I want to address the question of whether or not to keep trigger foods at home while you are trying to stop binge eating. Trigger food is a popular term in eating disorder recovery conversations that usually refers to the foods that tend to make binge eaters feel out of control and binge. If you’ve read Brain over Binge or listened to my podcast, you know that I don’t believe any food can cause binge eating—because the urges to binge are the only direct cause. So, when I refer to trigger foods in this blog post, I mean foods that commonly to lead to your urges to binge, or foods that you typically eat large amounts of when you follow the urges, or foods that are simply linked to binge eating in your mind.
Distancing yourself from trigger foods doesn’t cure binge eating
If keeping trigger foods out of the house was the cure for bingeing, then that would make recovery pretty straightforward—but if you’re anything like I was as a binge eater, you just find a way to get the food anyway or find something else to eat too much of. Home isn’t the only place to binge, and trigger foods aren’t the only foods that you binge on. Also, it’s not realistic to expect to be able to control all of the food that comes through your door—because roommates, children, parents, partners, relatives, or friends who share or visit your home also need to eat, and they may have different ideas about what food to have on hand.
Even though keeping trigger foods out of the home is not a cure for binge eating, it’s still one factor to consider when approaching recovery. I believe that it is an individual decision, and there isn’t one right or wrong way. If you think about it, the decision of what foods to have at home is one that all people need to make, even if they don’t have a history of an eating disorder. When you look at this choice as just a basic part of living—something you’ll need to do for the rest of your life—it can take off some of the pressure you may be feeling right now.
Will the trigger foods make me binge more?
I realize that the additional consideration during recovery is that you may be worried that certain foods will lead to increased binges, but if you remember that all the trigger foods can do is lead to increased urges, you take your power back. You give yourself the freedom to choose what foods to have or not have at home, and you can learn to dismiss the urges that are linked to those foods. (If you are new to the concept of dismissing urges, you can get my free eBook, the Brain over Binge Basics to help you get started).
It’s okay if you don’t feel ready to have any and all types of food at home right now, but with time and practice, you can gain confidence that you can be around any food and eat any food—without binge eating. On Episode 76 of the podcast, my guest shared her own experience of reintroducing trigger foods into her life, and I think you will find it helpful.
Food temptation is a universal experience
It also helps to realize that feeling tempted by certain foods at home is common, and although the urges to binge will fade, feeling drawn toward food pleasure will never go away completely. Normal eaters often say that they don’t like to have, for example, a dessert item in the house because they believe they’ll eat too much of it, or they ate too much of it last time it was in the house. The reality is that sometimes it’s just easier for anyone—with or without a binge eating issue—to simply not have something tempting in close proximity, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
In the Brain over Binge Recovery Guide, I explained that these choices extend beyond food, and I drew a comparison to my choice at the time to not buy paper towels, because when I did, I used too many of them. My kids were very young at the time, and made so many messes, and paper towels were way too convenient. If I didn’t have paper towels in the house, I put myself in a situation where I had to take the time to wash rags and keep them ready for use. Now that my kids are older and there aren’t as many spills, I do buy paper towels again, but I don’t overuse them.
Giving up binge eating and dieting makes foods less “triggering”
The paper towel example could also help you see that your decisions about what to keep in the house can change over time, and if you decide to avoid buying a certain trigger food right now, you don’t have to avoid buying it forever. One day, you may decide you want that food in your house again, and you’ll learn to overcome the temptation, or it simply won’t be as appealing to you once your binge eating habit has stopped. Foods that seem so tempting today could become foods you don’t even think about in the future—this is a wonderful benefit of giving up the dieting mindset and learning to eat everything in moderation.
I wrote a detailed post to share how this happened for me regarding my biggest trigger food—sugary cereal—and how I can now have boxes of it in my house and not even want any (read the post: How I Stopped Binge Eating Cereal and Craving it Too). It’s an amazing experience when you first realize your trigger foods are no longer triggering, and that they hold no power over you. It gives you so much freedom to be able to be around any type of food and know it won’t lead to a binge. But, everyone gets there in their own way and on their own timeline, and it’s okay if you’re not there yet.
