Make the Mental Shift, Food As Fuel

Make the Mental Shift, Food As Fuel

March 10, 2017

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think about your birthday? How about Thanksgiving or a special family gathering?  If you’re anything like me, images of cake and ice cream immediately surface, as well as juicy slices of turkey and hot mashed potatoes drizzled with gravy!  Just the thought of the 4th of July brings about the smell of outdoor grilling.

Many family traditions have been around longer than most of us and have been heavily promoted by society for decades. You can’t step into the grocery store without being inundated with aisles of delicious candies, pumpkin flavored everything, and food pairings for all occasions.

Our annual calendars are sprinkled with these occasions tied closely to comfort foods and alcoholic beverages, it’s no wonder we have trouble maintaining healthy eating habits throughout the year.  So, how do we stick to our goals of healthy living?  It’s a matter of changing our mindset and making a few adjustments.  Sounds easy, right?  No!  It can be difficult and requires constant monitoring and persistence.

After Weight Loss Surgery, Food is Fuel

One thing to keep in mind, especially after bariatric surgery, is that food is fuel.  It’s what keeps us going throughout the day, giving us the energy we need to be physically active and continue to burn calories.

Here is a question to ponder:  Why is it that holiday gatherings have us eating as if we will never have those foods again?  For crying out loud, the grocery store carries turkey, ham, brats, and pies year round. Why do we do this to ourselves?!  We stuff the turkey in the morning, post a few foodie pictures on Facebook, and by the end of the day, we are now the stuffed turkey! You know that feeling.

This may not be your family, but many families seem to have this tradition. Maybe we should have these foods more often throughout the year so that it doesn’t feel quite as urgent. Or, what about shifting the tradition away from the table and keeping food in its proper place: as fuel.  Fuel to get us up and moving!

When you think about it, the biggest reward of sitting around the table with family and friends is the face-to-face verbal interactions. It’s one of the few times we slow down and communicate with one another—that is if we can avoid our cell phones. So, how do we change this? Have a smaller, healthier meal and then slowly start to adjust the family tradition.  Take an annual family hike, start a flag football game in the front yard, or challenge others to a new game.  Celebrate your birthday at the bowling alley or doing a local 5K.  Sounds easy, right?  Not for some.  This is going to take slow steps toward change; not only for you but possibly for those around you too.

Having a Plan is a Key to Success

Planning is often the key to success.  Eating habits after bariatric surgery change dramatically and require some practice. It’s challenging enough when you’re eating on your own terms but when social occasions and family traditions pop-up, eating can be a bit tricky.

One strategy is to look back and assess your typical eating habits during special celebrations. Whether your family stays home or dines out, the options can be endless, enticing, and not always healthy.  Without a plan in place, you are setting yourself up for a frustrating time.

For many families, food is a language of love which is often a give and take.  It’s rewarding to have certain comfort foods prepared by the honorary cook of the home, and that same person may receive love and gratification from your eating—and lots of it. Suddenly changing that can feel strange to them, as if you don’t care for their food anymore.

If this is your family, your plan could be to communicate ahead of time why it’s important to stick to small portions and healthier options. Or maybe it’s to practice getting more comfortable saying no.  If it’s due to being unable to resist good food or you wait all day to eat and end up overeating, you need a plan for change.  Restricting all day in order to eat your favorite things is not a good plan of action. It’s simply a vessel for bad decisions. You need adequate calories to keep you from being overly hungry once you arrive. Find out ahead of time what is being served so that you can construct a plan to choose small portions of the things you love, and step away from the table when you're actually full.

Another way to exercise some control over your food choices is to volunteer to bring something to the party in order to ensure healthy options for yourself. Seems easy, right? Not always. It takes intentionality, good communication, and making little adjustments as you go.

Give Yourself a Break

Upcoming special occasions and holiday gatherings can be loaded with emotions:  stress, anxiety, and depression surface during these times for many people.  Relationships can be messy, expectations are often high, traveling is frustrating, and the list goes on. Give yourself a break! There is nothing wrong with saying no if you need to.

You don’t have to attend every party you’re invited to, and if you show up empty-handed, so be it. Identify your priorities and limits of what you’re willing to do each month, make a plan, and stick to it. If over-involvement or toxic interactions start to impact your mood, eating habits, and daily functioning—pull back. It isn’t worth it.

Getting enough sleep, physical activity, and managing stress are all imperative to good self-care. Good self-care helps you to maintain appropriate eating habits and wellness goals throughout the year and you can’t do these things without intentionality and planning. Put self-care items on your calendar as well. Treat self-care as meetings or appointments that are a priority for you to keep.

Social functions, particularly when family dynamics are involved, can be chaotic and often test our frustration tolerance.  Before you go, prepare yourself for how you will handle certain conversations, how long you will stay, and how you will make an exit. Don’t allow yourself to get sucked into emotionally charged conversations. If you need to go for a mind-clearing walk, do it! Some people may see removing yourself as a selfish act but that isn’t how I see it at all. I tell my patients all the time that it’s better to take a break and return refreshed than to remain in a self-destructive situation. Some negative conversations are like jumping down a rabbit trail.You can find yourself sliding further down the dark hole the longer you stick around.

If you’re worried about what others might think, communicate that it’s important to you take periodic walks to manage stress and continued weight loss or invite them to come along. An invitation for a walk may be all it takes to shift the focus of the conversation.

Traditions are important ways of sharing much-needed family time and to celebrate milestones or culturally significant occasions. However, these can also be times of high stress and have the potential to increase depression and anxiety.

In order to maintain healthy eating habits throughout the year, we must embrace change, and with our change comes more change for those around us. Sounds easy, right?  Not always. Changing deeply rooted habits and traditions take time.  It’s going to take planning, intentionality, and everyone’s willingness to break away from what’s always been comfortable.  But it’s worth it.  You’re trading it in for a healthier way of living!

Jennifer Captain


Jennifer Captain is a Licensed Professional Counselor in Colorado.  She obtained her Master’s in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Lynchburg College. At the Bariatric & Metabolic Center of Colorado, Jennifer works with patients from a strength-based perspective during their bariatric journey to obtain lifelong weight loss goals and overall emotional wellness.

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