• Creating a trigger-free environment can be helpful if you have a difficult relationship with food

  • Nutritional therapist Milda Zolubaite offers a 5-step guide to clearing out unhelpful triggers

  • If you need support with an eating disorder or body image issues, find a therapist here 

Whether you’re currently struggling with an eating disorder or feel like you have a difficult relationship with food, you may encounter daily triggers in your environment that feed your food behaviours and habits like coal to the fire, without you even realising it. The truth is that even if you’re not aware of it, your subconscious is keeping the score.

2-8 March is Eating Disorder Awareness Week and according to eating disorder charity BEAT, there are currently at least 1.25mln people in the UK alone living with an eating disorder. And if you consider their loved ones, carers and friends, the net expands up to 5mln people and creates a ripple effect. And these are just the registered cases.

Whether you or your loved one is struggling with anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder or are simply finding all things food highly stressful and challenging, a little change in the environment can go a really long way.

Take stock of potential triggers, habits and people in your environment and find out how you can change it to work for you, rather than against you. Here are some of the very common triggers, that can contribute towards behaviours and may send you over the edge when you’re feeling vulnerable.

Fitness and celebrity magazines

Keeping up to date with the newest health trends and celebrity gossip can be entertaining, yet can easily trigger unhelpful thoughts and comparison that leads to dissatisfaction with your own body and food struggle.

Some people tend to “internalise”, which means that by looking at somebody in the magazine or on TV make conclusions about themselves: “She has really skinny thighs, which means that mine are big”, although they may be of a completely normal healthy size. This can be a common trait of people who experience eating disorders and food struggle.

Keep in mind that all of the photos in the media are highly airbrushed and photoshopped. Ever wonder why there isn’t a single imperfection (and originality) left on any of the models faces and bodies?

Swap magazines for positive news, story books or novels that make you feel good about yourself, rather than make you feel like you’re not enough in one way or another.

Clear out your social media

If you find yourself aimlessly scrolling through your Facebook or Instagram feed everyday (and let’s face it, many of us are) when you feel bored or tired, make sure that the display is making you feel emotionally nourished and positive, rather than get you into the negative mindset.

Similarly to magazines, a lot of images you see on social media pages today are highly curated and airbrushed. Whether it’s a product, service or even individual people (and especially influencers), social media accounts often show their best days and their best shots, which is not always reflective of the reality. And comparing our worst day or time with somebody’s best can be detrimental to our mental health.

Have a good spring clean on your social media accounts, delete and unfollow everything that doesn’t inspire you or make you feel positive after seeing it. And yes, that might mean unfollowing some of old school friends or people you know. Fill your feed with positive news, inspirational accounts and people that leave you smiling.

Diet talk

Be wary of topics you choose to talk about with your friends and people in your environment. Everyone has that one friend that always talks about dieting, calories and food and uses words or phrases such as “Oh I shouldn’t” or “This is so naughty” every time she has a chocolate cake.

If you are trying to restore a positive relationship with food, be very vigilant about what topics you engage in. Change the topic when you can or let them know that it is not helpful for you, as sometimes people say things out of habit and are genuinely unaware that this may be triggering.

And if you are a regular in the gym, become aware of messages that may sync into your subconscious and create food guilt and shame. Some motivational quotes and phrases used by some gym goers and fitness fans can be highly triggering to somebody, struggling with their food and body relationship. Such include “I had a pizza last night so I’ll have to work double to burn it off” or “no pain, no gain” and so on.

Weighing scales, measuring tapes and “skinny clothes”

If you are unhappy with your body, there is no doubt that keeping the weighing scale and measuring tapes at home creates a temptation to use them. Weighing once per week very quickly becomes a daily or a few-times-per-day habit as numbers game is a slippery slope.

Unfortunately, weighing and measuring the body is always a lose-lose situation: if you are unhappy with the result, that can instantly impact on your moods and food behaviours and if you are happy, often that also affects food behaviours as there is a need to “keep it up” and the pressure leads to sabotaging own progress.

Although it feels hard at first, getting rid of the scale and measuring tapes will feel like a blessing in everyday life. Yet, be aware if you’re still keeping your “skinny clothes” instead- clothes that may fit at a particular size of your body or clothes you’ve been saving for when you lose weight.

Toxic relationships

Observe your thoughts, feelings and moods after interacting with people around you. Does speaking to your friend Sally always leaves you drained and emotionally empty or conversations with Tom leave you bitter and resentful, that drives unhelpful behaviours around food? Perhaps you need to be in a certain mood to avoid that relationship trigger you? Maybe it’s only a good time to speak to that person when you are rested and nourished?

Family members can often be triggering and although they are the people closest to us, they are also the people that know how to push our buttons best. Make conscious decisions on how you can minimise your time with toxic relationships, learn to say no when you need to and protect your moods and mental health.

These common triggers may have given you a better idea of what could be fuelling behaviours around food or putting you in a slightly more vulnerable space to cope. You may also be triggered by other factors, such as seeing old photos of yourself, people’s comments on weight and trigger foods available in your house.

Although you may need to do some detective work to discover your own unique triggers, addressing these can have a huge positive impact on your relationship with food and a decrease in unwanted behaviours around food.

Milda Zolubaite is a nutritional therapist trained by the National Centre for Eating Disorders (NCFED).

Further reading

9 ways counselling can help you overcome an eating disorder

5 signs of disordered eating

How to have a healthy relationship with food when the world is obsessed with diets

Shame, guilt, and your relationship with food