Recognizing Emotional Hunger & Fullness

August 6, 2014

We all have at least two kinds of hunger and fullness – physical and emotional. Although weight loss surgery can be great at helping us recognize and honor our physical hunger and fullness, it does nothing to help us with our emotional hunger and fullness.

After surgery, the body may be ready to accept that we have had enough food, but our hearts and minds may still be craving something more, something different, something sweet, something comforting.

What our society as a whole does not understand is that food is not just food. People who weigh more don’t just weigh more because they like food a lot. People who weigh less don’t just weigh less because they have a lot of discipline. These factors may be involved…or they may not.

Our Emotional Connections with Food

Food is one of our earliest emotional connections. As infants, we feel hungry and think, “Oh shoot, I’m gonna starve to death! WHAAAAAAA!” Then, good parent comes to the rescue, feeds us and we are saved. Thus, we encounter our first emotional food lesson: Food = Safe. And then as toddlers we wind up in the doctor’s office for an ear infection. After being a good girl or boy and letting the doctor poke and prod us even though we just want to be home watching Dumbo, we get a sucker. Second emotional food lesson: Food = Reward. Then, a few years later, we suffer the loss of our grandma. It’s the first funeral we have ever been to. After all the crying and grieving there are a few weeks where family and friends bring food to the house. Lesson # 3: Food = Comfort.  And on and on and on.

For some of us, these emotional food lessons don’t negatively impact us. We enjoy food, but we don’t need it to fill our emotional needs. We rely on people, spirituality, or even other vices like distraction, television, alcohol, excessive shopping, etc to cope with our emotions and meet our needs.  But some of us (for a variety of reasons, including genetic predisposition, an invalidating environment, an  unavailable parent, high levels of sensitivity, etc), don’t assimilate the food lessons as well and, instead of enjoying food’s emotional properties, we depend on them.  Sometimes we experience this as a full blown eating disorder where we go through periods of restricting our food, over-exercising, abusing laxatives, binging, purging, or any combination of the aforementioned.  Sometimes we may not have a clinical eating disorder but our eating is still disordered and we find ourselves emotionally over or under-eating, feeling guilty about our food behaviors, thinking about food or our bodies most of the day, avoiding social situations because of food or our bodies, etc.

The Emotional Issues Surgery Can't Cure

Weight loss surgery is powerful. It is not just a tool, it is a power tool. But, there are some places in our hearts and psyches that the surgery can’t touch.

If you struggle with emotional eating, you have to start asking yourself questions like:

  • What am I hoping this food will do for me?
  • What do I need?
  • If I didn’t turn to food right now, what would I feel?
  • What am I avoiding by eating, and why do I feel I need to avoid that?

Surgery is not just about getting comfortable with different food and a different body. It is about getting comfortable with yourself, your thoughts, your feelings. Surgery is an invitation to not only look at your plate differently, but to look at your internal world of needs and wants differently.  Recognizing emotional hunger and meeting emotional needs is a key to success with not only weight loss but for health and happiness overall, which is really the point of surgery anyway.

Angela Taylor LCSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She has a dedicated private practice.

Recognizing emotional hunger
angela taylor


Angela Taylor LCSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She has a dedicated private practice. As a mental health professional, she provides expertise and understanding for the changes that come along after bariatric surgery. Angela is consulted regularly as a weight management and eating disorder expert.

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