Reintroducing "Trigger Foods"

Catherine Liberty's picture

Today I’m going to share some great tips and advice on how to start eating all of those challenging, triggering, “unsafe” and “bad” foods in recovery.

We often use the term "trigger foods" to describe the foods that we have difficulty eating normally. These are all of those “go-to” binge foods; you know the foods that you think are impossible to eat normally?

In the years that I suffered with bulimia, while I would pretty much eat anything during a binge, there were certainly some specific types of food that seemed to hold a great power over me.

Choosing to eat safe foods at the start of recovery

While some people start to eat all foods from day 1 of recovery, many people find it easier to initially avoid eating certain triggering foods. Opting to eat “safe” foods until they feel more comfortable eating regularly.

This is certainly something that I decided to do for the first few weeks of my own recovery, just until I got into the swing of things.

While it's fine to avoid certain, more challenging foods at the start of recovery there has to come a time when you start to add more variety and balance back into your diet.To eat in a balanced way not only do you need to start eating balanced meals containing foods from all of the food groups but you also need to start re-introducing those triggering and challenging foods.

In order to fully recover from bulimia we have to learn how to remove all binge urges, but If you continue to avoid certain foods then you will always be vulnerable those urges.

This is why reintroducing triggering foods, even the ones that you consider to be "un-healthy" or "bad" is such an important step to take in recovery.

“When should I start to reintroduce trigger foods?”

The answer to this will be different for everyone. Some people prefer to eat trigger foods right from the start of recovery while others like to have a period of avoidance before reintroducing them. There is no specific amount of time that you should avoid your trigger and challenge foods for, but the questions below may help you to decide on a time of reintroduction that is right for you. 

As a guide, you should be able to answer YES to most of these questions before you start reintroducing trigger foods:

  • Have you been successfully eating every three hours?
  • Have you been following your structured eating plan daily?
  • Have you started eating foods from all of the food groups?
  • Have you stopped purging or seen a significant reduction in episodes of purging?
  • Have you stopped bingeing or seen a significant reduction in episodes of bingeing?
  • Are you feeling confident and motivated in recovery?
  • Have you practiced accepting difficult thoughts and emotions?
  • Do you feel that you are ready to reintroducing these foods?

“What will happen when I start eating these foods again?”

It will take some getting used to. At first you may find that you want to eat these foods all of the time or that they awaken emotional binge urges. Don't worry, this is perfectly normal. In time your body will realize that there is nothing special about these foods and that you are not restricting them anymore.

When that happens you will no longer crave them in this way.

Remember initially you may also feel increased anxiety around these foods but try to persevere!

"I think I’m ready to reintroduce some trigger/challenge foods. Where do I start?”

This simple 4 step guide will help you to plan for reintroducing your trigger and challenge foods:

Step 1. Make a list of your main trigger foods

This list should include all of the foods that you have avoided since starting recovery and any additional foods that you consider to be “binge foods”, “challenging foods”, “bad foods” and “triggering foods.”

Step 2. Now re-order your list starting with the safest food first

It can be difficult to decide which of your trigger and challenge foods are the "safest" but usually there will be some foods that you feel would be far less challenging to start re-introducing.

Step 3. Decide WHEN and HOW you will re-introduce these foods

You’ve got your list of foods so now it’s time to decide when and how you will start reintroducing them. Start with the first food from your list and consider the following:

  • How often will you include this food in your structured eating plan?
  • Are there certain times of the day when you feel it would be easier to re-introduce this food?
  • Are there certain situations when you may need to avoid eating this food?
  • Will it be easier to reintroduce this food as a snack?
  • Can you buy or prepare this food in small quantities so there will be no temptation to binge on left-overs?

Step 4. Go for it!

You’ve decided which food you will reintroduce first, you've given a lot of thought to how and when you will do this so now it’s time to go for it! Work through your list reintroducing one food at a time. Making sure you follow steps 2 and 3 each time you do this.

Remember there is no time limit on this. You may find it a lot easier to reintroduce certain foods where as it could take you a couple of weeks or even a few months to feel really comfortable with reintroducing other foods.

The best advice is to stick with it, even if you find it difficult at first.

“What should I do if things go wrong?”

