How to Make “Addictive Foods” Less Triggering

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I’m Sarah (she/her), a Toronto-based writer, anti-diet nutritionist, and Certified Intuitive Eating Counsellor. I teach folks how to have a healthy relationship with food and accept their natural body size.

Hi, I'm Sarah

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If you feel like your relationship to food is pretty good except when it comes to your “trigger” foods, this post is for you!

Trigger foods are so-called because they elicit a binge-like response to eating. Whether it’s Cool Ranch Doritos or homemade bread, we feel out of control around these foods, ashamed for eating them in the first place, or guilty for overdoing it. You may be someone with very few trigger foods if any, or there may be a whole slew of things you’ve crossed off as forbidden. When I was seventeen, I had more “no” foods than “yes” foods. If it wasn’t greenlit in The Zone, I didn’t eat it. I never even considered how they became my trigger foods, or how I could heal my relationship with them.

I used to wonder how people could just eat a handful of potato chips or a few candies. These people were extra special, I assumed, alien invaders with massive willpower or high-powered metabolisms. So I kept snacks out my apartments and purposely kept to the outer perimeter of the grocery store to avoid temptation. Even so-called healthy foods were relegated to the ‘no’ list if I caught myself overdoing them. Cheese? Nope. Crackers and hummus? No way. Any sort of “play” food, such as white cheddar popcorn or sour gummy candy? I’m sure you know the answer.

Becoming a holistic nutritionist disguised my disordered thinking, because suddenly it was justified and merited. These were toxic foods and I was protecting my health, even if I never thought twice about my mental well-being. I mean, what part of “balanced diet” says you can only eat “healthy” foods?

I never realized temptation originated in deprivation and restriction, and wasn’t, in fact, something specific to the foods I loved and denied myself. Turns out the best way to keep something attractive is to make it unattainable.

That said, unlearning these types of behaviours and thinking is a challenging process. It requires us to work through our own beliefs about health and wellness, to filter what the media has taught us and what we believe to be true for ourselves, and to connect deeply with our innate desires, wishes, and insecurities.

While this post will not heal your relationship with food, everybody’s gotta start somewhere. Here’s four suggested steps to heal your relationship with your trigger foods and seize your personal power.

Pinpoint when your “trigger foods” became so-called.

While not always true, many of us are shaped by our parent’s beliefs and treatments of food. If you grew up in a household where foods weren’t restricted or limited, and your parents didn’t discuss dieting or weight loss, your relationship to food may be significantly different from an individual who grew up in a fat-phobic household where her parents yo-yo dieted (weight cycled) and restricted access to foods like candy and dessert. When and where did you first learn fried foods were “bad” for you?

Some of the individuals I’ve spoken with have had similarly negative experiences while in high school or post-secondary, where they dieted for acceptance by, and connection to, their peers. In this case, food avoidance and restriction became a rite of passage, something girls did to fit in, to feel beautiful and desirable. Some dieted with their mothers to bond. Because women diet, girls often perceive it as a sign of maturity, a special club, and want to join in, too — not because they ate their bodies, but because they’ve been conditioned to believe they’re not women unless they do.

And because I know some of you will say, “But what’s wrong with eating healthy foods, or encouraging kids to eat well?” I have an answer for you. There’s nothing wrong with eating “healthy foods.” There’s nothing wrong with gentle nutrition education (ie. vegetables will help you to grow strong, fats keep you full). The problem arises when we’re rigid or disciplined about it and enforce this type of controlled behaviour on the little ones.

Scarcity compels reaction — it’s true in business and it’s just as true in eating.

When, where, and from whom did you first learn about food? What’s true for you? What isn’t true for you? How would your relationship to food change if nothing were off-limits for you? My kind of balance includes a super-spicy green juice in one hand and a bacon cheeseburger in the other; I love both equally and appreciate them for different, but still important, reasons. What does yours look like? What are you ashamed of?

Recognize the emotional connection behind trigger foods

Because of your upbringing, experiences, or a combination of these and perhaps other factors, you may have trouble experiencing food as emotionally neutral. You’ve got your list of “good” and “bad” foods and find yourself attributing moral qualities to what you put in your mouth. What’s the difference between a peach and a slice of peach pie? While one may objectively be more nutritious, if you feel your stomach tighten whenever you’re around peach pie, your body may be telling you something pretty significant.

If you feel like something is inherently “bad”, you may unconsciously or consciously restrict, only to binge on it at a more “appropriate” time. It becomes a trigger food. The first step in making peace with trigger foods requires you acknowledge when it started; the second involves working through the negative feelings you have about certain foods (and possibly the negative feelings you have about yourself when you eat them.)

If food were just food — and not loaded with meaning and symbolism — then it would be easier to reduce the trigger quality of off-limits favourites. How can you neutralize your response to foods? Ask yourself if these foods really are “good” or “bad” (or even “healthy” or “unhealthy.”) Ask yourself why a healthy diet must include only wholesome foods. I also find it useful to incorporate the power of positive thinking: “This slice of pie is so delicious — look how well it is feeding my spirit,” “This is the best pizza I’ve had in a long time — I want to eat it slowly so I can savour it,” “It was so nice of my friend to bring me cupcakes — which one looks the most appetizing to me right now?” This type of messaging is helpful in combatting the negative emotions the food stirs for you.

It’s important to eat these foods slowly, if possible, and to savour them.

Allow yourself to eat your trigger foods unconditionally

If you’re limiting and severely restricting your trigger food intake — refusing to buy it, for example, or to go anywhere near it — I recommend allowing yourself to eat it unconditionally. Yup. That’s right. I’m not going to advise you to replace your Oreos with homemade breakfast cookies, your potato chips with roasted kale, or your ice cream with nicecream. No offence to these foods — I mean, I enjoy them all myself — but there’s a time and place for everything. #allfoodsfit

At first, you may find you’re eating a ton of this specific food (I’d do one at a time if you have several.) But through the process of habituation, eventually you’ll tire of the food and move on to other things. By allowing yourself to eat this food unconditionally, though — not just now, but forever — you can neutralize the power it has over you.

This may take time.

This may take days. Weeks. Months. But eventually, through this process, the food will no longer trigger you. You may stand back in amazement at your ability to eat a couple tablespoons of ice cream (or two scoops, if you choose), a handful of potato chips, a couple bites of cake. It’s not about control or willpower; it requires the opposite, actually. We gain by letting go.

Keep your trigger foods around to reassure yourself you can eat them whenever you want

I know they always say if you keep good food in your house that you’ll eat good food, but I say you want to keep a variety. When you’re not an intuitive eater it’s easy and automatic to default to the most palatable foods available — namely fun foods. But when you’ve incorporated some of the principles of intuitive eating, it becomes easier to ask yourself what you’re craving and would like to eat. You may find your diet varies by this conscious choice.

What’s the biggest challenge you’re currently facing with your favourite “play” foods?

If you’re struggling to make peace with specific trigger foods, consider working with me. I offer a special Habits & Behaviours Audit where I’ll assess what’s going on and help you to create a healthy relationship with food and body.


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