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Knowing Your Emotional Eating Triggers

Mar 03, 2023
Emotional Eating Triggers

Let's chat about emotional eating triggers


It might feel as if virtually everything around you is a trigger to eat or feel badly about your body. Your triggers may also seem inescapable or impossible to ignore, as they often appear unannounced. Emotional eating triggers come in a range of forms. Overhearing a conversation about weight loss or seeing calorie counts on a restaurant menu can trigger anxiety.

Sound familiar?


Triggers = anything that incites an uncomfortable, upsetting, or intense emotion. A trigger may be environmental, situational, social, physiological, or psychological; it creates an adverse reaction. 

Once you’ve been triggered, you move into a reactive state where you need relief, distraction, or an escape from the uncomfortable emotion you’re experiencing. This escape makes you feel compulsive urges to act for anyone struggling with disordered eating.

The link between your trigger to eat emotionally and your response to it will, by nature, be irrational. Of course, logically, you’re aware that skipping a meal or purging is a self-destructive response to hearing an unwanted comment or experiencing pain or hurt. Still, it’s the behavior that you’ve become used to relying on as a coping mechanism.

Purging, limiting food intake, or overeating – these negative coping strategies may be unhealthy and unhelpful, but they provide temporary comfort in challenging moments. But since you're here to heal your relationship with food, you know that the comfort you get from eating as a coping mechanism is fleeting and, in the end, destructive. 

To break that trigger-to-emotionally eating response, you must learn to identify the triggers that are specific to YOU. Then, when you’re armed with that knowledge, you can practice new ways of managing urges.



Note that you will likely encounter circumstances that make your imbalanced eating re-emerge, no matter how far down the road to recovery you are. How you react to the eating disorder voice depends on your emotional and psychological well-being and the depth and length of your recovery, so it's essential to remain conscious of these triggers as you battle them (and....bravely, might I add!).

While the things that trigger emotional eating behaviors vary between individuals, some common ones include:

Numbersnumbers relating to body size or diet may prove to be very problematic. Sharing weights, dress sizes, or the number of pounds you “have” to lose can be highly distressing. In these situations, you may feel that you need to restrict your food intake, purge, or binge to compensate for the emotions that you’re experiencing. This can apply regardless of why you’re sharing these numbers, or how unhealthy/healthy, low, or high these numbers may be.

Labels – simply being told how many calories are in a particular food can act as a trigger. It’s an obvious and instant way of comparing and judging foods, and this can cause your eating disorder to raise its head and decide that every type of food must be avoided due to its calorie content.

Photos – photos of yourself might cause you to feel out of control and triggered. These days, we all take countless digital images on our smartphones and then scroll through them, searching for the perfect shot, and this can lead to you judging all aspects of your being. The inevitable consequence is negative self-judgment. The angle is unflattering, your hair is messy, you have bags under your eyes, and your butt or belly looks enormous.

Food – this is a challenging but unavoidable trigger. You must eat to live, so you can’t avoid this trigger. However, just seeing food can be very triggering; the more food you see, the harder it can be to cope with it. Going to a buffet restaurant, for example, can be a nightmare. You may be triggered to binge on everything, or you might be triggered to avoid taking a plate completely. Either way, choosing what to eat can be downright exhausting, with your head telling you to eat this or don’t eat that. The more choice you have, the more complex the decision can be. Social eating often becomes competitive. Should you be eating differently from other people at the table? Should you choose a smaller or larger portion? Should you eat something different? Should you be eating more quickly or more slowly? Trusting the choice you make can simply feel too difficult.

Conversations – just talking about the foods you eat, your body shape, or compensatory behavior that you’re putting in place can be very triggering. The nature of an eating disorder is that it tells you your body simply isn’t good enough and never will be. Food intake becomes a war zone. Finding ways to avoid conversations about body image or diet is imperative, but even a compliment can be a trigger, not to mention a criticism. Hearing someone say that you look healthy or that they’re glad you’re eating well can be triggering.

Insecurities – anything causing shame, embarrassment, distress, or worry can be a significant trigger. The more stress you’re under, the harder it becomes to resist the urge to revert to old, unhealthy eating behaviors since they help to numb the emotional pain. One significant insecurity is how you see yourself….for example, seeing yourself in a mirror or a photograph, putting your clothes on or taking your clothes off, misunderstanding or misinterpreting a comment, eating or not eating, working out or not working out, discussing your eating disorder or avoiding the discussion completely – all can cause you to revert to your old patterns of eating behavior that made you feel emotionally comforted by psychologically and physically in pain. 



Inevitably, triggers will present themselves during your process of recovery. Even though your disordered reaction to those triggers may appear to be automatic and beyond your control, rest assured that it’s possible to manage those urges.

The first step is to identify your eating triggers. Awareness is key to spotting the people, situations, and events that can trigger your negative emotions, so you can then learn how to avoid those triggers and prepare ways of handling them in the future. When you link every event that precedes specific behaviors, you can gain valuable insight into the factors that particularly trigger you.



The next step is to disrupt the connections between the emotional eating triggers you experience and the disordered behavior patterns. Your disordered behavioral responses to triggers are just responses, and as involuntary and instinctual as they may feel, those responses can be delayed. When you’re faced with the urge to purge, binge, or restrict your food intake, you need to work hard to suspend your desire to give in immediately. Allow a gap that lets you fully experience the feeling between your trigger and your eating disorder patterns of behavior.

If you can delay or resist the urge completely to engage in your disordered behaviors, this is sometimes known as “urge surfing.” The approach acknowledges that urges will come, like a wave, but, like a wave, they will eventually go too. Uncomfortable though it may be, when you surf an urge, this allows enough time to permit the unpleasant emotions to pass. Essentially, it’s a type of impulse control.



Although your urges can feel alluring and virtually impossible to resist, rest assured that there are other possible response options for you to rely on instead. Counter your threatening and negative feelings with gentleness and self-compassion, and replace your maladaptive responses with adaptive, healthier ones.

For example, you can find inspirational accounts on social media platforms to follow or listen to some relaxing music. You could try practicing yoga, deep breathing strategies, or mindfulness to reduce your anxiety or write a gratitude journal. You could even try aromatherapy or take a bubble bath. Essentially, anything that makes you feel more positive, relaxed, and calm = is a good choice of alternative behavior and can be harnessed to replace the negative eating disorder behaviors you have been used to relying upon.

Although these are substitutes for your disordered behaviors, it’s essential to know that activities like these won’t feel like equivalents, particularly in the beginning. After all, a bubble bath won’t feel the same as having a binge, and writing a journal about your emotional triggers and thoughts won’t feel like purging or restricting food. However, the more your negative feelings are paired with healthy activities, the stronger the link will become, and the more effective your response strategy will be. Those unpleasant feelings and thoughts will then decrease over time.


Although your disordered eating response may seem uncontrollable and the number of triggers you encounter feel insurmountable, rest assured that you can cope and manage them. When you can name and interrupt your eating triggers, you can find kinder and healthier ways to respond to them.