What a Craving Really Means After WLS

What a Craving Really Means After WLS

May 10, 2019

As a registered dietitian, I work with many people that have food cravings but don't know what a craving really means after WLS. In my years of experience, it is important for me to support you to understand your relationship with food.

I find that most people struggle with consuming too many carbs, especially refined and processed ones. Of course, I’m supposed to counsel my clients to consume less bread, cereal, rice, pasta, cookies, crackers, cakes, donuts, chips, bagels, tortillas, waffles, pancakes, fries, pizza, soda, sports drinks, and candy. All of these foods and beverages are digested into sugars which can play havoc with your health. Blood sugar levels rise, insulin production is amped up, and anything extra gets stored as fat – right in the belly. That’s the logical part. The scientific part. So why can’t we “just do it”?

To say that our relationship with food is complicated is an understatement, especially when it comes to weight loss. If it were easy, I would put on my dietitian hat and tell you how many carbs, proteins, and fats you should be eating. You’d lose the weight and keep it off, and we’d be done. But, as I’m sure you know if you’re reading this article, it doesn’t quite work that way.

Our Relationship with Food is Quite Complex

The reality is that there are so much psychology and many emotions behind our eating. If we don’t take the time to understand this –  embrace it and heal it – then we aren’t likely to experience success in permanently releasing the weight.

Truth bomb:  Cravings aren't about the food.

Pause for a moment and think about your relationship with food.

  • Was there enough food or did you have to fight for it or go hungry?
  • Was your food ever restricted because someone put you on a diet?
  • When you learned to use the potty or you did good in school were you rewarded with candy?
  • If you had a bad day were you comforted with a cookie?
  • Did you get a “treat” if you ate all your dinner?
  • Were you lonely and food was your friend?

To say the least, the ways we used food are confusing.

Food and Your Brain - What a Craving Really Means

Food is also very often used as a coping tool that works to tranquilize painful emotions or keep you numb. If your childhood was chaotic and stressful, you might have subconsciously learned that carbohydrate foods and beverages (remember the list from above) beverages like bread, cereal, pasta, somehow made you feel better. It isn't just because they tasted good. These sugary foods affect your brain chemistry by increasing your serotonin and dopamine levels – the “feel-good” chemicals that help you feel calm, happy, excited, and motivated.

Your childhood may affect your weight. In fact, current research has shown us that if you have a history of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), your risk of using food as a coping tool is significantly increased. ACEs include, but are not limited to, any type of abuse – physical, sexual, or emotional; divorce or separation; violence in the home; alcohol or drugs in the home; mental illness in the home; a family member in jail or prison; and not having your basic needs met.

What If You Just Need “Something”

To discover more about YOUR relationship with food, start by asking yourself the following questions when you find yourself headed to the pantry or the fridge because you just need “something”:

  1. What are you REALLY craving? To answer this question, try tuning into your FEELINGS and EMOTIONS.  Are you are tired, overwhelmed, angry, lonely, or anxious? Very often what we’re craving is relief from these feelings.
  2. If you weren’t “allowed to eat this food,” how would you FEEL? Many of my clients share that they would feel angry, sad,  or deprived.
  3. Are you truly physically hungry?

I know from my own experience that cravings and emotional eating have little, if anything, to do with physical hunger. For me, it meant bingeing on a huge bowl of popcorn at 8:30 pm, when dinner was at 7:00 pm. It meant eating corn chips out of the bag at 9:30 in the morning as I was getting ready for work. It meant stopping to buy raw cookie dough on the way home from work because I’d had a hard day. It also meant eating an entire carton of something that I'd picked up before I got home so that nobody would know what I had done. It also meant feeling frustrated, embarrassed, ashamed and hopeless.

Are Cravings and Emotional Eating an Issue for You?

To find out if cravings and emotional eating are issues for you, I warmly invite you to answer the questions below. Be thoughtful and honest with yourself. You’re the only one reading this, and your answers can be a good step on the path to healing what’s going on at a deeper level.

