Emotional Hunger 2

How Emotional Hunger Causes Weight Regain After WLS

March 4, 2020

Food Doesn't Satisfy Emotional Hunger

“Surgery fixed my stomach, but it didn’t fix my head or my heart.” This is what so many weight loss surgery clients share with me.

At first, it almost seems easy. You’re eating small volumes of food, and you might even struggle to get in everything you’re supposed to. The weight is falling off, and you feel great! Many people refer to this first year after surgery as the “honeymoon period.” Unfortunately, the honeymoon doesn’t last forever.

The Struggle with Food Cravings & Emotional Hunger

The reality is that if you struggled with cravings, binge eating, and emotional eating before surgery, you will likely struggle after surgery  - and it might be even more complicated.

We use food for so many reasons other than hunger. We eat when we’re sad. We eat when we’re lonely. We eat when we’re stressed or overwhelmed. We eat to celebrate and reward ourselves.

And there is a reason for this.

Many foods, especially those “comfort foods,” affect your brain chemistry in very real ways, making it nearly impossible to resist them.

Here’s how it works . . .

Whenever you eat or drink any type of carb such as bread, cereal, rice, pasta, cookies, candy, cake, soda, pizza, potatoes, ice cream, and so on, the food or beverage is digested in your gut and turned into sugar. This sugar is then transported to your blood, where it’s called blood glucose. It is supposed to be used as fuel for your body, but it can also be used to hijack your brain chemistry.

The 2 Pathways for Sugar and the Brain

A couple of pathways exist in our bodies that allow this to happen:

  • Serotonin: The first one involves the serotonin response. When your blood sugars are elevated, your pancreas is triggered to release insulin. This sugar/insulin combination indirectly raises the levels of serotonin in your brain.  Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps you feel calm and happy.
  • Dopamine: A second pathway occurs for people who feel like they are addicted to sugar. In this instance, the sugar is activating the reward center of your brain, giving you a big spike of a brain chemical called dopamine. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that can make you feel rewarded and motivated. Your brain likes this feeling and thus prompts you to seek more, and more, and more.

If you feel like you are “self-medicating” with carbs to numb uncomfortable emotions or if you’re using sugar to “feel” better, you know what I’m talking about!

The truth is many people use food as a coping tool. I often hear clients say things such as:

  • “Food is my friend."
  • "It’s always there for me, in good times and bad."
  • "It never betrays me."
  • "It doesn’t talk back."
  • "It makes me feel better.”

When you use food to cope, it’s a love/hate relationship.

Food CAN and DOES make us feel better in the moment, but the consequences on our physical, mental, and emotional health are devastating. Emotional hunger isn't satisfied with food. Ask yourself what you're really hungry for. This is why we look for ways to stop our cravings and emotional eating.

Keeping the weight off after bariatric surgery can become tricky because you’ve basically taken away what was very likely a huge coping tool. If you were eating to tranquilize your emotions or fill a void before the surgery, the desire to use food to make yourself feel better doesn’t just go away.

Unless you have other ways to comfort and soothe yourself, you might find yourself stalking the pantry or the fridge, looking for “something.”  In addition, many post-weight loss surgery clients have told me that they actually experience more cravings and emotional eating because they have anxiety about not being able to stuff their emotions with food anymore.

Emotional Hunger and Weight Regain

If emotional eating is causing you to have regain weight, the first step is to be aware of what’s going on in your mind and in your heart.

It may sound counterintuitive, but focusing on the food and trying to tell yourself “don’t eat this” or trying to “willpower” your way through it can backfire. If you’re already feeling bad, restricting your intake can trigger feelings of deprivation, which often makes cravings and emotional eating even worse.

Instead, notice what you are FEELING and what you are THINKING.

To figure out what you are feeling, take a deep breath in and out, and then ask yourself questions such as:

  • Am I upset about something? Am I angry or frustrated?
  • Am I bored or lonely?
  • Am I stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed?

You might also pay attention to where you feel your emotions in your body. For example, many people feel anxiety in their gut area, grief in the chest area, or stress and tension in the neck and shoulders.

What Are You Thinking?

It’s also important to pay attention to what you are THINKING. This is not always intuitive. For example, your conscious mind may be thinking, “I want to lose weight,” but your subconscious mind is thinking something else.

Our subconscious mind stores all of our memories as well as our belief systems. This means that our subconscious runs the show from behind the scenes. About 90% of our actions and behaviors are dictated by what our subconscious minds believe.

If you have belief systems that say losing weight is hard or that it is not safe to be thin or that you’ll never be successful, it’s these thoughts that can sabotage your best efforts.

So, how can you get a handle on your emotional eating so that your surgery can do its best for you? Focus on the emotional hunger so you know what you're really hungry for.

The answer lies in healing your heart and shifting your mindset. It’s not always the easiest path to take, but it’s certainly the most effective one.  Once you resolve the deeper issues and get into a mindset for success, your cravings and emotional eating diminish because you no longer have to use food to feel better.

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Karen Donaldson


Karen Donaldson, MS, RD, LD of Excel Weight Loss, specializes in helping people calm their “chaos brains” to conquer their cravings and heal the deeper issues at the core over their emotional eating so that they can permanently release the weight. She is a registered dietitian, EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques) Certified Weight Loss Coach, and an author. Karen is passionate about helping people learn how to like and love themselves.

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