Stress eating is common. Over a third of American adults report having eaten unhealthy foods or eating too much in a given month because they feel too much stress. Ironically, bariatric surgery patients can also experience emotional eating, even though they choose to undergo weight loss surgery to help limit food intake.
How might bariatric surgery patients experience stress eating, and what are the effects? And, how can you avoid stress eating after bariatric surgery? Here is some background information on stress eating after bariatric surgery and six ways to avoid it.
Stress Eating and Its Effects
Stress eating is also known as emotional eating. It is eating in response to some sort of stress or emotion. Sources of stress can include overwhelming pressure at work, concern over the health of yourself or a family member, relationships, school, or financial pressures, for example. Stress eaters may eat in response to lack of time or feeling bored, tired, angry, sad, lonely, or frustrated.
As any stress eater knows, typically foods eaten in response to stress are not healthy ones! They tend to be calorie-dense and often high in sugar or other refined carbohydrates, fat, and sodium. Pizza, ice cream, mashed potatoes, and macaroni and cheese are common comfort foods.
Eating for reasons other than being hungry, and choosing low-nutrient, high-calorie foods can lead to weight gain. In addition, if you are chronically highly stressed, your body may be more likely to promote fat storage.
Stress Eating and Bariatric Surgery
Bariatric surgery can increase stress. The surgery and rapid weight loss associated with bariatric surgery are physically stressful on the body. Mentally and emotionally, it can be difficult to handle the rigid rules of the post-op diet, people’s reactions to your surgery, and other aspects of the post-op lifestyle. Bariatric surgery can also make it more difficult to deal with emotions, as food is no longer an outlet.
Bariatric surgical procedures are designed to limit the types and amounts of foods that the patients can consume, but stress eating can still occur. For some patients, stress eating may become a problem long after the surgical procedure, when typical comfort foods can be consumed. Even shortly after the procedure, though, weight loss surgery patients can consume too much or choose unhealthy foods, such as sugary pudding, mashed potatoes pureed with gravy, pasta with cheese, or ice cream.
Along with slowing or stopping weight loss, or leading to weight regain, emotional eating can present mental challenges. It can lead to feelings of frustration or inadequacy, and get in the way of continued efforts to achieve your weight loss and health goals.
Six Ways to Avoid Stress Eating after Bariatric Surgery
Stress eating after bariatric surgery can be a challenge, but there are some strategies you can use to avoid it.
Learn to Recognize It
For a while, you may not even notice that you are stress eating. One way to check whether you are is to start to ask yourself why you are eating or getting ready to eat.
- If you are hungry, slow down, fix yourself something healthy to eat, log it, and sit down before eating it.
- If you are eating for a reason other than being physically hungry, keep digging and try to figure out why. Then ask yourself if eating will solve the problem.
In general, a good time to eat is when your hunger is at a 7 on a scale from 1 to 10. Being at a 7 means you are not yet starving or feeling shaky or weak, but your stomach is definitely talking to you.
Identify Triggers and Patterns
The times you do catch yourself eating for reasons other than hunger are the times that you may be stress eating or emotional eating. Once you learn to recognize these occasions, you can work to figure out why they happen.
Possible triggers for and patterns of stress eating can include the following.
- In the evening after a long day at work.
- When feeling lonely or bored in the evening.
- After an argument with a friend or family member.
- Seeing a cue, such as a drive-through on the way home from work, a bag of cookies in the pantry, or candy in the reception area at work.
It can help to keep a log of stress eating occasions to help you see patterns and triggers so you can avoid them or be on your guard when they occur.
Manage Stress in Other Ways
The better you can manage stress in other ways, the less you will feel the need to manage stress by eating. The following stress management techniques are all healthier than eating junk food, and they actually work better in the long-term.
- Deep breathing
- Listening to music
It is also important to consider the causes of your stress and try to address it directly. Some stressors are out of your control and need to be set aside. Others can be handled, such as by writing down your budget if you have financial troubles, talking to your partner if you have a disagreement, or practicing again if you have a presentation at work. None of these will improve with overeating!
Do Something Else
When the urge to eat strikes, find something else to do - almostanything else! Take a walk, phone a friend, go for a drive, or “window shop” for clothes online. Distracting yourself for just five minutes can be long enough to let the urge pass so you remember that you really do not want to eat right now.
Minimize the Damage
If that five-minute delay was not enough to let the urge pass, focus next on minimizing the damage. You might have a rule that before eating anything else, you need to drink two glasses of ice water and eat a cup of celery, for example. Then, log what you are planning to eat during your emotional eating session. By the time you finish logging foods such as ice cream and burritos, you may realize that the calories are not worth it.
Having healthy snacks around can also help minimize the damage. With lower calorie-dense foods such as vegetables and fruit, you may end up eating fewer calories during your emotional eating session. Or, you can try high-protein or lower-carb swaps to promote fullness and limit carb cravings in a few hours. Sugar-free Chocolate, Protein Chips and Cookies, and Low-Carb Pasta can all be better than regular alternatives.
Improve Your Attitude
An all-or-nothing attitude can be harmful because once you are on the right foot, you may figure that there is no point in getting back on track until tomorrow or next week - and in that time, you can do a lot more damage. An all-or-nothing attitude can lead you to start emotional eating if you have made a diet mistake earlier in the day, or it can prevent you from stopping eating once you start.
Instead, recognizing that something is better than nothing can help you salvage at least something. As soon as you get back on track, you can start undoing any damage that you did - and undoing a bit of damage is a lot easier than undoing a lot of damage!
While stress is a challenge for almost everyone and many of us turn to food to cope, the habit of stress eating can be even more powerful after bariatric surgery. Still, with some awareness, preparation, and practice, it can be possible to reduce or avoid stress eating after weight loss surgery.