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Why Does Happy Hour Make Me So Sad?

As you're sitting here reading this and looking at the above image, I'm betting there are a few of you who just thought, "That burger looks good!" That's exactly how external triggers happen. You're sitting there minding your own business and something outside of you happens and the next thing you know, you're craving a certain food.

We are all exposed to thousands of stimuli every day. Advertisements, memories, other people, and more can all influence us. But whether or not we attend to the stimuli and whether or not that attention becomes a trigger depends on you and your history with that food (and others like it.)

When I first became a health coach and started seeing clients' food logs, it took me a LONG time to identify that I was getting triggered by all the delicious meals they were logging. I'd just suddenly want Indian food or a sandwich--even though it was morning and I wasn't even really hungry.

Everyone has different triggers and identifying yours is very helpful in making sure that you stay mindful with what you eat. I often tell a story of two people who have different experiences with the mall staple Cinnabon. They both can be walking down the mall and smell Cinnabon. One person remembers her grandmother's homemade cinnamon rolls and how she used to love them every weekend. Smelling the Cinnabon makes her want them. The other person worked at a bakery in college and had a horrible boss who used to yell at her all the time. When she smells cinnamon rolls, it triggers an unpleasant memory and she wants to get away from the smell as fast as possible. Same stimulus--different response.

The external triggers that can prompt unplanned eating include the following:

Sights, Smells, and Sounds​

Food Pushers and Guilt Trippers

It's Time To Eat

Social Cues (Happy Hour, Anyone?)

Spaces and Places

Let’s look at each one individually.

Sights, Smells, and Sounds​

Our brains are wired to take notice of the sight, smell, and even the sound of food.

So, the thing for you to do here is to take note of the food smells, sights, and sounds that are particularly appealing to you.

Food Pushers and Guilt Trippers

I sincerely hope that you don’t have anyone in your life like this, but chances are you do. So many of us have well-meaning people in our lives (and not-so-well-meaning, sometimes) who push food on us or give us guilt trips when we say no to food. This is different from the social cues we’ll get into later.

It's Time To Eat

Our society is structured around eating certain foods at certain times of day. We have well-defined “breakfast” “lunch” and “dinner” times. You may get a “lunch break” at work, during which you are given one chance in the day to eat your meal. But, what if you’re not hungry then? Too bad. You either have to eat then, or wait until after work.

Similarly, the idea of “the holidays” relates to “time to eat.” We eat pie on Thanksgiving, Mexican food on Taco Tuesday, and eat chocolate on Valentine’s Day (and Easter, and Mother’s Day, and… well, what holiday *isn’t* a chocolate holiday?)

What about when you “need a break?”

What are yours? What are the times that are particular triggers for you? Identifying them can help build in a space between stimulus and response. “It’s Sunday morning and I usually want brunch. How am I going to handle it?”

Social Cues (Happy Hour, Anyone?)

Social cues can be incredibly powerful triggers to binge. When you’re at work and someone brings in a cake for a coworker’s birthday… are you going to be the one person who says no? When everyone is out for Happy Hour and they want to share an appetizer platter, are you going to be able to resist? And if you DO resist in that moment, are you setting yourself up for a binge later on when you get home?

From seeing people eat on TV to being with others who are cooking or eating, when we see other people eat, it makes us want to share in the fun.

Spaces and Places

Unless you live in a bubble, you probably have associations with eating in certain places. Whether it’s your car, the dining room table, your favorite coffee shop, or that little spot down by the creek, we tend to form associations between eating and certain environments.

The bottom line is that it's worth the effort to put some thoughts into identifying your personal external triggers. This way, when you know you're headed out to Happy Hour you can be on alert. "The smell of barbecue always makes me want wings." It doesn't mean you can't choose to eat the wings. But it does mean that you won't be caught off-guard and wiping sauce off your face before you realize what just happened.

As always, if you have a story, question, or just want to say hi, drop me a line at

December Gratitude Challenge, Day 5: Who is a friend you are grateful for? Tell them!

“Everything you see I owe to spaghetti.” – Sophia Loren
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