With Halloween just days away, the months-long, food-centered holiday season is about to commence. Whether you salivate over stacks of bite-sized candy bars or piles of creamy casseroles, you will likely come face to face with foods that trigger you to overeat. In this month’s newsletter, we’ll dissect the science behind trigger foods and learn how to conquer your cravings.

What makes something a trigger food?

Most trigger foods tend to be calorie dense- either from fat or processed carbohydrates. Beyond that common thread, trigger foods are widely subjective based on taste preferences, environment, and food memories. Cravings can be triggered by hunger, stress, environmental cues, as well as sights, smells and thoughts of certain foods.

How do these types of food affect your body and brain?

Trigger foods engage a different section of the brain than hunger or the desire for certain tastes does. For example, you might really enjoy bananas, but you likely don’t reach for bananas when you feel stressed. Stress likely triggers other cravings.

Can you be addicted to trigger foods?

Yes, and the more we “give in” to our triggers, the stronger the imprint becomes. The good news is that you can retrain your brain and disentangle the trigger. Here are several ways to conquer your trigger food cravings.

How to manage trigger foods the healthy way

1. Feed your brain healthy foods, and do this consistently

You can change what your brain craves, but you have to teach it (and feed it right!) to do so.

To prove this, a recent study showed that individuals who made healthy diet swaps (like choosing whole wheat pasta over white pasta) were not only able to lose weight, but were also able to rewire their brain so that photos of the healthier swaps lit up the reward center of their brain just as trigger food would.This study suggests that a consistent healthy diet programs your brain to enjoy healthier foods, making it easier to turn down that chocolate chip cookie.

2. Get More Sleep. 

While I am Registered Dietitian and not a sleep specialist, one of the first questions I ask someone who is trying to lose weight is how many hours of sleep they get each night.

In terms of cravings, one study showed that people who got 90 extra minutes of sleep reduced sweet and salty junk food cravings by 62%!

When it comes to weight loss and conquering cravings, give sleep just as much attention as diet and exercise.

3. Dont get hangry

Letting yourself get too hungry makes you much more susceptible to food cravings. Set specific meal and snack times, spaced out by about 3-4 hours, and try not to eat between these established mealtimes.

4. Keep temptations away 

Keep triggers at bay by storing them in the basement, avoiding places where they might be lurking like the office break room or mall foodcourt, or by simply not bringing trigger foods home in the first place. Sight and smell are strong triggers that can leave you powerless to the last donut in the box.

5. Revamp your cravings

We tend to crave high-calorie foods. Some research shows that if you lessen the calorie density of the food, you can lessen your brain’s desire for it. For example, I eat dark chocolate after lunch everyday, so now my brain has come to expect this treat. If I swapped my chocolate bar for a low-calorie chocolate pudding, eventually my brain’s desire for that chocolate pudding would lessen, and I could more easily give up my chocolate indulgence all together.

Jennifer McDaniel

Jennifer McDaniel is a Registered Dietitian, Media Spokesperson, and co-author of Prevention's Mediterranean Table Cookbook. She and her team of Registered Dietitians aim to help their clients go further, make change last, and unlock their potential. She lives in St. Louis, MO with her husband, and three young sons. If you are interested in working with Jennifer, please visit our contact page.