New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s announcement that he underwent gastric banding in February has sparked discussion about bariatric surgery and will undoubtedly lead many people to investigate this option. It is critical that potential patients understand that bariatric surgery is only a tool, not a quick fix.

Many patients experience a “honeymoon period” following their surgery, during which it seems pretty easy. However, unless there is a fundamental change in the relationship with food, bariatric surgery can feel like a permanent diet that continues to consume their life.

Some people believe or hope that having bariatric surgery will solve all of their problems — but nothing could be further from the truth. For example, if a person is an “emotional eater,” the situations and emotions that triggered eating in the past are unlikely to disappear simply because they’ve chosen to have bariatric surgery. As one patient said, “They didn’t operate on my brain!” Some discover that they “miss” their friend — food — leaving them with a feeling of loss. As one person told me, “I’ve cut out my coping skill!”

Others believe that after surgery they won’t need to think about their eating anymore. In fact, it is just the opposite. Bariatric surgery patients need to become very thoughtful about eating in order to use this tool optimally to develop and maintain a healthy lifestyle. If they are not mindful about eating, this “tool” can cause uncomfortable, even serious consequences — and decrease the likelihood they’ll get the results they had hoped for.

Bariatric Surgery and Mindful Eating

Most people who make the difficult decision to have bariatric surgery want to improve their health and energy so they can live the vibrant life they crave. Therefore, for those who decide to take this big step, mindful eating is another essential tool for building a healthy lifestyle.

Mindfulness is beneficial for making lifestyle changes permanent because it teaches us to focus our attention and awareness on what is happening right now, which in turn helps us disengage from habitual, unsatisfying, and unskillful habits and behaviors.

Specifically, mindful eating skills help resolve the mindless habits and emotional eating issues that can lead to problems adjusting to the new normal after bariatric surgery:

  • Eating too quickly, taking large bites, and/or not chewing thoroughly
  • Eating while distracted leading to overconsumption
  • Not savoring food and therefore having difficulty feeling satisfied with small volumes of food
  • Eating too much, leading to discomfort, vomiting, and/or distention of the pouch
  • Grazing throughout the day and/or eating “slider” foods and high-calorie soft foods and liquids
  • Emotional eating
  • Not consuming enough protein and other nutrient-rich foods
  • Feeling deprived or left-out in social situations
  • Having difficulty establishing consistent physical activity
  • Continuing to struggle with the eat-repent-repeat cycle

Mindful eating can help prevent, identify, and resolve these and many other problems. After all, even after bariatric surgery, it still isn’t really about the food!

Michelle May, M.D. is the co-author of the Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Program for Bariatric Surgery

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