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Nutrition psychology: endogenous and exogenous stimuli

Endogenous stimuli

Endogenous stimuli otherwise known as internal triggers are thoughts feelings and sensations inside an individual that cause a certain behaviour. They can be hard to recognise for both client and fitness professional but are very important to understand when working towards positive health changes.

Thoughts, feelings, hunger and cravings are all important endogenous stimuli to consider and discuss when working with clients. A client’s thoughts can lead them to be more likely to perform a health behaviour (Yau 2013). If you educate your client adequately about the benefits of exercise then they can change the clients thought process, so when considering whether to go to the gym the client will look forward to going because they know they will feel good afterwards.

It is important to realise that negative thoughts can also prevent healthy behaviour change. If a client thinks that they will be laughed at when running on the treadmill, this may prevent them from performing exercise. In this case you must work to reassure the client that this is not the case and demonstrate other types of training that the client may feel more comfortable doing.

Feelings are likely to trigger changes in eating patterns and exercise behaviour too. It is very common for an individual to eat energy dense, nutrient sparse foods such as ice cream or chocolate when they are feeling upset or anxious. The sugar and fat combination provides an instant sense of satisfaction but often results in feelings of shame or guilt. If a client is feeling stressed or tired they may be more likely to miss out on training and go home to watch TV. You must support the client to identify the negative health behaviours that occur with feelings and discuss other coping mechanisms. For example, if a client normally drives to the shop to buy a large bar of chocolate when they feel upset, it would be helpful to write a list down of other things to do when those feelings occur. These could include going on a walk in nature, having a bath, phoning a friend or doing a puzzle.

Hunger and cravings are also intrinsic triggers that may prevent a client reaching their goals. Hunger is a physiological need; it is the body’s way of telling an individual that it needs fuel. Physiological symptoms include stomach pains and noises and feeling irritable and shaky. Hunger will disappear after food has been eaten, regardless of the type of food.

Cravings however are a common trigger; they are a desire to eat a particular type of food even when not physiologically hunger. So the client that needs to eat chocolate if feeling upset is experiencing a craving. If the client ate a roast dinner or salad they may be physiologically full but still have an intense desire to eat chocolate to meet an emotional need.

It is useful for you to educate the client about the difference between hunger and cravings. Cravings generally disappear after 20 minutes so coming up with ideas of distraction techniques would be useful for the client that suffers with common cravings for nutrient sparse foods.

Exogenous stimuli

Exogenous stimuli otherwise known as external triggers are related to an individual’s senses; the environment is responsible for causing them. For example, watching a television advert advertising cheese may trigger a client to add cheese to their evening meal, or walking past a bakery and smelling the bread may trigger a client to go and buy some.

Triggers can encourage a client to do something or prevent them from doing it. This can be explained using the acronym ABC. Where A represents the trigger, B represents the behaviour and C represents the consequence.

For example, if it is raining outside - the trigger, a client may be less likely to go running - the behaviour. The consequence of this is that they will not reach their goal of running 5km in 25 minutes.

Another example is if a client keeps biscuits in a clear glass jar in the kitchen – the trigger, they may eat one when they walk past – the behaviour. The consequence of this is that they will not be reducing sugar intake which will prevent desired weight loss.

You should help their client identify external triggers that are preventing them reaching their goals. Then an action plan can be created to try and manage those triggers to support the client to take control over more challenging situations. So, if it is raining outside a client could complete an exercise DVD at home. If a client keeps seeing the biscuits and eating them when they walk past they could put the biscuit tin in a cupboard or replace it with a fruit bowl.

In can be hard for a client to identify endogenous and exogenous stimuli therefore you could recommend keeping a food, exercise, environment and mood diary to recognise triggers that may be preventing them reaching their goals.

If you are interested in further developing your coaching skills, please get in touch for upcoming CDP events.

Rachel x