Emotional Eating After Weight Loss Surgery: What It Is and How To Conquer ItMay 12, 2017
Whether you struggle with emotional eating after WLS or want to combat emotional eating for improved health and to lose weight, you can conquer it by paying attention to your behaviors.
Life happens and unfortunately, we live in a society of high stress, but it is important to remember what is in our control and what is out of our control. We can’t always control others or what is going on in the world, but we can control our thoughts and our reactions to others. Our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are all linked. So, by changing the way we think and act, we can affect the way we feel.
How many times have you had a stressful day and just grabbed the first thing you saw in the kitchen? People use food for a variety of reasons, including social and emotional reasons. How many times have you celebrated something and gone out to eat? How many times have you been upset and grabbed that pint of ice cream or a chocolate bar? How about watching television and before you know it the bag of chips is gone?
All of these are examples of emotional eating, which is more common than you probably think, but unfortunately is also one of the many reasons people continue to struggle with their weight or have difficulties meeting their weight loss goals.
Emotional Eating Is Impulsive Behavior
You may wonder why this is, but typically when emotional eating happens people don’t just sit down and eat their healthy prepared meal. Instead, emotional eating is more impulsive. So this eating extra food is also extra calories, but the question is, what are you getting in return from participating in this behavior? The constant struggle, frustration, the weight gain? Most food people eat out of an emotion is “comfort food” or unhealthy food, so most likely you are not gaining extra nutrients from these foods. So then the question is why are you doing it?
Emotional eating is simply eating out of an emotion, as opposed to eating out of true hunger.
There is a difference between physiological hunger (not eating for several hours and being hungry and/or not eating the right foods to fill you up and keep you satisfied) and emotional hunger (out of happiness, loneliness, sadness, stress, or even boredom). The first step is to be able to differentiate these two types of hunger and identify which hunger you have each time. Below are some ways to help you differentiate between emotional hunger and true physiological hunger.
4 Ways To Identify Emotional Hunger From Physiological Hunger
- Emotional hunger comes on suddenly while physiological hunger occurs gradually.
- When you are eating out of an emotion you most likely crave a specific food, such as comfort foods (pizza, ice cream, chocolate) and ONLY the food you are craving will make you feel satisfied. When you eat because you are actually hungry, you will eat what is available because if not you will starve.
- When you are eating out of an emotion you feel like you MUST eat right this second, while physiological hunger can wait, perhaps until dinner is ready.
The main one, from my perspective (and being a psychologist), is:
- Emotional eating leaves you with feelings of guilt, while physiological hunger does not. This then could cause a downward spiral of emotions and behaviors and would not leave you anywhere, but in a bad place (i.e. feel worse, then eat more, then feel worse, etc.)
Now we know how to differentiate between emotional hunger and physiological hunger, what can we do about it?
3 Tips To Conquer Emotional Eating
Take a Time-Out.
If you find yourself in the kitchen opening and closing cabinets or the refrigerator and looking for food, tell yourself to STOP. Just like kids become impulsive and may act out when they are emotional, as adults, we also act-out but in different ways, perhaps by grabbing food.
So, take a time-out. Take a few minutes before grabbing food and ask yourself "why am I in here," “what is going on,” and "when is the last time I ate." These questions will help you understand what is going on. If you recently ate, you are probably not physiologically hungry at this time. If you are able to identify you are upset, stressed, bored, etc. then you can ask yourself if eating is really going to solve the problem.
Think About a Distraction and Substitute a Healthier Behavior.
Hopefully you would have done this prior to the next time you find yourself in the kitchen looking for food, but ideally, I always tell everyone to have a handful of distraction techniques or coping mechanisms ready to use. It is important to have more than one as that one is not always going to work for you.
For instance, if you say you will call a friend, well that friend may not be available when you call. Or if your "go to behavior" is to take a walk, but when you need to the weather is bad. Therefore, it is always good to have a few options. Think about what is realistic for YOU to do in these situations. I can give you recommendations but what may work for some, may not work for others and the idea is to not get stuck in this situation and not know what to do.
So, it is important to think about this ahead of time and identify a few healthier behaviors you can participate in and use as a coping mechanism. Some common behaviors are taking a walk, making a phone call, cleaning, crocheting, or reading a book.
In about 10 minutes after doing something else, you will probably be distracted and no longer be thinking about the food, which would be further evidence that you were not physiologically hungry. On the other hand, if you are still thinking about food, then you are probably truly hungry and you can either drink some water to see if it passes, or make a healthy choice.
Do You Really Want It or Do You Need It?
This works for some people as well. If you are able to stop and take that time-out, ask yourself if you really want it or if you need it?
We don’t need ice cream, cookies, cakes, etc, but occasionally we really want those things. If you are able to identify that you don’t need this, but you really just want it, you have thought about it and accepted that you will have just a little, then go for it. BUT remember that our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are linked, so if you make the conscious decision to eat a cup of ice cream (and it was not an impulsive act out of an emotion), then you need to accept it and move on.
By making this conscious and educated decision you are most likely not going to have the negative feeling, such as feeling bad or guilty, after the act of eating the food. If you do feel bad or guilty, you need to use self-talk and remind yourself that you made the decision to do it, you did it, and now it is over and done with. Accept it and move on.
If you can be okay with what you ate and move on (and not wait until the next day or next week to get back on track) then you are doing great, BUT if you hold onto what happened, then you are going to feel bad about it, feel like a failure, and most likely “throw the towel in” and say something like “I might as well just eat the rest of it,” which becomes a vicious cycle.
The key is to take a time out, identify what is going on, and then make a smart choice. Remember that food will NOT solve your problems and food is NOT the answer. You CAN find other ways to make yourself feel better. It WILL pass and you WILL feel better being healthy. We eat to live, we don’t live to eat. So, if nothing else, make the healthier choice!
ABOUT THE AUTHORRachel Goldman, PhD, FTOS is a licensed psychologist in NYC specializing in health and wellness. She received her doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology from Fairleigh Dickinson University in NJ. She completed her Pre-Doctoral Clinical Internship with a specialization in Behavioral Medicine and her Post-Doctoral Fellowship with a specialization in Obesity and Bariatric Surgery at the Medical University of South Carolina. She serves on many professional committees and speaks at national conferences related to the behavioral aspects of obesity and weight management.