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Top 10 Triggers for Unhealthy Eating

What sets you up for poor choices? We all have circumstances or settings that leave us at our weakest, when we're more likely to succumb to the temptation of unhealthy eating. "If it weren't for x, y, or z, I wouldn't have fallen head first off my eating plan," we think. They're our personal triggers, the situations that can undermine our good judgment, dampen our resolve or fuel the bad habits we're trying to leave behind. Identifiying them is half the battle - and an important step in making a healthy diet a new way of life! Although they vary from person to person, these 10 are among the most common triggers my clients share. Read on and see which ones fit your experience!

A Hectic Schedule

You didn’t hear your alarm and are running late for work. The kids have to be in 2 different places at once. The dog chewed the bills ready to be mailed, and there’s construction on your daily commute. Before you know it, it’s 10 p.m. Where in that day did you have time to eat healthily? How often did the unrelenting hustle trigger you to make less-than-great eating choices? How often is this day, every day? While the circumstances are common, we have the power to change our perspective. Ask yourself instead, “When did I make my health – and eating healthily – a priority today?” If you value your health, did you live that value today? Suddenly, we can see the issue in a different light. Don’t use time as an excuse. We are always short on it, but the sooner you can begin to incorporate the slightest healthy changes (e.g. grocery shopping for better choices, packing a healthy snack, grabbing a morning smoothie, etc.) the more focused you’ll stay even in the midst of a busy week!

Everyday Stress

Duh, right? I don’t have to tell you twice that being stressed out rarely results in a healthy way of eating. When we're under stress, elevated stress hormones set off a cascade of events in our bodies, including cravings. Although we can’t control every stressful situation we face, we can find ways to better manage that stress. Go for walks, stay hydrated, meditate, and be on your way to healthier eating!

Minimal Activity

It’s a case of the downward spiral! Lack of activity throughout the day decreases our energy levels, increases our boredom and cravings, and makes us more susceptible to unhealthy food triggers. If we focus on increasing our steps each day and being more active, our bodies will operate more optimally all around. As a result, our tendency to gravitate to high-carb options diminishes. I’ve had many clients who’ve had great success making better food choices when they started focusing on movement first.

Unhealthy Relationships

At some point in our lives, we all experience an unhealthy relationship. Whether it’s with a friend, a family member, a coworker, or a spouse/significant other, this kind of stressor often leads to emotional eating. It may be common to eat for comfort or distraction when you’re angry or sad. However, have you ever really felt better after indulging? Although there are multiple areas in your life that need attention at this time, staying true to your healthy food choices will not only help your waistline but also your frame of mind and overall well-being.

Fun Relationships

Although the not-so-healthy relationships seem like an obvious trigger for unhealthy eating, our fun relationships can be just as detrimental – and maybe even more so! Whether we’re hanging out with those entertaining co-workers who make the most of their happy hours or our Sunday/fun-day buddies who come over to watch the game every week, it can be tough to not feel the pull to fully enjoy “just this once.” Before you know it, you’ve consumed a couple thousand calories, forgot to fit in movement for the day, and have thrown off your whole week. Too many of us will actually go on to repeat the same pattern (and regret) the following week. Come prepared to these fun get-togethers. Set your mental boundaries ahead of time. Have a snack beforehand, keep vegetables and protein in mind when eating out, and stay adequately hydrated (with water!).

Special Events

Birthdays, anniversaries, vacations, weddings – one of the main things that make these events fun and exciting is the food, right?! The better the “party,” the bigger the challenge for those of us trying to live a healthy way of life. A good rule of thumb for these situations is the 80/20 concept: stay true to your healthy eating routine at least 80% of the time, while giving yourself some freedom 20% of the time. This doesn’t mean you should go all out during these events, but don’t beat yourself up either when you fall short of perfection.

Health Milestones

Although hitting a milestone is always a reason to celebrate, for many people it can set the stage for derailment. Accomplishing that first running event, being tobacco free for one year, or losing those last few pesky pounds are all great successes, but they should be celebrated with some caution. Treat yourself in ways that don’t revolve around an indulgence that will only set you back. Buy those new walking/running shoes you’ve been scoping out, enjoy a tasty but healthy dinner out, or use this milestone as the target for beginning your next healthy adventure!

An Unstocked Kitchen

It’s very difficult to make healthier food choices when there are no healthy food options from which to choose in your home. It sounds so obvious, yes, but it’s a major downfall for many of my clients. Suddenly, they look at the clock and see that it’s mealtime. They’re starving, but the cupboards and refrigerator are low on the vegetables, protein, or other healthy options they should be eating. They’re left with either frozen pizzas or yet another prepackaged box meal and will find themselves hungry again within a few hours. Set yourself up for success! Prioritize creating a grocery list that will fill your kitchen with healthy and appealing food for the full week ahead. Plan at least a few meals and have a list of quick and healthy recipes you can turn to when you’re short on time or overwhelmed with hunger.  

Screen Time

Cell phones, iPads, T.V.s, computers… Without even realizing it, we check social media dozens of times throughout the day, sit in front of a computer screen at work for 8 hours, and/or end our days winding down in front of the T.V. All of this exposure to back-lit devices is a stress and stimulant to our systems, throws off our circadian rhythm, and lends itself to unhealthy eating. Aim to decrease time in front of the screen by at least an hour each day, particularly before bed!

Poor Sleep Patterns

Sleep, food choices, and metabolic function are significantly intertwined. One of the best ways you can help yourself make healthier food choices is by ensuring you get optimal, undisrupted sleep. To minimize tempting triggers the next day, turn off all screens by 8:00 p.m. and be in bed by 10 p.m. Then repeat the next day – and the next. Without even focusing on your food choices, you’ll gradually start to feel better (more energized!) and less directed by cravings. How we end our day helps determine our success the next day.

Looking for a better understanding of your unhealthy eating triggers? Talk to one of our weight loss coaches today! Thanks for reading, everyone.

Written by Becca Hurt, MS, RD, Program Manager of Life Time Weight Loss

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

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