Eating Triggers and How to Handle Them

Friends eating popcorn at the movie theatre

How many times have you vowed to stick to your healthy eating plan but found yourself getting derailed because something triggered you to eat? It could be the smell of fresh baked bread when you walk by a bakery or the sight of candy on your co-workers desk. Or maybe once you start with pasta you want half the box. For others, stress or anxiety can send you running to the kitchen or vending machine. We all have different eating triggers and some are more apparent than others. You probably think you’re aware of your eating triggers – but I bet there are some you don’t even realize! Once you learn what they are, you can strategize to come up with a plan on how to control them. It is possible to control your eating triggers … you just need to outsmart them! Read the bottom of this article to see what my triggers are as well as my “treatment plan”.

Getting started with a food journal

The best way to become really aware of your eating triggers is to keep a detailed food journal. You may be thinking “I writing in journalalready do that on myfitnesspal”. Nope – I’m talking the good old-fashioned notebook type of journal. This will enable you to keep more details including the time you eat, what you eat, who you are with, your hunger level, any emotion you may be feeling and anything you feel triggered you to eat. Anything can trigger you to eat – ranging from the smell or sight of food, certain people, time of day, activities, emotions and feelings and of course, actual hunger. After you’ve completed your log, take some time to analyze it and come up with a plan.

Common eating triggers & proposed solutions

There are many eating triggers – too numerous for me to address in this article – so I’ve chosen a few of the most common.

  1. donutsCertain foods
    Do you have “trigger” foods? These are foods that set off cravings or make it more difficult to stop eating. This is a biggie for many of us! Common trigger foods include sweets, refined carbs like pasta and bread and salty foods like chips and cheese.
    -Having one piece of bread from the bread basket causes you to eat 3
    -Cooking pasta at home triggers you to go back for seconds and thirds
    -Having one cookie leads to 6 or a handful of chips leads to the whole bag
    Tips to handle it:
    You really have 3 choices here:
    -Avoid the trigger totally if you KNOW it will set you off. If you eating one piece of bread in restaurant will set you off, avoid it. If possible, ask the waiter to remove the basket.
    -Allow yourself a small portion. Eat it slow and enjoy it. With pasta, weigh out 2 oz dry and cook only that. But if this still triggers you to want more, you may be best off not keeping it in your home. Maybe you can enjoy an order of pasta in a restaurant on occasion.
    -Find a replacement. If you love ice cream but can’t control your portion, enjoy a small cup of ice cream at the ice cream parlor on your Saturday walk or keep individually portioned ice cream bars at home for when you get the urge.
    If you husband wants ice cream or chips in the house (your trigger food), keep them out of sight or ask him to buy a flavor you don’t love. But here is some food for thought: ask yourself – do you feel compelled to keep eating the trigger food because you feel it is a “bad” food and the all or nothing mentality has crept in? If this is the case, they you’ll need to work on getting rid of this thought process. Or do you REALLY feel this food sets you off?  2 different things!
    Do you have a trigger food (if so, what is it)?   How can you handle it?
  2. Seeing or smelling food
    This is a common one! Whether it’s the sight of candy on your co-workers desk (if you didn’t see it you probably wouldn’t crave it) or the smell of fresh bread, what we see and smell can be strong triggers. We all can’t walk around with nose plugs or blinders, so you’ll need to learn how to avoid certain situations or handle them differently.
    -The sight of candy on your co-workers desk
    -Smelling the cinnabons in the mall
    -Walking past Crumbs and seeing/smelling the cupcakes
    Tips to handle it:
    -Make a detour around the bakery by taking a different street
    -Buy your co-worker a type of candy for the jar that you don’t love. Bring your own healthy snack to work to have versus eating what’s in the candy jar
    -Try to avoid the room with the candy as much as possible
    -Chew gum or eat mints. Some studies have shown this can help you resist tempting foods
    -Keep any tempting foods that you need to keep in your home for others out of sight
    -Is the sight or smell of food a trigger for you? Can you come up with any solutions on how to handle it—
  3. Situational/Environmental
    Are there certain places, situations or activities that trigger you to eat or drink more? After all, we don’t live in glass bubbles and food is everywhere! Here are 3 biggies:
    -Going to the movies
    -Watching tv
    -Eating out in restaurants
    Tips to handle it:
    -Movies: do you really need that 800 calorie bag of popcorn? How about sneaking in a 100 calorie bag of Skinny Pop. I doubt you’ll get caught or punished J  Don’t bring any extra money to the movies
    -Tv: While it would be better to break the tv/eating behavior chain, if  you really feel that you need a snack while watching tv, at least plan it out. Ideally pick something that is portion controlled (i.e. a sliced apple, a small bag of popcorn, a mini hummus with cut veggies, one low cal ice cream bar, 25 pistachio nuts ). Avoid sitting in front of the TV with a whole bag of chips or can of nuts!
    -Eating out: there are more temptations in restaurants, but be careful not to give into the all or nothing mentality. You don’t need to have bread, wine, appetizer and dessert. Look at the menu ahead of time online to prepare yourself. Have a light snack ahead of time so you aren’t starving. Consider taking half home in a doggie bag. Go into the restaurant with a plan.
    Are there certain situations or activities that trigger you to eat more? What can you do about it?
  4. Certain people
    It’s likely that you have certain friends, relatives or significant others who trigger you to eat more. I bet you have “healthy eating” friends and then those who like to indulge.  Or “Drinking” friends trigger you to have multiple glasses of wine.
    Stay tuned for an upcoming blog post on dealing with Food Pushers
  5. Boredom or less structure
    I find that many of my clients have an easier time sticking to a healthy eating plan when their day is structured. But as soon as the structure goes, all bets are off.
    -Evenings after long stressful day
    -Working from home (like I am doing right now!)
    Tips to handle it:
    -Plan some structure into your day on the weekends. Sign up for a Soul Cycle class. Make a “walk date” with a friend. Keep a list of projects you’ve been meaning to get to and start to tackle them one by one.  While you may not necessarily eat 3 meals a day, eat “feedings” with protein and veggies. The worse thing to do would be to get into a carb graze fest
    -Everyone deserves to relax after a long day at work, but it doesn’t have to revolve around food. Embarrassing confession – sometimes when I am exhausted after working, I give myself permission to watch a ridiculous tv show like the Real Housewives of NYC. It kinda numbs your brain like food would! Find an activity that relaxes you and that you don’t associate with eating.
    Does boredom or less structure trigger you to eat? What can you do about it?-
  6. Alcohol
    There is nothing wrong with incorporating alcohol in moderation into a healthy eating plan. However, I would certainly call alcohol a trigger if one drink leads to 4 or it as a negative impact on your food choices (that night or even the next day
    -Alcohol can decrease your resolve to watch what you eat
    -For some people, it can also increase hunger later in the evening even after eating a meal (or the next day if you feel hungover)
    Tips to handle it:
    Read my previous blog post on 12 Sneaky Tips to Drink Less Alcohol
    Does alcohol trigger you to eat? What strategies can you try?
    Now while the following aren’t triggers in themselves, the outcomes may be triggers in their own way:
  7. Exercise
    Do you notice a difference in your hunger levels on the days you exercise? Do you find you tend to eat more, less or the same on exercise versus non-exercise days?  If you eat more, it is from REAL hunger or because you rationalize that you can eat more because you exercised (or saw your fitbit said you burnt 400 calories!)
    Tips to handle it:
    Try to have a healthy snack shortly after exercise or a meal within a hour or two. This will help replete the carbs you burned and get protein into your muscles. But catch yourself  if you hear that little voice saying “you can eat more because you exercised”. Maybe can you eat a little more … but not much more if you are trying to lose weight
    Does exercise have an effect on your eating?
  8. Inadequate sleep
    Lack of sleep can be a powerful trigger to get you to crave more carbs and fat and just be more hungry. In addition, studies have shown that those people who get less than 7 hour of sleep a night are more likely to have larger waistlines and increased chance of being overweight or obese
    Tips to handle it:
    The obvious … get more sleep! I know easier said than done, but do your best to make it a priority.
    Do you feel like eating more the day after a poor nights sleep?
  9. Emotions
    This may be the biggest trigger of all for many people! I’m leaving this one to an expert – Dr. Gretchen Kubacky. Stay tuned for her upcoming blog post on Emotional Triggers to Eating & How to Handle it

