Understanding the difference between treats and triggers is an important step toward freeing yourself of unwanted eating and other unwanted behaviors that are driven by food. It calls into question conventional wisdom related to portion control, calories, and willpower. Like so many things at Suppers, we don’t need to do more research and deepen our understanding in order to flip the switch of healing. We do need to do our personal experiments and get support for behavior change, particularly those changes that reduce compulsive behaviors, poor impulse control, and addiction.
The goal of distinguishing treats and treats is to help people experience as much pleasure as possible from eating without triggering themselves.
A treat is something you eat and really enjoy that does not precipitate more eating or other unwanted behavior. Having it feels good, not gleeful.
A trigger is something you eat that does precipitate more eating or other unwanted behavior. It feels like a tripwire or compulsion.
Why Some Foods are Triggering for Some People
Bearing in mind that biological individuality reins above all else, and bearing in mind that Suppers is not health care but rather a safe environment for running experiments with food, some foods are more likely than others to trigger unwanted eating and other unwanted behaviors. The primary drivers are:
- Foods that quickly raise blood sugar (processed and high carbohydrate foods)
- Foods whose constituents are recognized by the brain as very similar to mood-altering drugs like cocaine (sugars) and morphine (wheat and dairy)
- Foods and smells that trigger memories or emotions that drive eating
- Combinations of the above
If you are on the blood sugar and mood chemistry rollercoaster, you will experience relief from the discomforts of low blood sugar when you eat carbohydrate foods. The ones that provide relief the fastest are the ones that get glucose into the blood stream the fastest. For example, chips, crackers, soda and candy are like mainlining glucose into the bloodstream; they make you feel better fast if your blood sugar is low. They are likely to be trigger foods. A baked yam or an apple will also raise blood sugar, but they do it more slowly because they are natural foods with their fiber. They are healthier foods, but they don’t change how you feel as fast as processed foods; and they don’t contain the second order of triggering energy: drug-like qualities.
If you identify with the statement, “Pizza is comfort food,” or “I eat ice cream for comfort,” you may experience the drug-like effects of foods that are recognized by our brains as cocaine-like and morphine-like. It’s lucrative for the food industry to get you hooked on foods that quickly change how you feel, cheer you up, calm you down, sedate or charge you. If you can have a normal portion –- one slice or one bowl –- that food is a treat in your particular body. However, if you can’t limit yourself to a normal portion and eating any leads to eating a lot, then that food is a trigger in your particular body.
Very often, both properties are present in the same food: both raising blood sugar and giving you a hit of a drug-like substance that quickly changes how you feel. Examples are pizza, ice cream, cookies and crackers, macaroni and cheese, candy, and soft drinks.
If you combine high carbohydrate content and similarity to addictive drugs with smells and tastes that are emotionally charged (think about pumpkin pie smells from Thanksgiving, sweet childhood rewards for good behavior), you have a perfect storm for food triggering unwanted eating and other unwanted behaviors.
People who are the most susceptible often have issues with their digestion. If you feel drawn to triggering foods AND you have bloating, diarrhea or constipation, or excessive farting, it’s time to do an experiment to distinguish your treats from your triggers. This usually takes the form of an “elimination diet” which is something you can do either alone or in the context of special Suppers meetings.
Brain symptoms like mental fatigue, ADD, confusion and brain fog are also tip offs that food choices may be driven by eating triggering foods. It’s hard to accept, but often times our favorite foods -– the ones we think we can’t live without -– are the troublemakers. Children are particularly at risk.
Sometimes people are somehow sensitive or allergic to their inflammatory foods. So allergies are another tip off. An allergic reaction is inflammatory and stressful. It creates wear and tear on adrenal glands. BUT allergic reactions come in many forms and some of them are accompanied by a cascade of hormones that actually feel really good! If you have an endorphin (think morphine again) response paired with an allergic reaction, there is going to be a certain “reward,” a good feeling that makes us like the foods we’re allergic or sensitive to.
What to Do
You can go the medical route and work with a practitioner who tests for these sensitivities, or you can stay at home or go to a Suppers meeting and figure out which foods are triggering for you. It’s very simple.
First, notice how you anticipate eating a food you love. If you feel gleeful, you may be anticipating a trigger. Dopamine is the self-made chemical of anticipation. When an alcoholic starts getting happier just at the thought that a drink is coming, that’s dopamine at work. If you’re hooked on ice cream and you just know you’re going to feel better when you get some, that’s data.
Next, notice how you feel after you eat it. Did it just satisfy normal hunger? Did it cheer you up, slow you down, sedate you or help you concentrate? Did you have to make deals with yourself about how much you could have? If you ate more than you intended or have to exert effort to have a normal portion, that’s data.
Finally, you can test the foods you suspect are triggers for you by eliminating these foods for an extended period and re-introducing them in a methodical way. What we often see is that the foods that act as triggers are often the same exact foods that cause inflammatory responses like joint pain, muscle pain, allergic reactions, digestive distress, brain fog, confusion, poor concentration and other brain symptoms.
If you respond well to efforts to exercise portion control and you normally have a taste for real whole food, then you probably don’t have triggers in your diet. If you need to put yourself in a box of calorie counting and willpower because your natural appetite doesn’t stop your eating, you probably do have triggers in your diet. A treat is associated with a sense of satisfaction; a trigger is associated with wanting more and more.
Of course there are other triggers for unwanted eating besides how your personal chemistry mixes with foods. Situations, emotions, visual and olfactory cues, shrewd advertising, and stress are noteworthy. If they drive you to compulsively eat organic kale and salmon, your triggers may not reside in your chemistry. But if –- like so many of us at Suppers –- you seek high carbohydrate foods with delicious layers of salt and fat, we invite you into our experiments.
- Identify foods or beverages that you know are always triggers (i.e., no matter what the circumstances, if you get some, it will trigger unwanted eating or other behavior, like a drink for an alcoholic or chocolate for a chocoholic).
- Identify foods or beverages that feel like treats (you really enjoy them and they are always “safe” for you. Fresh berries, or one scoop of ice cream if one is enough, or one glass of wine for someone who is not an alcoholic).
- Identify circumstances that blur the lines for you. For example, if you can enjoy one cookie when you’re calm and happy but can’t control it if you have cookies after an argument or disappointment, it’s data. It means in times of stress (just when you’d like to comfort yourself) the need to refrain is greater than normal; a cookie becomes a trigger.
- Name circumstances that favor healthy enjoyment (perhaps relishing an outdoor experience or lighting a candle to eat more mindfully).
- Name the situations that place you at risk of feeling triggered (perhaps lack of sleep, buffet tables, travel, family members, old drinking buddies).
- Name what is protective (perhaps focusing on breathing).
- Try doing an experiment to get more personal data on your treats and triggers. (For example, eat a favorite item as dessert instead of on an empty stomach and see if it was a treat or a trigger. Another example, eat a favorite food consciously, with no TV or computer going and embrace the flavor of it.)
- Make a hypothesis: I think it will slow down my eating if I count the number of chews before I swallow. Test your hypothesis.
- Ask another person for the support you would like to receive to help you live according to your intentions instead of your impulses.
Distinguishing treats and triggers is simple, but it may not be easy. It involves periods of abstaining from favorite foods and tracking your responses. If you can’t do it alone, we invite you to do it with us at Suppers.