“Stimulus control is the key to weight loss.  Triggers are the enemy, not you!”

The Power of Stimulus Control For Weight Loss

It’s As Easy As Managing Triggers

Your weight loss strategy does not have to be complicated!  In fact, if you were planning to travel to the Yucatan next month to participate in some sort of indigenous purging ritual with an intimate group of your “besties,” stop the car!  No need to resort to such drastic measures!  Sometimes achieving weight loss/management is as simple as eliminating the triggers in your environment.

What is the formalized method for managing these triggers?  The technique is called, “stimulus control,” a well-known form of “shaping,” a technique used regularly in the field of Behavioural Psychology.

This simple approach to weight loss/management appears straightforward on the surface, but there are some significant hurdles to consider that I will describe towards the end of today’s article.

Defining Stimulus Control

Stimulus control is the act of voiding, or eliminating the cues in your environment that contribute to poor dietary choices.  It is also the act of adding cues that encourage positive choices.  A stimulus can be thought of as a “trigger,” or, an object that derails the healthy food choices you are learning to make.  Poorly managed triggers simply makes your journey more difficult.  For some, triggers are potentially dangerous, especially for those struggling with binge eating disorder.

Learning to effectively use stimulus control is a great place to start while on our weight loss/management journey.  In a recent podcast regarding the CHANGES Model, as part of a recent series on weight loss, I describe the importance of taking inventory of the behaviours, or actions, that contribute to weight gain.  By focusing on behaviours, and for the moment, ignore both our emotional and cognitive processes, we quickly find manageable areas to work on.  In fact, consider the area of behavioural change a “quick win” while on your transformation journey.  Cognitions and emotions are much more complicated to tackle.

The triggers in our environment are closely tied to biology.  Food elicits a dopaminergic response, a built-in organic connection that cannot be broken.  If you have paired ice cream and dopamine enough times, simply seeing ice cream will cause a slight dopaminergic response, just as if you were actually consuming the ice cream itself.  Foods high in fat, salt, and sugar elicit a stronger response than foods low in these items.  Why?  They increase our chance of survival.

Stimulus Control In Practice

north-burnabyOne example is grocery shopping behaviour.  If you know that “aisle 7” has ice cream, and you understand that ice cream is your trigger, stimulus control logic states that you should avoid aisle 7.

However, maybe you already foolishly thinking that you are stronger than the stimulus (ice-cream).  Really?  As if that approach has worked int the past!  This is not the time to prove how much willpower you have.  In fact, always know that during the first several weeks of taking on any behavioural change through shaping, the stimulus is in fact stronger than you are.


The following is a list of issues to consider as you start using stimulus control in your day-to-day life:

  • Stimulus control works best with accountability.  If you have a friend that is on the same transformational path, go shopping with them.  You will build a stronger friendship bond, and you will also have an opportunity to support each other as you walk past aisle 7.
  • Family collaboration is required.  If you are attempting to make positive food choices, your family must be on board with the changes you are embarking on.  This is a future article all of its own, as the potential pitfalls are countless.  As an example, you can request that trigger food items not be kept in plain view.  Even better, see which family members want to go on the journey with you.
  • Spend more time adding adaptive stimuli than eliminating unhealthy stimuli.  Adaptive stimuli include surrounding yourself with healthy food choices, watching a motivational video, talking to a close friend, or enjoying a long walk with your partner on an Autumn day among the mounds of dry leaves.
  • Organic responses required adaptation.  Find that those carrots in your refrigerator fail to give you that dopamine rush you are looking for?  Hang tight!  Over time, that carrot will be as amazing as the ice cream on aisle 7!


Although stimulus control is a powerful method, understand that it is only one tool that you should have in your holistic health arsenal.  It is important to acknowledge that every change you make towards healthy eating and exercise, contributes to your transformational experience.  The more tools you use, the greater the effect!  Stimulus control is one of the most basic and effective skills you will learn on your journey.

**Want to learn about my own body image and weight loss journey?  Check out our article on the Body Positive Movement and Intuitive Eating!


The Power of Stimulus Control for Weight Loss was last modified: September 21st, 2017 by Jerod Killick