How are “Fear” and “Trigger” Foods Different?

Our Medical Director recently held a webinar on the topic of Food Addiction that TK co-sponsored with IAEDP. We received a number of follow-up questions, and one person asked about the difference between fear and trigger foods.

Her reply:

It’s not unusual for an individual with an eating disorder to struggle with either or both “fear” foods or “trigger” foods.

Fear Foods

A typical pattern for anorexia nervosa onset is the systematic elimination of specific food groups. Say a young woman embarks on a diet that prohibits fats, white sugar, white flour, white rice, etc. She scrupulously stops eating anything white; soon, to increase the effectiveness of the diet, she adds animal protein to the list and becomes a vegetarian.

In no time, her diet becomes very narrow in terms of what she will and will not eat. A sub-category in her long list is “fear” foods. This is exactly what the term indicates: she is literally afraid of these foods. Fear foods could be French fries, candy, and hamburgers – any number of items.

Fear foods are highly individualized.

Her fear of these foods is intense and very real to her. She may think that merely touching a candy bar will cause her to gain weight. Indeed, the dread can become so great that she may believe being in the same room with a hamburger will cause weight gain.

The development of “fear” foods in a person with an eating disorder is a psychological phenomenon designed to reduce anxiety. The treatment goal with fear foods in the context of an eating disorder is to help the person incorporate these foods into normalized eating.

Trigger Foods

“Trigger” foods are more common in those who struggle with bulimia nervosa or binge eating disorder (or anorexia nervosa, binge-purge type).

Trigger foods do just that: they set off (or trigger) a binge.

Trigger foods can be chocolate, chips, ice cream, sugary sweets, or many other foods; basically they can be anything that triggers the phenomenon of craving and needing more once the person begins to eat it.

It is similar to the experience an alcoholic has after she consumes one or two drinks—she experiences craving and further consumption of alcohol well beyond what she had planned. Once a person with a food addiction consumes a trigger food, she will eat the entire box or bag, and very possibly continue the binge with other foods.

Although this enormous food consumption will ultimately result in great shame and self-disgust, she is unable to stop the behavior on her own. Typically, trigger foods are the person’s go-to food (or set of foods) when she is caught in a binge or binge purge cycle. Much like alcohol interacts with the body and brain of an alcoholic in such a way that she continues to drink beyond her control; people with food related addictions eat beyond control once they start consuming their trigger foods.

Trigger foods represent a physical reaction in the body and brain of people with eating disorders who exhibit the symptom of bingeing. The treatment goal with regards to trigger foods is to support the person in abstaining from that food, at least for a period of time in early recovery, and for some people, abstaining long-term.

Watch the replay of her webcast on Food and Addiction Spectrum Disorders.