Triggers for Unhealthy Eating

"Know Your Triggers" written on a piece of paper

November’s MUSC Metabolic & Bariatric Surgery support group welcomed Dr. Brown, a Behavioral Medicine fellow, as the guest speaker, who shared a presentation on “Triggers for Unhealthy Eating and How to Cope.” Dr. Brown identified a trigger as something that causes something else to happen, and notes that it can be either internal or external. Internal triggers are behaviors, situations, objects and things that elicit strong cravings or ideas associated with certain foods. External triggers are situations or circumstances that cause a person to crave a certain food. These triggers can often become self-reinforcing. Whether you’ve had bariatric surgery or not, you likely experience triggers surrounding food quite often, especially around this time of year.

Cravings vs. Physiological Hunger

Dr. Brown explored the difference between a food craving vs. physiological hunger, encouraging members to ask themselves the following questions: Does it come on slowly or suddenly? How long does it last? She explained that a craving may come on more suddenly or “spur of the moment” and last until it is fulfilled, whereas physiological hunger typically comes on more gradually and only lasts until you eat again. Understanding the difference between these two cues is important when trying to stay on track with a healthy lifestyle. By being able to identify a food craving, one can eventually learn to satisfy these cravings in a healthy way or even prevent them, rather than giving in every time they arise, because let’s be honest – most cravings are not the healthiest of food choices!

Recognizing Your Triggers

Being able to recognize your personal triggers can help you learn how to cope with them in the future. Dr. Brown encouraged members to think about specific things in their life that may trigger them to eat unhealthy foods, which led to the group sharing some of their personal triggers such as social eating, emotional eating or grocery shopping on an empty stomach.

Some other examples of triggers may include:

  • Stress
  • Other people eating certain foods
  • Smells
  • Celebrations
  • Ready to eat/convenience foods
  • Restaurants you pass on your way to work
  • Boredom

How to Cope

There are many ways to deal with triggers, however some are healthier than others. Learning how to cope in a healthy way is crucial for maintaining a healthy relationship with food. Dr. Brown gave an overview of some healthy coping mechanisms that pertain not only to food but to life in general.

Coping mechanisms:

  • Distraction
  • Remind self of goals
  • Keep triggers out of sight
  • Stress management
  • Replace triggers with healthier cues
  • Support from others

Stress Management

As Dr. Brown mentioned, stress is probably one of the most common triggers for unhealthy eating. Whether elevated cortisol levels are responsible or increased hunger hormones are playing a role, stress usually leads to an increase in the intake of foods that are high in fat and/or sugar. Learning how to properly manage stress can be a beneficial coping mechanism to prevent overconsumption of these foods. Some ways to manage stress include relaxation exercises, examining thoughts, practicing mindfulness, participating in therapy, and doing things you enjoy!