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Recognizing Stomach Hunger After Weight Loss Surgery

After weight loss surgery, it’s important to distinguish the difference between “head hunger,” or emotional hunger, and actual, real, physical “stomach hunger.” This is key to long-term success with your weight loss. 

Initially after surgery, you may or may not feel stomach hunger. In fact, you may have no appetite at all. So, it’s important to eat three meals a day with a focus on protein. As your appetite returns, you may be confused whether you are really hungry or if the hunger is just in your head. How can you tell? 

Head hunger is about eating to distract yourself from uncomfortable feelings: 

  • It comes on quickly. 
  • Cravings are for specific foods. 
  • The foods you crave tend to be comfort foods. 
  • Feelings of hunger are “above the neck.” 
  • Head hunger is insistent. 
Stomach hunger is about eating for nourishment: 

  • It comes on gradually. 
  • It usually begins with stomach sensations such as grumbling, gurgling, or growling. 
  • Preferences for food are flexible. 
  • You may experience light-headedness or dizziness. 
  • Physical hunger is patient. 

Breaking Free from Emotional Eating 

Breaking free from emotional eating can be done, but it takes practice. 

Breathe: Shut your eyes and focus on your breath going in and out. You can choose to visualize a time or place that has brought you pleasure in the past. Your nervous system does not distinguish whether you are actually experiencing an event or remembering experiencing an event. When you access positive and calming feelings, your nervous system will respond. 

Identify your feelings: See if you can identify the feelings you were having before you started focusing on food. You may have had several feelings at once such as happy, excited, stressed, lonely, or even just bored. 

Feel the Feeling for 5 Minutes: Sit calmly and feel the feelings you have identified. This might be awkward or uncomfortable. But you’ll find that as you acknowledge and feel these feelings, their power will lessen. 

Consider Other Options: Are there other ways to handle your feelings? Will food solve the problem or create another problem? Take action on a problem rather than internalize it. Make a list of alternative actions. For example: 

  • Run a hot bath. 
  • Listen to calming music. 
  • Distract yourself with a movie, book, or project. 
  • Call a friend—someone who will allow you to vent. 
  • Journal your feelings. Writing them down gets them out of your head. 
  • Engage in a favorite hobby. 
  • Go for a walk and change your environment. 
The ideas are endless. Make a personal list of things you can do when overwhelmed with emotions. 

Remember that food might numb your feelings in the moment. But eating is not good for curing loneliness, sadness, or frustration. You may find talking with a counselor, psychologist, spiritual advisor, or trusted friend will help you overcome emotional eating and begin (or continue) to develop a healthier relationship with food. 

Adapted from Dr. Janice Maidman,
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