in identifying relatively simple solutions to improve your health and manage cravings or food triggers.

Would the support of a professional be useful to you?

Obesity medicine experts, primary care providers, and dietitian nutritionists can offer support such as accountability, guiding lifestyle changes, or discussing medications that help regulate signals to the brain. Often having a tool like medication gives you the opportunity to engage with your health in a positive way and heal your relationship with your body or with food.

Working with a therapist can help modify behavior, address the causes of triggers, or overcome past life events that inform your relationship with food.

Finding what works best for you to feel better and at peace may take some trial and error. You may find it helpful to enlist a friend or loved one to help you. Avoid setting rules or conditions for food such as “I can never have XYZ”, as this tends to increase our desire for that thing. Try not to use food as a reward. Choose lifestyle changes that aren’t dramatic or terribly disruptive to your current lifestyle. These changes are not meant to be a punishment, only to help you feel more in control of your choices.

Be patient with yourself. There is a lot going on in our lives and in the world around us. Show you grace. Remember that perfection is the enemy of good. No one expects you to do anything perfectly, and it’s unreasonable to have that expectation for yourself. Management of food triggers is possible. What first step will you take?

Colleen Dawkins is a Certified Family Nurse Practitioner, Registered Dietitian and Nutritionist at Big Sky Medical Wellness.


Colleen Dawkins is a Board Certified Family Nurse Practitioner, Registered Dietitian and Nutritionist, and Certified Obesity and Weight Management Specialist. She has a private telemedicine practice for Washington and Montana patients at Big Sky Medical Wellness.


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