Just make the best decisions that you can right now as far as what to keep in the house to support yourself in recovery, knowing that you can make adjustments, and add new foods over time. Eventually your urges to binge will fade and go away completely, and all of the things that once triggered them—including certain foods—will no longer lead to urges. You’ll be left with some standard temptation and cravings like all normal eaters, but it will be so much more manageable. You’ll find yourself doing things that you never thought were possible—like forgetting you have leftover cake from a birthday party in your house, or throwing out half of a batch of cookies you baked last week with your kids because you never ate them.
Dismissing urges to buy the binge foods
I want to take a step back and also talk about buying the foods at the store, because that’s ultimately how they get to your home. Even if you make a firm decision about what foods you want to have in your house, and that doesn’t include many of your trigger foods, your lower brain might try to change your mind at the grocery. You might feel urges to buy a lot of binge foods—just in case. This is all part of the habit—you’re simply used to buying them, so habitually, you feel like you need to keep buying them. An example I thought of, which I’ve experienced myself, is a parent whose child gets older and out-grows the baby items that they used to need frequently; but the parent still finds herself automatically going down the baby food or diaper aisle.
You can think of urges you have in the store as just your lower brain telling you what it thinks you need—based on your past shopping and eating behaviors—but now that you have changed, you don’t need to follow those messages anymore. Dismissing urges to buy the binge food is good practice for dismissing urges to actually binge. You don’t have to get upset with your brain for encouraging you to buy certain things, just try to observe your thoughts and gently remind yourself that you no longer binge. You don’t have to tell yourself that you can’t or shouldn’t have certain foods—because you can learn to buy and eat anything you want in moderation, provided there are no allergies or other health issues. However, if you only want to get the food to binge on it, then you can react to the urge to buy it like the parent of an older child would react to an urge to buy baby food—you can just shrug it off, maybe smile a little, and say, “Oh, I don’t actually need that anymore.”
In your case, it might not be that you don’t need any amount of a certain food, but you may simply need much less now that you are eating in a normal way. You don’t want to create a situation where you’re saying no to yourself too often for food you actually like and want in your house. You ultimately want to find a balance of foods that are going to nourish you, and foods that you buy purely for pleasure. Again, this is something you’ll need to do for the rest of your life as part of taking care of yourself and the people who share your home and food.
If you can keep a grateful mindset for all of the food you have the ability to buy and keep in your house, it can help the food feel like a gift instead of something to fear—and this can help your decisions surrounding food feel easier.
If you want extra guidance, you can get the Brain over Binge Course for only $18.99 per month.
This is the third and final post in my blog series on indulging in food. If you have not read Part 1 and Part 2, I recommend you do that before continuing with this post, which aims to help you stop overindulging in food. In those previous two posts, I talked about what indulging may mean to you, how you can think about indulging, and I reminded you that’s it’s normal and okay to indulge in food.
Is Your Indulging a Problem?
Do you think your particular form of indulging is harmful? Do you feel like your indulging is more frequent than it should be? Do you worry that you’re eating too much when you indulge? Do you think it’s possible that you are overindulging in food?
If you are certain that you’re not defining indulging with a restrictive mindset (see Indulging in Food, Part 1: Reality Check), then this may be something to look at and address. I’m going to break down how and why indulging in food could become problematic, and I’ll give you some guidance to help you overcome overindulging. First, I’ll take you through a series of questions that will help you determine if this is an issue for you, and then I’ll explain how you can start gaining control.
Have you very recently stopped binge eating (or are you still binge eating)?
In the Brain over Binge Recovery Guide, I described a process that you may go through as you transition from binge eating to eating in a normal way—I called it a bridge to normal eating. I explained that you probably won’t go from binge eating to completely normal eating habits overnight, and that it can take time for you to feel like you are on steady ground with food. When you are a binge eater, you become accustomed to eating large amounts of food; and even when you stop the harmful binge eating behavior, you may find yourself overeating a little more than you’d like, and that includes over-indulging in pleasurable food more than you think you should. (For more on this, you can listen to Episode 47: What if I’m Overeating After I Stop Binge Eating?)