On a scale of 0-10, zero means “hardly ever” and ten means “all the freaking time.”

  1. Do you eat when you’re stressed or when you have chaos-brain?
    • When you’re stressed out, your body produces high levels of cortisol which can trigger cravings for salty, sweet, and fried foods.
  2. Do you eat when you’re not hungry or until you’re stuffed?
    • Emotional eating isn’t located in your stomach. You may find yourself “hungry” within an hour of eating or “hungry” all the time.
  3. Do you eat to feel better - to calm and soothe yourself?
    • We often nurture ourselves with food when we’re anxious, lonely, or bored because carbs stimulate “feel-good” chemicals in our brains.
  4. Do you reward yourself with food?
    • Childhood patterns with food often carry into adulthood.  You may feel like you deserve a treat, especially after a hard day.
  5. Do you stuff your emotions with food?
    • Numbing yourself with food can be a way to temporarily silence uncomfortable emotions including guilt, anger, resentment, and shame.
  6. Does food make you feel safe? Do you feel like food is your friend?
    • Weight can serve as a protective shield to keep us safe from unwanted attention or to keep us “invisible.”
  7. Do you feel powerless or out of control around food?
    • Some foods can be addicting.  We may experience intense cravings and once we start eating it may be nearly impossible to stop.
  8. Do you eat for entertainment or to relieve boredom?
    • If you feel unfilled and empty, food can be a way to distract you from underlying feelings of dissatisfaction with your life.

Discovery Time

Now, take a look at your answers. Notice the areas where you scored high.

For example, if you realize that stress is a huge trigger for you, consider some mindfulness activities to calm your mind. EFT  (Emotional Freedom Techniques) tapping, breathing, and meditation great for calming the fight-or-flight response. I teach nearly every one of my clients these techniques because I consider calming down the stress response to be the number one priority when it comes to weight release.

If you discovered that you’re using food as a reward, consider some other ways to “treat” yourself that serve your mind and your body for its highest good. Is something really a treat if it harms your health and leaves you feeling bad about yourself in the end?

If you scored high in the area of burying your emotions or numbing the pain with food, take a more in-depth look inside. Many of my clients struggle with what I called “doormat” energy. If you’re a people pleaser and everyone else’s needs come first, you likely know what I’m talking about. If you’re letting people take from you without refilling your tank through self-care, you’ll likely turn to food to replenish your energy – both physically and emotionally.

Finally, if you’re using food to feel safe or to stay invisible, it may be time to enlist the help of a trusted counselor or coach.  Many people struggling with weight issues have a history of sexual trauma. As mentioned above, comfort foods (mostly carbs) can increase the levels of serotonin and dopamine in our brains and food becomes a way to self-soothe and comfort.

Over time, the extra physical weight becomes a “shield” of sorts, keeping them safe from unwanted attention. A few years ago, I had the honor of interviewing Dr. Vincent Felitti, a pioneer in this area. He noticed that as his patients got closer to their goal weights, they dropped out of the program. When he conducted exit studies, he learned that food was actually the SOLUTION to their deeper issues and that the excess weight was keeping them “safe” from the outside world.

Now What?

Before we go further, I want to thank you for taking the time to read this article. Consider it an act of self-care! Learning about WHY we overeat is a significant first step in the process of conquering your cravings and emotional eating so that you can permanently release the weight. If you’ve been asking yourself the question “I know what I’m supposed to do so why can’t I do it?” you’re starting to know the answers!

What’s the best advice moving forward as to weight and cravings? Remember that it’s not about the food. The answer comes from your heart. Love yourself. Like yourself. Be kind to yourself. Forgive yourself. Know that you’re not alone. Ask for help. You’re worth it.

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Karen Donaldson


Karen Donaldson, MS, RD, LD of EXCEL Weight Loss Solutions, specializes in helping people stop their cravings and emotional eating so they can lose the weight and keep it off. She is a Registered Dietitian, EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques) Certified Weight Loss Coach, and an Emotion Code Certified Practitioner.
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