Eating Triggers

Identifying and understanding eating triggers can help you achieve weight-loss success.

A trigger can be defined as something that sets in motion a course of events. For example, red wine can trigger a migraine headache in susceptible people, while seeing a spider can trigger a panic attack in those who have arachnophobia.

When it comes to eating triggers, they fall into three separate categories: trigger foods, trigger feelings, and trigger environments.

Trigger Foods
A trigger food is a specific food that sets off a course of overeating where control is lost.1,2 The most common trigger foods are calorie-dense, highly palatable foods that are often combinations of sugar and fat (e.g. ice cream, cookies) or fat and salt (e.g. nuts, potato chips, French fries).3 Research suggests that exposure to certain trigger food cues activates particular areas of the brain that are involved with the body's reward system.4 Food triggers should not be confused with favorite foods (foods that are highly preferred), comfort foods (foods that are linked to a sense of home and contentment) or food cravings (an intense desire to eat a particular food). With a true food trigger it is the food, not an emotion or situation, that triggers the out-of-control eating. For example, open the bag of potato chips and overeating occurs, regardless of mood, time of day or place.

As the science of brain function in response to food cues is evolving, it is not yet known whether identifying trigger foods and avoiding them altogether over a certain period of time will lessen their effect.

Trigger Feelings
A trigger feeling is an emotion, good or bad, that sets off a period of overeating.5 Susceptibility to emotional triggers varies among individuals, and researchers are trying to elucidate the relationship among emotions, degree of dietary restraint and disinhibition, and overeating.6 For more information on this topic, read the Science Center library article, Emotional Eating. To manage trigger feelings, it is important to first identify the specific emotion that initiates the overeating and then develop positive strategies to cope with that emotion without using food.

Trigger Environments
A trigger environment is a specific situation or place that sets off a period of overeating in a habitual way. Common examples include walking into a movie theater, going to a buffet restaurant, attending a sporting event or visiting a relative. To manage trigger environments, it is important to identify the specific location, people or events that set off the overeating. As with trigger foods, avoidance is an effective strategy for many people. For example, if the movie theater is a trigger, then going to a play or museum may be a better option. If visiting relatives in their home sets off an eating frenzy, ask to meet in a restaurant or elsewhere. When avoidance is not an option, it is important to develop tactics that minimize the likelihood of overeating.

Bottom Line – Inevitably, eating triggers happen. When this occurs, it is important to recognize them for what they are and think about how you could avoid it from occurring in the future.

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1 Wardle J. Conditioning processes and cue exposure in the modification of excessive eating. Addict Behav. 1990;15(4):387-93.

2 Ferriday D, Brunstrom JM. How does food-cue exposure lead to larger meal sizes? Br J Nutr. 2008 Dec;100(6):1325-32.

3 Hagan MM, Chandler PC, Wauford PK, Rybak RJ, Oswald KD. The role of palatable food and hunger in an animal model of stress induced binge eating. Int J Eat Disord. 2003 Sep;34(2):183-97.

4 Tang DW, Fellows LK, Small DM, Dagher A. Food and drug cues activate similar brain regions: A meta-analysis of functional MRI studies. Physiol Behav. 2012 Jun 6;106(3):317-24.

5 Patel KA, Schlundt DG. Impact of moods and social context on eating behavior. Appetite 2001 Apr;36(2):111-8.

6 Tomiyama AJ, Mann T, Comer L. Triggers of eating in everyday life. Appetite. 2009 Feb;52(1):72-82.

7 van't Riet J, Sijtsema SJ, Dagevos H, De Bruijn GJ. The importance of habits in eating behaviour. An overview and recommendations for future research. Appetite. 2011 Dec;57(3):585-96.