Emotional Eating and Bariatric Surgery

Steph Wagner

February 22, 2023

Can emotional eating be stopped?

Emotional Eating (yes, even after Bariatric Surgery!)

Stick around for links to all my blogs in the emotional eating after bariatric surgery series! We’re talking about bored eating, stress eating, anxiety, and more.

And the survey says!

I sent a single-question survey to my bariatric surgery-focused . I asked:

“What is the MOST common emotion that drives you to eat when you’re not hungry?”

I just KNEW what the top emotion would be. No doubt in my mind.

I was convinced (based largely on my triggers to eat popcorn after my daughter’s massive tantrums) it had to be stress eating. My inbox is often filled with emails asking for help to stop eating out of stress.

But I was wrong.

As the results poured in, the top emotion was (far and away) boredom.

image results from emotional eating survey

Stress was a close runner up but I was still surprised!

My husband and I laughed. Our impulse to answer the question was based on our own common emotions. He thought it would be eating for anxiety. I was convinced it would be stress eating. We wondered if the answer depends on the life stage, the season of life, and even the season of the year.

We have young kids and full-time jobs. We have household stressors like a broken dishwasher and a freaking mouse in the house . Stress and anxiety were on our minds because we don’t remember what it’s like to be bored! Although in previous seasons of my life, especially when I was single, I would probably have said bored or lonely.

In this post, you’ll learn emotional eating is a normal human experience. The triggers won’t be stopped but they CAN be managed.

I firmly believe spending a bit of time learning why we are driven to eat is well worth your while. The truth is, we are human and that comes with a set of things to know about.

Why do humans eat? For fuel, yes, but we have a large system of other hormones and neurotransmitters that signal us to eat outside of hunger. It won’t be stopped because we can’t stop being human. It can be managed especially when we understand more.

Food is not just fuel

You’ve heard the old idea that “food is just fuel” and we should eat solely to fill up the tank. ⛽️

Food is indeed the vehicle to provide energy to our bodies. We are not capable of creating our own energy, we have to intake our energy from an outside source. Food is our fuel source.

I would eliminate the word just.

Food is not just fuel. That is only half the story.

It is an interesting thought experiment to consider if the food did not bring us any pleasure and simply put energy in our bodies.

Would food still be the focus at a birthday or Super Bowl party?

Would we want to buy someone their favorite drink or snack to show them love?

folding laundry.

Before you start wishing that were true (ugh, if only food had zero appeal to me!) consider how much MORE of a chore it would be to feed yourself (and maybe your family) multiple times a day.

It’s possible after your bariatric surgery you’ve felt like that. Comment below if you can relate!

What if putting in food as an energy source was a chore like doing dishes (without a dishwasher).

The two ✌ body systems that make us eat

If you’ve been around small children you know their emotions can be BIG. I won’t name names but one of my offspring  has BIG reactions. One after-school meltdown in particular I was done. I could no longer handle all the screaming. My pressure cooker was at 10 (the one in my body not my kitchen).

I miraculously got dinner on the table but told my husband Kevin “Dinner is on the table but I’m not staying for it!!!!”

I got in my car and called my Mom.

After a long chat, several deep breaths, and driving around to my calming playlist, I still had an incredibly strong pull to three things.

Popcorn. Wine. Chocolate.

I was craving them. I wanted to zone OUT, be alone and enjoy my vices. (I know you’ve been there, you fellow human!)

Stress is an incredible experience for our bodies. Cortisol is dumped into our bloodstream and this is in our best interest. Cortisol has many jobs in our bodies and one very important role is to protect us. If we encounter a bear, cortisol is going to tell us to run. (It might also tell us to freeze. It puts us in the “fight, flight or freeze” mode but I hope you don’t fight a bear.)

Cortisol increases our desire for high-sugar and high-fat foods because it’s telling us to fuel up for the fight. This is a great example of the second system that drives our eating behaviors.

By the way, British researchers found people who responded to stress with high cortisol levels were more likely to snack in response to daily hassles than low-cortisol responders. (source:  Harvard Health Publishing) This tells me there may be a genetic component. Why does a person have higher cortisol response? Our bodies are as unique as our personalities!

You see, two systems influence us to eat. We are influenced by the homeostatic system (think hunger and blood sugars) and we are influenced by the hedonic system (think stress hormones and comfort eating).

Our wonderfully made bodies need both systems.

Emotional Eating triggers can’t be stopped but how can they be managed?

The amount of emotions we feel on any given day is an impressive list. If we are eating to care for our physical hunger and energy needs, but we also experience all these feelings signaling us to eat…what are we supposed to do? Are we doomed to live under the control of food cravings and eating impulses?

Knowledge is power, my friends. Perhaps you just learned about the two systems that influence eating for the first time. You already know more than you did a few minutes ago and that is a huge step in understanding your body and yourself.

Above all else what I want you to hear is this:

This is not about your lack of willpower.

There is nothing wrong with you for craving food when you’re lonely. More biology is in the mix than we often think or talk about. Keep learning. As you read and learn further about anger, sadness, stress, and the like, then you experience those emotions you will be better equipped to pause and say “I think I know what’s going on here.”

These systems are not independent of one another. It would be easier for me to stay in my lane as a dietitian and just focus on the food as the fuel side of the equation. And I did for many years until I wondered more about my emotional eating.

I spent a lot of time researching emotions as I created a video course for my members around the topic of Emotional Eating. The more I studied, the more lightbulbs went off.

Having more of an understanding of what is happening physically when I’m feeling something emotional is empowering. I know myself on a deeper level. I can better assess what it is that I need to feel better.

Without understanding more about emotions, we end up feeling shameful or guilty. “I should not have done that” instead of, “I think I need to get fresh air.”

Knowing more equips us. Our toolbox is wider and more creative. And we use the tools with more understanding of them. “I’m going to work on a puzzle, not because I need to keep my hands busy but because my brain needs to feel engaged in something enjoyable.”

Emotional eating can’t be stopped, but it can be managed! Keep learning my friends.

Look below for more blogs   or if you prefer learning with video lessons, join our Premier Access Members and unlock the Emotional Eating video course. We also have an incredible community ready to cheer you on and help you build your unique toolbox.

Dig in deeper with each emotion in the blogs listed below for common emotions that drive us to eat

Links to blogs in the Emotional Eating Series


image link to blog on stress eating emotional eating blog series on bariatric food coach

image link to blog on sadness, loneliness and depression eating emotional eating blog series on bariatric food coach

image link to blog on fatigue eating emotional eating blog series on bariatric food coach

image link to blog on boredom eating emotional eating blog series on bariatric food coach

image link to blog on anxious eating emotional eating blog series on bariatric food coach

image link to blog on anger eating emotional eating blog series on bariatric food coach

4 thoughts on “Emotional Eating and Bariatric Surgery”

  1. I find these studies interesting as I tend to be the oddball….but not this time. The results line up with me!

  2. I never thought of fear but that is a very good one! My fear is gaining back any weight and that is turning me into not eating at all.

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