Trigger Foods: To Eat or Not to Eat? That is One Reader's Question

Chocolate used to be one of my trigger foods.

We’ve talked a lot around here about what triggers binges: stress, loneliness, keeping quiet when we want to speak out. But some emotional eaters—and researchers too—believe that certain foods themselves can trigger a binge. HealthyGirl.org reader Rebecca, 29, is considering avoiding her trigger foods, but asks if that means she has to give them up forever:

Q: I recently had that light bulb moment where I realized that what I thought were just bad eating habits and lack of willpower are actually a real eating issue. I’ve been seeing a therapist and going to OA meetings, and your blog keeps me helps keep me grounded and inspired throughout the day.

After reading your story, I have one question: When you were going to an eating disorders support group, did you abstain from any particular foods? OA is a big proponent of abstaining from trigger foods, which I completely understand; however, I’m concerned about writing off certain foods forever —it just doesn’t seem realistic. I realize I’m questioning a long-standing program with a record of success, but just wanted your thoughts and feedback.

A: I did avoid a handful of especially problematic foods for a while, yes. And I completely understand your hesitation. After years and years of yo-yo dieting and binge-restrict cycles, the idea of not “being able to” eat any particular food was not only scary, but offensive to me. But I was desperate to get better, and I’d read a lot of things, and talked to a lot of people, that suggested it might help.

So, at varying times, as I realized that these foods seemed to push me to overeat, I stopped eating peanut butter, pizza, chocolate, crackers, chips and other sweets. Some of them didn’t pass my lips for two years. Strangely, instead of feeling restrictive, like a diet, it felt freeing. I didn’t have to worry about eating too much of those things or if I’d feel weird after nibbling them because…the simply weren’t options for me at the time. But guess what? They are now.

Every single one of those foods is back on my menu. Amazingly, they no longer trigger binges for me and I can eat them in moderation. Peanut butter can still be a little iffy for me, especially the creamy kind with sugar in it, so I try to be careful—but I eat with so much freedom to CHOOSE now. And I think that avoiding my trigger foods for a significant amount of time was helpful in getting me here. It gave me the mental space I needed obsess less; and I think it gave my brain pathways and neurochemicals a break from bingeing that they needed in order to heal and reset.

This doesn’t mean that I still don’t have to work to find balance. I had a big ol’ red velvet cupcake last night, for instance, that was super good and it wasn’t in any way a binge. But I woke up with a bit of a sour stomach and bloaty feeling from all that sugary frosting this morning—so sometimes I wonder if it’s really worth it for me to eat that stuff more than very occasionally.

The point is, now I have the choice; my mind is now clear enough and my body hale enough for me to make those choices in a way that’s helpful rather than harmful to me. This recovery thing is, above all, a process. Don’t be scared to experiment, to take suggestions, to stop taking suggestions, to try tools that have worked for others, to ask for advice. But, ultimately, tune into yourself. You’ll know when something feels helpful and right.

xo…Sunny

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9 Responses to Trigger Foods: To Eat or Not to Eat? That is One Reader's Question

  1. Kate says:

    I’m not sure how I feel about this:

    On the one had if you tell me I can’t eat something I want it more. On the other if it isn’t in the house I won’t eat it and I always eat less when there isn’t much food in my house.

    So I don’t know. I do know that since the beginning of the year I’ve craved less junk. Also since I stopped eating so much fake sugar things like fruit are sweet enough to eat for dessert. Chocolate has almost become too sweet.

    I’m also not sure how I feel about OA. I really think it would be nice to have a support group, especially one that is ready made. But the meeting time don’t work with my schedule AND I’ve noticed that if I ask for help from my friends, they rally and give me the support I need.

  2. Astrid says:

    Sunny, your answer is absolutely great. Recovery is a process. I believe that you shouldn’t make any foods forbidden, but you do need to realize that some foods make you feel better or worse physically. When I started rocvery, I stayed away from certain foods. Now I have them around. I am also an avid baker, so I constantly cook up awesome treats. I know how much I can have without feeling sick or mentally awful. That in itself it freeing, too. I know that I can choose to enjoy the food and not feel controlled by it.
    I have always wished that someone could write me a book of what my recovery would entail. It takes so much time and trial and error. It takes falling and getting back up. It takes so much experimenting and checking in with yourself that you want to claw your brain out.
    You are right, it is about constantly searching for a balance. The cupcake sounded great by the way!

  3. Heather says:

    It’s like that Lay’s Chips commercial…”Betcha can’t eat just one”. I can’t. I have tried and tried. I have just put myself on a no-trigger-foods plan. It’s the only way that I can do it. If I have a cookie, I want a lot of cookies. Even if I have toast with breakfast, I crave baked goods all day. I’ve tried allowing myself one binge a month, which turns quickly to one each week…next thing I know, it’s a two week carbohydrate fueled bender. For right now, I’m going to avoid the trigger foods and try and get a handle on what the non-food triggers are…or so goes this week’s plan.