I don’t think you should waste energy worrying about this, and instead you should stay focused on becoming confidently binge-free. Your physiology will gradually stabilize and the size of your stomach can return to normal—so that normal amounts of food and normal-sized indulgences will feel more satisfying. (Please seek any needed medical and nutritional help to support you as your body and appetite regulates).
The main message here is that—if you are only recently removed from binge eating—and you think you may be overindulging in food, try to give it some time and allow yourself to heal. If the issue does not resolve over time, then you can begin to address it. The same advice applies if you are still binge eating—try not to worry about any overindulging right now and focus instead on ending the binge eating habit and allowing your body to regulate. Then, you’ll be in a better place to work on any problematic eating issues that remain.
Do strong cravings primarily drive your indulgences?
There’s a difference between deciding to go out and indulge in some ice cream with your family, and impulsively driving to the nearest fast food restaurant for a milkshake in response to strong sugar cravings. Neither situation is a binge, but if you feel like you are being overrun by your cravings, then it’s going to feel more problematic than if your decision to indulge feels rather calm and relaxed. Even if the desserts in both scenarios contain a similar amount of sugar and calories, you’ll feel more conscious and in control in the first example of getting ice cream than in the second example—when you feel more like you are being controlled by your desires.
Even though there is certainly food pleasure in both situations, they feel very different. If strong and uncomfortable cravings are the driving force behind most of your indulgent eating, then I believe this is something to work on, and you can start by using the suggestions I’ll give at the end of this post.
Are you obsessing over your indulgences?
If thinking about your food indulgences and looking forward to them takes up too much mental space, that’s another reason indulging could feel like a problem to you. Normal indulgence isn’t something that consumes your thoughts in a bothersome way. It’s something you choose to do, either in the moment or by planning it beforehand; but it doesn’t feel like an absolute priority in your life. If getting your treats feels so important that you can’t focus on anything else, and it causes you to lose sight of what is truly important to you, then you’ll definitely want to bring food indulgence back into it’s proper place in your life.
[If you are someone who struggles with incessant food thoughts on a regular basis—not just related to overindulgence—you can listen to this free Q&A audio from the Brain over Binge course: “Food is constantly in my thoughts. Even if I’m not having urges to binge, I’m incessantly thinking about eating.”]
Are the consequences of indulging too great?
Even if you don’t feel driven by strong cravings, and even if you aren’t obsessing about indulgences beforehand, you may be experiencing problems after indulging. You may be someone whose decision to have ice cream in the first example leads to uncomfortable digestive issues or an exacerbation of certain inflammatory symptoms. You may have a health condition that makes the indulgences you are choosing too physically damaging for you personally.
You can start to find replacements that are equally or nearly as enjoyable, or you may need to let certain indulgences go in the name of better health. (For help with this, you can read my post: Eliminating Foods in Binge Eating Recovery, Part III). Do not take this too far by completely banning anything that is not healthy, but if you have specific symptoms and issues with certain pleasurable foods, then you should take that into account as you approach indulging in food.
Do you find yourself saying “it’s okay to indulge” too much?
Yes, it’s true that indulging in food is okay, but if you hear this thought over and over in your head and it justifies overeating every day, or even at every meal, then it’s going to feel problematic. It’s definitely a good thing to remind yourself that indulging in food is not “bad,” and that you don’t need to be restrictive; but know that you don’t have to eat anything and everything that comes into your mind. Take an honest look at your behavior, and know that you get to decide when it is okay to indulge, and when it may not be the best idea. You get to strike a balance that works for you.
