As a food addiction coach, I see many clients experiencing different stages of food addiction. All my clients have varying issues; however, they all share a similar predicament: tackling food cravings and managing their food triggers to ensure they remain on the path to good health.
In this article, we will explore trigger foods and how best to manage any cravings that can throw you off track.
What are Trigger Foods?
A trigger food causes intense cravings, which can result in loss of control and binge eating behaviours. Trigger foods tend to be highly palatable foods that are likely synthetic and are often combinations of sugar, fat, and salt.
Trigger foods tend to be high in calories and are often composed of highly refined and ultra-processed ingredients. These foods include:
- Ice cream
- Fried foods
- Fast foods including chips, pizza, or burgers
A common trend is for these foods to be high in carbohydrates. Highly refined carbohydrate foods convert quickly into sugar, and these sugars stimulate the release of certain hormones, including dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine, which give the individual feelings of pleasure, euphoria, and ecstasy.
When we eat these foods, our brain’s reward centre is activated, resulting in cravings and increased consumption in the hope of achieving the same reward response when the initial effects wear off. A problematic cycle of trigger food dependency is created and can easily lead to the development of a food addiction that is comparable to an addiction to cocaine. Food addiction leads to a myriad of health complications, including obesity, diabetes, decreased immune system, and mental health conditions.
Dr Gary Wenk, author of ‘Your Brain on Food’, states, “In the same way that some drugs pave the way for even harder ones, a weakness for trigger foods can open the door to an avalanche of bad eating choices. (…) From your brain’s viewpoint, there is no difference. These so-called gateway or trigger foods make you feel out of control, maybe even physically unable to stop reaching for more, in part because of their addictive effect on your mind and body.”
Trigger foods are different from preferred or favourite foods or foods that are comforting or nostalgic. Trigger foods should not be confused with stress eating, emotional eating, or habit eating. A genuine trigger food causes out-of-control eating due to the ingredients and will cause cravings and bingeing regardless of mood, time, situation, or place.
The ingredients in trigger foods cause cravings, but situations, places, people, and events do too, and many of my clients come to me with deep-rooted habitual patterns around eating.
As with any addiction, there are environmental factors that make relapse more likely. This could be burgers after a football match, pizza with family on a Friday night, chocolate when stressed at work, or fast food when you’re too tired to cook.
Unlike other addictions such as substance abuse, trigger foods surround us and are readily available. Most of my clients live or work in environments with an overwhelming choice of trigger foods for sale, and we’re surrounded by fast food places, supermarkets, bakeries, ice cream parlours, and sweet shops. In addition, we are continually bombarded with convenience and fast-food advertising.
It has been evidenced that simply seeing trigger foods activates the brain’s reward centre, which prompts cravings and intense urges.
Therefore, it is vital to encourage clients to recognise their triggers, spot warning signs, create favourable conditions, and cultivate a robust support system. We cannot always control our environment or what stimulus we are subject to, but we can control how we react to it.
The Predicaments of Self-Soothing
The increase of serotonin in the brain creates feelings of comfort, happiness, and relaxation, and serotonin also decreases sensitivity to pain. These effects are similar to those of tricyclic antidepressants. As a result, an emotional dependency can develop, and particular trigger foods can be used as a form of self-soothing.
Food addiction is a complex illness, and we must uncover the root cause of the need to self-medicate in order to beat the addiction.
With other addictions, it’s possible to recover through total abstinence without it negatively impacting your life. People don’t need drugs, alcohol, or gambling to function; however, eating is necessary to stay alive. To regain control and break the cyclic pattern of addiction, it’s essential to identify trigger foods and remove them from our diets.
Tips for Navigating Food Triggers
Your client must know how to keep cravings at bay to control their eating habits and avoid relapse. Making a note of individual foods will help your client become aware when those triggers are encountered, as will recognising the warning signs.
When a person encounters a trigger food, there are behavioural warning signs that can be recognised. If the client is aware of these warning signs, the behaviours that follow them can be interrupted, thus preventing relapse.
To achieve this, your client can make a list of triggers to catch the cravings before bingeing occurs. These can include:
- Anxiety or depression
- Lack of focus
- Certain friends of family members
- Certain places or environments
All these situations can spark the emotional memory centres within the brain and trigger intense cravings. Regardless of how long your client has been in recovery, they may still be vulnerable and prone to cravings.
Clients will benefit from craving control strategies and coping techniques, which they can put into practice before entering potentially triggering environments or when warning signs arise. These can include:
- Bliss sheets
- Positive distraction techniques like walking or running a bath
- Practising mindfulness or meditation
- Therapeutic exercise such as yoga
Support networks of like-minded, positive peers are also essential to feel understood and accepted regardless of their issues.
In our pleasure-seeking society, it can be challenging to break free from food addiction; however, full recovery is possible, and everyone deserves to live a healthy, joyful life free from the burden of addiction.
If you would like to seek help or learn more about food addiction triggers, please get in touch with me, Dr Bunmi Aboaba, The Food Addiction Coach, by following this link.
 Lennerz, Belinda, and Jochen K Lennerz. “Food Addiction, High-Glycemic-Index Carbohydrates, And Obesity”. Clinical Chemistry, vol 64, no. 1, 2018, pp. 64-71. Oxford University Press (OUP), doi:10.1373/clinchem.2017.273532. Accessed 13 July 2021.
 Davis, Caroline. “From Passive Overeating To ‘‘Food Addiction’’: A Spectrum Of Compulsion And Severity”. Downloads.Hindawi.Com, 2013, https://downloads.hindawi.com/archive/2013/435027.pdf.
 Burrows, T. et al. “Food Addiction And Associations With Mental Health Symptoms: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis”. Journal Of Human Nutrition And Dietetics, vol 31, no. 4, 2018, pp. 544-572. Wiley, doi:10.1111/jhn.12532. Accessed 13 July 2021.
 Wenk, PhD, Gary L. “Your Brain On Food”. Google Books, 2010, https://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&lr=&id=QPiFDwAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PP1&dq=Your+brain+on+food+Gary+Wenk&ots=S5xWUf-KGv&sig=dLyjwUsxg9MJpWhkf_PvX1vYoM8&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=Your%20brain%20on%20food%20Gary%20Wenk&f=false.