Trigger Meals & Hyper-palatable Foods

If you have been reading the past few articles [The Integrated Insider says you are!] you would have seen energy balance mentioned repeatedly. Energy balance is the remained when energy output is subtracted from energy intake. Energy balance is the most important element for the alteration of body composition!

Energy balance = energy in - energy out

Now this concept of energy balance being the supreme ruler is the basis of flexible dieting or if it fits your macros (IIFYM). Their concept works on the principle that if you hit the energy intake you require you will achieve your goals, irrespective of the foods you consume. Therefore you can include foods that are typically not encouraged on a diet.

Let's not get into the specifics of IIFYM (already done so here) because it works, when adhered to. But any diet or weight-loss system (provided there is an energy deficit) will yield results, should it be adhered to... so a person's weight loss success is determined primarily via adherence, not the genius of the system.

A genius system promotes adherence and managing energy balance. One of the strengths of flexible dieting is that foods do not need to be completely eliminated, which makes it easier to maintain pleasure in a person's nutrition intake and life.

However, the strength of this nutrition system can also be it's weakness. Hyper-palatable foods and trigger meals can lead to excessive energy intakes and undesirable body composition outcomes. This occurs due to an excess in energy intake via these hyper-palatable foods and as a result of trigger meals. 

Hyper-palatable foods and trigger meals are relevant to everyone no matter their goals or nutrition systems they are using, if any. So read on, you might just find this all makes sense to you!


Hyper-palatable Foods

Hyper-palatable foods are foods that you find excessively desirable and that when you consume them, one is never enough. They are often very flavoursome and loaded with sugar/fat/salt or everything. Once you start eating these foods, it is very difficult to stop eating until they are all gone which can quickly lead to excessive energy intake.

Hyper-palatable foods vary between individuals which heightens the importance of personalised nutrition recommendations. Some common hyper-palatable foods include:

  • Chocolate
  • Ice cream, cheese
  • Peanut butter, dips
  • Jelly lollies
  • Chips, crisps, crackers
  • Soft drinks

A food being hyper-palatable won't necessarily mean that it will lead to excessive energy intake. Someone may find blueberries to be hyper-palatable and consume a whole punnet. This won't blow out your energy intake for the day and has negligible impact on body composition and dietary adherence.

The biggest issue with hyper-palatable foods is that they can lead to trigger meals, which is discussed more below. 


Trigger Meals

Trigger meals are meals of high energy content that lead to overeating in the short term, usually a few hours or one day. Typically, a large meal is consumed which then leads to a 'stuff it, the damage is done' approach, causing more intake after that meal or later that day. 

Trigger meals can have a cascade effect. Excessive intake can cause the day to be wasted, which causes the rest of the week to be written off as you promise to 'start again next week.' If this continues, the lack of progress or regression can lead to an entire regime being abandoned due to lack of results.

It happens to everyone, myself included. 


Hyper-palatable Food & Triggers Meals

Usually these two are synergistic.

Trigger meals are often comprised hyper-palatable foods - that's what causes you to eat too much and then feel defeated. However, this is not always the case...

You might consume a large roast dinner - lamb, potatoes, etc - and drastically exceed your nutrition intake. At the end of the meal, you consume a large dessert because that meal has set you overboard. This is not the result of any hyper-palatable foods as such, it is the overall meal/energy intake that was the trigger. Hence, I like to use the term trigger meal, not trigger foods

Likewise, hyper-palatable foods are not always trigger meals. The blueberry example above is a good one - although you cannot stop eating the blueberries, the excessive intake is unlikely to cause a blow-out similar to the roast dinner example, above. 


Management of Hyper-palatable Foods

In the initial stages of a nutrition program for a new client, it can be best to remove these hyper-palatable foods. However, remember that you must maintain pleasure in nutrition intake . The hyper-palatable food is not being removed due to the food itself, but due to the effect it can have on consumption and adherence.

Once clients advance it is easier to include these foods in controlled quantities. As the client has seen the results of sticking to a nutrition regime, it becomes easier to avoid over-consumption of the hyper-palatable food as it can impair the rate of progress (which the client has now seen, instead of been promised). In this scenario, the client can have their cake and eat (some of) it too.

More advanced clients are well-suited too IIFYM and flexible dieting, because they have the structure in their nutrition regimes and confidence in the process. Beyond this, there are also physiological benefits such as increased energy requirements and more efficient carbohydrate utilisation. I have used flexible dieting at various times with many clients on the Body Recomposition Program


Management of Trigger Meals

The best way to manage a trigger is to be prepared. I don't mean take your own tupperware to a restaurant or dinner party, instead have an idea when food intake may be more than usual and plan accordingly. 

You can reduce portion sizes throughout the day either before or after the known meal. I would not recommend increasing exercise, but that is a professional preference and subject for another day (essentially: avoid correlation food intake with exercise - it's more complex than that).

If you do have a trigger meal and exceed energy intake for the day, the best thing to do is get back to your program the next day. Do not try to cut breakfast for the next three days to 'balance it out' as this just leads to more days that are off the plan. As a coach, I would much rather see one day with a higher intake and three days back to normal. The more that we control - the better. Ask any of my clients about the control and variable approach we use on their Body Recomposition Program and they will tell you why (if they don't fall asleep in the process).



Energy balance is the key to weight loss, muscle gain and body recomposition goals. Hyper-palatable foods and trigger meals can lead to an energy balance that is undesirable for your goal and set you back. The management of hyper-palatable foods may require removal for a certain period of time, although it remains imperative that pleasure is maintained. As the client advances, these foods can be reintegrated into their nutrition intake and assessed for suitability. For this reason, flexible dieting is best-suited to intermediate and advanced level trainees.