    Bottom line

    We usually don’t eat out of pure hunger. There is usually something else triggering you to eat. By being really aware of what your triggers are, you may be able to anticipate these triggers and win the fight against them!


Now … even nutritionist have eating triggers!  Here are my triggers:
1. Going out with certain “drinking & eating friends”
what I do about it: I arrive a little late to the dinner to miss pre-dinner drinks, I talk a lot and eat slow

2. Feeling anxious at work. This tends to happen more in the morning versus later in the afternoon. I almost feel like I have low blood sugar and have the urge to keep eating or look for foods. (though there is no way I do because I just had breakfast)
what I do about it: cut down on caffeine, have an early more substantial lunch.

3. “Free lunch” Tuesdays in my office. 80% of the time it’s not a healthy choices. Yet somehow I find myself eating too much of it. I tend to back for seconds as well. Why? Maybe because the kitchen is so close to my office or it’s free???
what I do about it: I order my lunch into work on Tuesdays (like a salad or ½ sandwich and soup). Sure, I’m losing out on a free lunch, but I feel this is “my lunch” and I don’t get started with the office lunch.

4. Eating too much pasta when I cook it. Whenever I try to cook a moderate portion of pasta (~ 2 oz dry), I almost always go back and cook more.
what I do about it: I no longer cook pasta in my apartment, but I do order it in restaurants about once a month.


What are your triggers and what can you do about them?  List a few and come up with some solutions!



I especially love problem-solving, whether it’s helping women defeat issues plaguing them for years, helping a busy executive find practical ways to get heart healthy, or providing tips to help you reverse diabetes. That’s why I’m on a constant quest to expand my knowledge by staying on top of the latest research.

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