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Falling Down the Rabbit Hole of Emotional Eating after Bariatric Surgery

By Andrea R. Zuellig, PhD LP


Patients who were emotional eaters before bariatric surgery but were able to control it afterwards, describe their experience as if their world has become stable; they have finally found calmness.  In contrast, post bariatric surgery patients who fall back into emotional eating may feel that they have fallen into an Alice in Wonderland-like world, where everything is topsy-turvy, and nothing can be trusted, especially one’s own self.


After bariatric surgery, many patients are able to listen to their body, make good choices, and distract themselves from eating for reasons other than hunger.  However, others struggle with urges to eat to soothe themselves, to avoid emotions, or to provide a reward.  If you find yourself struggling with eating when you are not hungry, here are some tips to consider.



Check the clock. Has it been more than four hours since you last ate?  If it has, you are likely physically hungry, and may need a small meal or glass of milk (as directed by your dietitian).  If it has been less than four hours, it is likely that you are experiencing something other than physical hunger.


Take inventory. Check in with your body.  Are you thirsty?  Are you tired, bored, anxious, lonely, angry, or sad?  Are you eating to reward yourself?  These are all common reasons why people eat, other than hunger.


Provide your body with what it really needs. If you are tired, take a short nap, if you can.  If you are thirsty, drink some water.  If you are experiencing emotions, attempt to do something that will help you to experience and tolerate those emotions, or soothe yourself.


Some find it helpful to create a list of 100 alternative activities to utilize when emotional hunger cravings call.  These can include anything from calling a friend, to doing laundry, to doodling.  The key is to include 100 items to ensure you can always find something interesting on the list. 


Be kind to yourself. Many bariatric surgery patients have never learned the skill of how to self-nurture.  Some have learned to only reward or soothe themselves with food.  When this is no longer an option, some individuals feel high amounts of anxiety. 


Spend some time researching what brings you joy.  Use your five senses to investigate things that are pleasurable for you to see, touch, hear, smell, and within limits, taste.  Use your “sixth sense,” movement, to notice how your body likes to groove.  Soon you will find many non-food ways of nurturing and rewarding yourself.


Listen to your body, provide it with what it truly needs (including movement), and you will soon be right-side up, and heading out of the rabbit hole for good.