alcohol wls

Drinking Alcohol After Weight Loss Surgery

September 30, 2015

I’m writing this while on vacation in Europe. The initial purpose of the trip was to attend a professional meeting of the International Federation for the Surgical Treatment of Obesity and Metabolic Disorders (IFSO). I try to attend this meeting every year to gain information about how other parts of the world are incorporating psychologists into their programs. It doesn’t hurt that the meetings are held in fantastic locations (Vienna this year) and that my husband and I get to see some good friends from New Zealand every year, as they attend the conference as well.

Wine World-Wide!

Since we’re already in Europe, of course we’re going to do some additional traveling… to Paris (duh), Prague (fantastic), Pompeii (unbelievable), and much of Italy! My view as I type this is hundreds of feet above the Mediterranean Sea, overlooking the city of Amalfi. I’m sitting beside a glorious, pristine swimming pool with a view that is brilliant and breathtaking. It’s Monday, so there aren’t a lot of people up here (I’m so grateful), but those who are laugh with one another, splash in the pool, and sit in small groups at quaint little tables – drinking wine.

Not that I’m surprised, but it’s been more apparent to me, throughout this trip, from sitting in the airport in Atlanta, to every airport, train station, and bus station we have been through, that alcohol must be the most advertised, celebrated, and prevalent drug – I mean beverage – in our world.

Good times and alcohol addiction

Billboards promising that good times will be better with this mood-altering chemical, stores selling nothing but alcohol (and maybe cigarettes), alcohol menus much longer than the food menus at restaurants, and smashed beer cans, wine bottles, “hard liquor” bottles still in brown bags, all littering the streets of every country we’ve been in, and most likely, polluting the streets of every country in the world.

Most assuredly, the vast majority of people who drink alcohol do so “responsibly,” and do not have “a problem” or an “addiction” to it. For those people, they can “safely” use this drug – and let’s not pretend.....alcohol is a drug. The most widely used drug on the planet. For a percentage of people, however, alcohol is a lethal drug and they die from the physical or social consequences of too much of the drug. For even more people, alcohol is a drug that causes recurring problems, ranging from hangovers to ignoring children, to affairs, to missed work, to DUIs.

Alcohol after weight loss surgery

What about for people who have had weight loss surgery? Alcohol after WLS is one of the topics being discussed at the WLS conferences I attend throughout the US and internationally. Why? Because alcohol abuse/addiction is a serious problem for many people following weight loss surgery, along with the abuse of prescription medications (primarily pain pills), shopping addictions, hoarding, and sexual promiscuity.

Last month, I spoke at a national weight loss conference. The moderator of the panel I was on felt strongly that food/eating is not an addiction. He therefore posed this question to the audience of approximately 200 people: “How many of you consider yourself a food addict?” Nearly every hand in the audience shot up immediately. I explained to him, and to the audience, that the hallmark of addiction is knowing something is a problem and has caused problems (think of all the health-related problems associated with obesity), wanting to stop (wanting to lose weight) having made many attempts to stop (consider all of the prior dieting), but not being able to stop (most people regain any lost weight from dieting and feel hopeless about being able to make permanent changes to their eating and exercise behavior). These people who consider themselves food addicts are addicted to food/eating, physically and/or emotionally. They know their weight is causing serious problems in their lives, they want to stop, but they cannot. That’s addiction.

Cross-addiction after weight loss surgery (food to another substance)

So they opt for weight loss surgery, which is a wonderful option for getting weight off. However, weight loss surgery does not address the addiction component, which includes what the person is using food to avoid (feelings, situations, their past, their present, themselves). Addiction has physiological and emotional roots. Many obese people have family members who are addicted to alcohol or drugs or shopping or gambling. The WLS person’s drug of choice has been food.

When food is no longer an option in the way it was prior to weight loss surgery, people seek an alternate way of dealing with issues. Alcohol provides a “high” that takes people away from the stress, frustration and emotions of day-to-day life. And for many WLS patients, alcohol does so within minutes. It is said that one drink is equal to three for a post-op patient. So the buzz, the euphoria, the escape from one’s present reality is nearly instantaneous. If a WLS patient has the genetic predisposition for addiction, they are highly susceptible to becoming alcoholic. They need to seek help to address the underlying emotional issues related to their reasons for wanting to avoid themselves and the realities of their lives – whether the escape comes from food, alcohol, another drug or an alternate addictive behavior.

Social drinking and under the influence

Some WLS patients “only” consume this poison we refer to as alcohol when they are at “special events.” There is danger in occasional drinking, as well as drinking several times a week or daily. Alcohol is 100% empty calories, calories that irritate the stomach lining and damage internal organs, including the brain. It would be absurd for a WLS patient to sit down and eat three pieces of cake or five or six cookies or a couple of bagels. What then, makes it sensible, reasonable or otherwise “okay” to consume hundreds and hundreds of empty calories from alcohol? To make it worse, alcohol results in disinhibition… meaning people do things “under the influence” they wouldn’t do normally.

In the past 10 years, travelling to many a WLS conference, I’ve seen people engage in behaviors I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t otherwise. For example, I’ve seen women being dropped off at the front door of a hotel at 6 AM as I wait for a taxi to the airport. She is let out at the door wearing a disheveled version of the dress she was in last night at the event party. She is also wearing her makeup all over her face, looks pale and I can almost feel her hangover. I’ve seen people stumbling, heard them slurring, and watched them flaunt themselves in unflattering ways. And eat… those lowered inhibitions also result in an “I don’t care” attitude when it comes to eating and healthy new living habits go right out the window.

I’m not judging. I’m sad. I was that woman, many, many years ago. Alcohol gave me courage because I didn’t feel confident in myself. It also led to a lot of shame, grief and heartache. I’m so grateful to have chosen the gift of recovery from addiction 26 years ago. The joy of living life without being numbed by alcohol or food or shopping or anything else allows me the pure joy of attending to every detail of my European vacation with no hangovers or regrets.

No poison in my body to slow me down the next day. Life without addiction is a gift you can give yourself!

If you consider yourself a food addict, if you have addiction of any sort in your family or if you have struggled with any sorts of addictive behaviors in the past, do NOT drink after WLS. You’re a sitting duck for problems. GET HELP– this won’t fix itself. And you are most assuredly not alone. Even if you have never dealt with addictive behaviors personally or in your family, steer clear of alcohol after WLS. It is contrary to healthy living, adds empty calories to your day and potentially leads to unhealthy behaviors (including eating too much of the wrong foods).

Live healthy. Life fully! That is, after all, why you chose to have WLS in the first place!

Photo credit: cc

connie stapleton


Connie Stapleton, PhD is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist with nearly two decades of experience in the field of bariatric medicine. Dr. Stapleton is the author of three books, is a national and international speaker, and appears as the bariatric psychologist on three national television programs.  Read more articles by Connie Stapleton!