Tackling Triggers and Binges

April 23, 2007 at 9:44 am  •  Posted in Healthy Lifestyles by  •  0 Comments

By Francis L. Battisti, MSW, LCSW, BCD


“Bet you can’t eat just one,” said the ad for a well-known brand of potato chip. In your case, you can pass up potato chips with no problem at all, but faced with M&Ms, you won’t stop at just one bag. Are Oreos your downfall and you can’t just buy two and satisfy a small craving? They’re known as trigger foods, and figuring out your strategy before they are staring at you across the party table is key to sticking with your healthier eating plan over the long haul. But triggers are only part of the problem.

Cravings often lead to binges. Binges lead to guilt and guilt can lead you right back into overeating, setting off a vicious cycle that causes many well-intentioned self-improvers to throw out the entire plan and give up, figuring they’ll never be strong enough to overcome such an overwhelming sequence of circumstances. We’re not addressing severe food disorders such as bulimia here, just the inability to control eating that we all lapse into now and then.

Anticipating each stage of this downward spiral and fighting back with a well-planned strategy can take the power out of a binge, take the guilt out of a relapse and get you back on track without a big blow to self-esteem.

First, remember what we’ve said before about the eating and food choices. To avoid the guilt trap, it’s essential to stop thinking about foods as either bad or good, to eat enough to sate your hunger and to incorporate sweets and treats into a well-balanced diet.

But what about those “trigger” foods? What happens when you go to sleep dreaming of chocolate chip cookies? Strategy number one is to identify your triggers so that they don’t catch you off guard. What are those foods that you absolutely can’t just eat a small amount of? Make a list and decide how you’re going to handle it the next time you see them everywhere you turn. How about going to one of those mini-marts and buying only a small amount, even though you’ll end up paying a lot more than at the mega-mart?

Maybe you can share a bag with friends or co-workers, or go out to eat and order just a single serving. You might have to avoid your triggers completely, or save them for special occasions. Most people don’t like to waste food, but rather than eating an entire bag of cookies or chips, or whatever your trigger happens to be, throwing out even a mostly full package (or giving it away) might be preferable to sabotaging your own efforts at healthier eating. As you diffuse your triggers, you might find that you can allow yourself a small amount to satisfy a craving without overdoing it.

If you succumb to a binge attack, the first thing you need to do is take some sort of immediate or intervening action. Get up, walk around, call a friend, do whatever will put you on a different track right away. Two things you should not do are punish or berate yourself or feel excessive guilt. Put it into perspective-it’s a minor setback, not the end of the world.

For the longer term, it helps to identify not only the “what” of trigger situations, but the where, when and why, as well as the how. Are there particular places, public or private, homes, parties, restaurant buffets–that trigger uncontrolled eating? Are you prone to binge in a certain mood, after a stressful day, only around the holidays or when you’re feeling lonely? And what is your particular style of over-eating? “Picker/Nibblers” just pick endlessly while watching TV; “Prowlers” munch all day long; “Hoarders” eat very little until they are off by themselves, while “Finishers” clean every morsel from their plate.

The more you can bring food triggers and food bingeing into your conscious awareness, the more you can devise and execute a plan for keeping them out of your life.

Food bingeing may be our legacy from the days of the cave man, according to one psychotherapist with an online book. In Be Your Own Therapist Thayer White notes that back in the days when we were hunter-gatherers, we had to take advantage of seasonal offerings and were likely to over-indulge in whatever was ripe at particular times of the year. If only we’d kept it to fruit! Thayer suggests that one strategy for dealing with uncontrolled eating of a particular food is to go ahead and have a planned binge.

First, be especially careful to eat a healthy balance of nutritional foods most of the day. Then enjoy your craving, be it butter-cream frosting or, in his case, fruitcake! If you’ve already consumed enough foods high in nutrition and satisfied your normal hunger, you may end up self-regulating after only a small amount of your trigger foods. But even if you don’t, you may actually grow weary of the food and it may lose its allure once you’ve taken away the seductiveness of the taboo.

Take-Home Point:  Write down and become aware of foods,
times of the day, places, feelings and life circumstances that trigger
uncontrolled eating in yourlife, as well as your particular style of
food bingeing.  The more you plan and anticipate, the more successful
you will be in maintaining a balanced eating plan.

To order a copy of Tomorrow’s Weigh: The No Diet Way to Lose Weight click here.

Author Biographies:

Helen Battisti, MS, RD, is the CNO of Medical Nutrition Consulting, a multi-disciplinary facility that specializes in nutrition intervention. She is an adjunct professor at the Marywood University Graduate School, Scranton, PA, and State University of New York – Broome Community College.

Dr. Richard Terry is a 1988 graduate of the New York College of Osteopathic Medicine in Old Westbury, New York. Dr. Terry is a clinical associate professor of Family Medicine at Upstate Medical University and the New York College of Osteopathic Medicine. He is also the Director of Osteopathic Medical Education and Director of the Wilson Family Practice Residency program.

Francis L. Battisti, LCSW, BCD, is the CEO of Battisti Network, a multi-discipline consulting firm specializing in individual and organizational transformation and life enhancement. He is a Clinical Social Worker in private practice and Professor of Psychology and Human Services at the State University of New York – Broome Community College Campus where he was the recipient of the State of the State University of New York Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching.

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