How to Get Over Overindulging in Food:
The simple advice I’m going to give you about dealing with overindulging can be organized into five D’s:
Define (what indulgences are okay to you): Take some time to think about what indulging means to you and how you want it in your life (see Part 1 and Part 2 for help with this). Your definition of normal indulging will provide guidance when you have opportunities and/or desires for certain foods, and you hear that voice in your head saying “it’s okay to indulge.” If you’ve already determined what’s okay and not okay for your personally, then it becomes clear whether or not you will follow that voice. You do not need to set exact, strict rules, and in fact, I would not recommend that at all (listen to Episode 49: Can I Use the Brain over Binge Approach to Stick to Strict Eating Plans?). It’s best just to have a general idea of what food indulgences you want in your life, and follow that in a flexible way.
Desire (accept food cravings and possibly address some of them): Desire may or may not be present prior to indulging. If it is, it’s not a problem—desire for pleasurable food is a normal part of life. Desires are part of the human experience. I realize that here I could probably insert an entire book about the effects that modern foods and our modern lifestyle have on cravings, and I understand that many theories abound; however, I believe it’s best to keep it simple and realize that desire has always been a part of the human condition. Even if certain modern foods are more “addicting,” we still have a choice about how much to indulge in these foods. If you want to dive deeper into this, you can listen to Episode 52 on food addiction.
It’s important to accept that desire for food is okay, but also to know that it doesn’t mean you are destined to have what you are craving (and if you do decide to have what you are craving, you are never destined to overindulge or binge.)
When you have desires, try to pause and determine the course of action you want to take. That may be to have the indulgence you are craving (and not binge afterward); that may be to have a healthier food option; that may be to do another activity. You may also want to develop an overall strategy for addressing the cravings you feel are out of the range of normal. Cravings can be dismissed like binge urges, but additionally, you may want to get nutritional or medical support with any physiological issue you feel is contributing to problematic cravings, like blood sugar and/or hormone imbalances. You can also look into improving sleep, reducing stress, and improving hydration, which can all help reduce some cravings.
Decide: This is where your power of choice comes in. It’s important to realize that you are the one deciding to eat the food, or indulge in the food, or overindulge in the food. Your cravings and desires do not control your voluntary muscle movements, even if you have some physiological imbalances that are contributing to those cravings. You can start to experience your own power to determine what you indulge in and how much you indulge.
I believe that bringing the power of choice into your eating decisions is how indulging stays in the proper place in your life. When you know you have a choice—even if strong cravings are present, and even if you do decide to have the indulgence you are craving—you can still feel conscious and in control. You have the freedom to decide to indulge anytime, and you also have the freedom to decide against it when it doesn’t feel like the right decision for you.
Deliberately enjoy the indulgence: You don’t have to eat super-slowly, or chew a certain number of times, or be completely mindful, or avoid doing anything else while you are eating; but try to slow down enough to enjoy what you are indulging in. If you are eating rapidly, or eating mindlessly in front of the TV or in the car, it will feel more impulsive and is more likely to lead to overindulging. Eating a little more deliberately goes hand in hand with deciding to indulge—it’s another way of keeping your higher brain engaged, realizing what you are doing, and proving to yourself that you are in control.
Delicious: This is a bonus “D” to remind you that you can and should enjoy eating and indulging in food. When you indulge, it’s perfectly okay to soak in the pleasure (without the guilt!). Then, when you are done, put the food aside and move on with you life.
I hope this series on indulging has been helpful to you. I hope you are able to determine the proper place in your life for indulging in food and put aside any overindulging that feels harmful to you.
If you want extra guidance as you work on the recovery goals of the Brain over Binge approach, here are some resources for additional support:
Brain over Binge Course – Self-paced online lessons (plus an app) for only $10.99/month. Includes over 120 tracks to listen to that give you the information and answers you need as you end binge eating. (Monthly price going up on 1/1/2022 for new members. All existing members will keep paying the $10.99/month rate)
Group Coaching – Get help from coach Julie and support from others who are overcoming this habit. Includes a forum that is open 24/7, group coaching calls, mindfulness resources, plus course access.
One-on-one Coaching – Book a 45-minute private session with coach Julie. She will help you change your thinking, uncover what is holding you back, and get on a path to complete freedom from food issues.