Most of us have been there. We spend several weeks of diligent and consistent exercise, eating healthy, no soda or desserts, and we’re feeling better, slimmer, healthier, and 10 pounds lighter.
You’re soaring, but then you see an old friend sitting on the counter. It’s the enabler of your former lifestyle in the form of your favorite unhealthy snack. Isn’t it time to reward yourself? Some pizza? A burger and extra fries? Ice cream? After all, you just lost 500 calories at the gym! You can afford it! Next thing you know, you feel like Zach Galifianakis looks on camera (nothing against Zach – we all love him, I know).
Similar to the idea of “gateway drugs” that supposedly lead to the subsequent consumption of harder, more dangerous drugs, certain foods we ingest can be the beginning of a downward spiral of bad eating choices and habits, according to Dr. Gary Wenk, author of “Your Brain on Food.”
“From your brain’s viewpoint, there is no difference [between “gateway drugs” and trigger foods],” Wenk says.
Trigger foods, as they’re commonly called, seem to take over once you’ve begun to partake them (ever heard the potato chip slogan, “Betcha can’t eat just one?”), and as a result, before long you can feel like you’re gorging yourself without restraint. Research indicates these types of foods (and they are different for every individual) have an addictive and compulsively driving affect on you.
Jones-ing for Trigger Foods
High-sugar foods and drinks, along with processed/refined carbohydrates (including white bread), and foods high in fat and salt, have been shown to cause sudden ups and downs in blood sugar and to stimulate functions of the brain involved with cravings, hunger, and temporary rewards.
Much in the same way that a substance addict’s brain recognizes drugs or alcohol and releases dopamine (a pleasure-inducing chemical in your brain), the same holds true for a “food addiction.” The brain’s psychological reward system functions in the same way for “trigger foods” as it does for chemical addictions. This is why the trigger food varies from person to person. A mental reward for let’s say, chocolate, for one individual, may be undesirable for another who craves salty, fatty snacks.
“The brain responds to both sugar and fat by releasing endorphins,” says Wenk.
So, scientifically speaking, it is understandable why foods can cause you to crave more and more once you start munching, and then again particularly later, when the “feel-goods” start to fade. You find yourself subconsciously pumping more and more into your body until you’re full of unhealthy snacks.
“An underlying assumption of the ‘eat less’ portion of that message has been ‘a calorie is a calorie,’” Christopher Gardner, a nutritionist from Stanford University says. But newer research “sheds light on the strong plausibility that it isn’t just the amount of food we are eating, but also the type.”
What’s to be done? Don’t despair! It’s not the end of the world – you can take charge and do something about this dynamic.
Awareness, Vigilance and Management – 5 Steps to Conquer Your Trigger Foods
Trigger foods are different for every individual, as stated, and they trigger certain reactions in those individuals–further overeating or gastrointestinal chaos, or even headaches are common reactions caused by such foods. So you need to figure out what your trigger foods are.
Recognizing, identifying and avoiding these trigger foods will do wonders for your weight loss and management program right off the bat. Avoiding these foods will also give you a healthier overall feeling and help you avoid digestive ailments.
Weight loss and management is understandably the top reason most people want to identify their trigger foods. Remember, trigger foods do not only cause you to eat more of a particular food, they also lead you to eat other unhealthy foods as a consequence. You can identify them, though, and make them less accessible, facilitating your weight loss and management goals.
Here are five steps to get you started:
1. Learn to recognize WHY you’re eating
To be aware is to be alive, as they say. Are you eating because you’re hungry, and it’s the time you normally eat? Or are you eating because you’re having a bad day, or feeling down in the dumps, or because you’re simply feeling an intense craving? Let’s say you are feeling stressed, so you thoughtlessly grab a bag of chips. You were going to eat only a few chips, then, well, just half the bag, and then, well, so you finished the bag, no big deal. You need dessert right? Time for some cookies! Sound familiar? Become more aware of the thoughts and feelings that lead to these eating binges, because they have direct consequences.
2. Single out specific foods that trigger eating
Once you can recognize WHY you eat, the next step is to identify your own trigger foods. Start off by thinking, what snack or food do I crave when I’m bored or it’s mealtime? Common examples are bacon, licorice, doughnuts, chips, burgers, nachos, fries, ice-cream, etc. Next, you need to print off a copy of your trigger food and put it on a dart board!
By the way, trigger foods will most likely be unhealthy and contain processed/refined carbohydrates and sugars, fat, and salt, so if you’re serious about this, plan on saying goodbye to those late night chips and ice cream! When you become aware that you are eating one of these personal trigger foods, take careful note and write it down to help you start keeping track of them. Be sure to skip that particular aisle next time you’re in the grocery store!
3. WHERE do you indulge in your trigger foods?
Pay close attention to situations in which you might be tempted to eat more than is comfortable for your body. When you eat out, are you prone to skip the veggies and go straight to order something that’s greasy and fried? When you watch a movie on the couch, do you typically have to do so with a big bowl of extra-buttered popcorn and a large sugary soda? Making note of these trigger food situations will help you get in the habit of being aware of your eating behaviors and patterns, which will help you make better, more conscientious decisions about avoiding those situations that will derail your weight loss and management goals. Don’t think this means that you should stop watching movies or eating out, but it will help you train yourself to be more healthy lifestyle choice-minded. Good choices are the key.
4. Get rid of your secret stash!
So, now you’ve identified your trigger foods as well as situations that might tempt you to overeat or eat unhealthily. Now, you just have to eliminate them as much as possible. Already, you’ve written them down so that you know to avoid them in the grocery store, right? Now, go through your kitchen, office, bedroom, etc. and make sure you’re not leaving any trigger foods in places where you may be tempted to randomly snack. The good news is that once you’ve gone for a while avoiding your trigger foods, it becomes easier, and they no longer have the same hold on you as they once did. Even if you don’t readily see results, just knowing that you’re doing right by eating right will render long term rewards.
5. Keep a journal
Last, but not least, keep an eating/food journal. Such a journal is an impressively effective way to keep track of foods, your goals, and your progress. Write down your thoughts on weight loss and eating healthy, too. You’ll find it to be cathartic, and you’ll have something tangible to look back on and notice how well you’re coming along! Reviewing a journal will especially help when you struggle or have a bad day, too.
So, there you have it. Now you know to become aware of what your trigger foods are, and some ways to avoid them best. You don’t have to let trigger foods undermine your weight loss goals any longer. Good luck, and let me know your thoughts and ideas!
By Jonathan Crowell
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