    • Victoria says:

      I feel in no way qualified to write this, because it’s such a short time since I overate (only just over 2 weeks ago), but what I’m trying at the moment is something that my psychologist recommended. The idea comes from an Australian psychotherapist, Dr George Blair-West, who has written a very good book, “Weight Loss for Food Lovers”. After all, I am a big food lover, even though I come to almost hate it during a binge!

      What he says, is that you should divide food into 3 groups: foods that are healthy for you, foods that are high energy but which you love and can’t imagine never eating again (like Lindt lindor balls, or home made biscuits), and then foods which are high energy, poor quality, which you don’t really enjoy (and which are frequently your binge foods).

      The idea is to eat at least 3 good meals a day from your healthy foods with 2 healthy snacks. And then to eat your much-loved high energy foods, in a decent amount, at least every second day. And to choose the same high energy food for a week. The idea is not to feel deprived, and to get a bit saturated with your food craving.

      I guess we’re all going to have different ways of overcoming this. Personally, I know that I am never going to be able to cut certain food groups out, and if I do, I will feel so restricted that I can almost guarantee I will binge again.

      So what I’m doing is trying to really, really enjoy my treats when I have them, and I have to say that I think it’s working.

      Good luck guys!!

      • Kate says:

        When I read the book Intuitive Eating, the authors made a similar suggestion. Basically they wanted patients to make a list of every food the patient wanted to eat but never did (unless they were binging). Then as a part of the “eat when hungry, stop when satisfied” principle patients choose a food and then ate it for as long of a time period until they were sick of it.

        So patients realized they loved a particular food–for me this was nut butters–and found a way to incorporate it every day. Other people stopped eating foods and then never really wanted to eat them again. One woman, who had a fondness for those store bakery iced sugar cookies, realized she really didn’t even like the cookies and has never eaten them since the realization.

        I found once I gave myself permission to eat certain foods, I don’t want them anymore. I used to be tempted by the candy bars in the checkout line, and now I have no desire to buy that candy anymore.

  4. Tamara says:

    I was thinking the same thing as Victoria; my “trigger foods” were usually high calorie but terrible quality because, since I was being “bad,” I didn’t “deserve” good foods. White bread with butter, greasy pizza, chemical-tasting candy bars.

    For me, the solution wasn’t to cut these foods out entirely, but to adjust how I ate them. If I want pizza, I don’t pop a frozen pie in the oven and stuff my face with the resulting cheese-covered cardboard; I make it myself from fresh dough and my favorite veggie toppings. If I feel like eating tons of chocolate, it’s going to be the expensive 80% dark–you really can’t eat much of it at the same time. The ONLY time I end up with white bread in hand is when I’m deliberately going for something that doesn’t induce satiety, because I’m not actually interested in eating, but in cramming as much into my stomach as possible.

  5. lailai says:

    sunny get outta my head now! lol, k i’m calmer wow, this really cheered me up today, I do have trigger food, refined carbs and sugars, ofcourse chocolate. sometime when I want to try “eating with moderation” instead of dieting, I’m okay till I eat bread, or some cereals (made with high fructose corn syrup) and pasta, then I crave more steering clear of those foods might be a good start for me

  6. Angie says:

    Hi – When I started recovery, I attended OA regularly and abstained from certain foods. I have to say it saved me and gave me the foundation for a strong recovery. After several years I started a period where I was very healthy and did not abstain. When binging returned/became a big problem, I have tried to abstain from foods, but that led to other problems. I can turn any food into a binge food so, for me, I have tried not to deem any food ‘forbidden.’

    Earlier this year I read/heard a phrase that sounded right to me “Eating the foods that love me back.” I decided to love myself enough to eat only the foods that were good for me – body, mind, and spirit. This has been interesting. It’s opened up a more rewarding relationship with food, although I have to make time to purchase and prepare foods that are good for me. I’m definitely not perfect and one bite away from a binge, but this attitude toward food and eating is helping. Angie

  7. […] In Honor of the Fast-Approaching Halloween, Are There Any Foods That Scare You? October 5, 2010 tags: binge eating disorder, candy, halloween, intuition by Sunny There have been times in my recovery from binge eating disorder that certain trigger foods were off limits. In order to make myself feel safe, and reduce the chances that I’d slip into a binge, there were many months when things like cookies, crackers, and peanut butter simply weren’t on my menu. […]

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Sunny Sea Gold

About the Author

Sunny Sea Gold is a media-savvy advocate and commentator specializing in binge eating disorder, cultural obsessions around food and weight, and raising children who have a healthy body image.