The most important thing you can do is to start seeing any slip-ups and relapses as learning experiences. You WILL learn how to successfully reintroduce ALL types of foods into your diet with time. Remember to be conscious of "all or nothing thinking."

If you find that reintroducing trigger and challenge foods is causing you to continually relapse then you have two choices.

1. The first choice is to go back to a small period of avoidance until you are feeling more confident in recovery.

2. The second choice is just to keep going. Keep developing your plans and strategies, keep learning from your relapses and keep pushing forwards through the harder days. If possible you should try to always opt for this choice.

I am aware that some recovery methods tell people that they’ll have to avoid certain foods for life in order to recover but then I look back on my own journey. In all respects I am a bulimia treatment success and I can now eat ANY type of food without feeling triggered. So I have to believe that every single person out there can find the same level of freedom and peace with food as I have done.

I really hope this information will help you to feel more confident about reintroducing those trigger foods!


alana62's picture
This is so essential for

This is so essential for recovery and loved that you broke it down in steps.

For most people trigger foods are refined carbs, and eaten in abandon because of the 'feel good' chemical, dopamine that the brain releases.

During recovery, I went through a period of time that I ate whatever I wanted, so that I wouldn't feel deprived anymore. Eventually, this behavior became very unsatisfying for me, mostly because of the constant instability of my glucose levels which was directly related to what I was choosing to eat. I was constantly burning and crashing. Being healthy and happy are so very important to me, and eating foods that didn't bring me these two components became less desirable over time. However, I knew for me in order for these 'trigger' foods not to feel like trigger foods anymore, I needed to give myself permission to eat them as I pleased and learn how they really make me feel. Trigger foods no longer became known as trigger foods in my mind, they became just foods, taking the power away from it.

I hope this has made some sense and maybe even given pause to re-think trigger foods:)

Stay mindful, happy and healthy!

Feel Great in Your Skin

traveller 's picture
Hey thanks so much for the

Hey thanks so much for the article. I really appreciate the tips on learning how certain foods make you feel emotionally.

I definitely felt like re-introducing 'trigger foods' was the key to my recovery. Whilst introducing these foods I found it was easiest to enjoy them with someone else. I would often have a piece of cake and coffee or an ice cream with a friend in a cafe. I found that the company made the food itself more enjoyable and as the other person was also eating it just felt a whole lot more normal and social (whereas in the past these foods had only been consumed privately). I also found it easier to stop afterwards and not slip into a binge as I could distract myself with conversation and just generally enjoy being out with a friend.

Maybe this will work for someone else too!

Catherine Liberty
Catherine Liberty's picture
Thank you so much for your

Thank you so much for your responses!

Eating these foods with friends is a great idea traveller and you're right, it really can be such an important part of recovery because even if we manage to stop bingeing, purging and restricting, if we continually fear or restrict certain foods, even if we're eating enough other foods though the day, then I think it can have a really negative impact on recovery.

Alana thank you for sharing your wonderful insights. Yes, it's such a positive time when those previously triggering foods become "just food" and nothing more. Very liberating :) x x

Audreyx's picture
Catherine thank you

Catherine thank you sooooooooo much for this article!! I'm sick of just eating my safe foods and feeling stuck and too scared to step out any further. Your advice is so helpful and I feel like it is exactly what I needed to read to help me take steps in my recovery. THANK YOU for all of your hard efforts in helping us out. I know every article you write takes a lot of time and research and I want you to know you are blessing SOOOOOOOOOO many lives by doing it. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU!!
You are too wonderful !

ardnassac79's picture
I swear this website can read

I swear this website can read my mind... Just got an email for this thread about an hour ago - and as i was checking my email I was struggling with having JUST ATE a big trigger food for the first time since I started recovery - and I was trying to deal with the immediate feelings of "I want more more more". I was really trying to fight the urge to just go into the kitchen and start eating anything in sight - that's how my trigger foods work - I start with one, and it's not that I want more of the same thing - I just want more of ANYTHING. But as always, a timely motivational email came my way, and it helped. THANK YOU. I was able to take a step back mentally, realize it's not worth getting pouty and angry over at myself (which I do when I try to resist bad urges) and just realize the only reason I want more is because that's what I was previously conditioned to do - not because I actually need it or truly want it.

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