Pre-op, many of us have an unhealthy relationship with food in one way or another. Some of us are emotionally dependent, some of us neglect to care about our nutrition and some others are just plain addicted to food. I first want to say; you are not a bad person if you fall into one of these categories. You are not a failure, a loser, gross, messed up or anything else people (and to be honest, most of the time, ourselves) try to make you feel that you are. The best explanation I ever heard for it was on one of the many TLC specials about weight disorders, before “My 600lb Life” was a thing. I can’t remember the exact quote, but essentially the woman said that food addiction is one of the worst kinds of addiction. It won’t kill you outright, but it kills you slowly. No one will take it from you, but they will judge you. And biggest of all, there’s no “giving up” food. It’s a necessity in our daily lives. You would never tell a heroin addict that they had to stop being an addict, but still shoot up a tiny bit each day. No! You would advocate for them to stay as far away from the substance, the people and everything else associated with it so as to give themselves the best chance at staying clean. You simply can’t do that with food, and that alone makes food addiction one of the hardest addictions to overcome.
In my previous post, I touched a bit on how our society as a whole tends to celebrate everything with food. Holidays; food. Graduation; food. Wedding; food. Funeral; food. And it’s not just big occasions either! Any excuse to use food as a reward can and will be used. You had a bad day at work? Well screw that meal you had prepped to cook for dinner tonight. Instead, get pizza to “treat yourself.” Most of us are brought up to see food as not only a regular occurrence, but also a reward. Time and time again I’ve seen people grieve this relationship, and that’s completely understandable. The role that food plays in our lives is something that we, largely, take for granted. For most of us, it just is. We don’t put a whole lot of thought into how it effects us in almost every aspect of our days. They try to teach you how to cope with this loss before having surgery as part of the prep, but to me it’s just one of those things that you can’t fully understand until you’re forced to go through it. Just like someone who’s had a child can explain childbirth to me, but I’ve never experienced it so the closest I can get to understanding how it feels is through empathy, and that’s obviously not even CLOSE. Among all the things you’re going through immediately post op, this grieving and feeling of loss can make you feel like you truly made a huge mistake. I won’t lie, I spent the first 3 months continually saying “what the hell did I do to my self?” I’m over three years out now and I still question my decision at times. Sure, I lost almost 200lbs, but I’ve gained back 40 of it and the issues that the doctors claimed were weight related haven’t gotten any better. Is it really worth it all in the end? I can’t answer that for you as that’s something you need to figure out within yourself.
But I got off track there. the whole point of this is to talk about how to get back to feeling “normal” after having weight loss surgery when it comes to our relationships with food. I know not everyone is prepared to be open about having surgery. Unfortunately, there’s still this idea that WLS is somehow the easy way out. I’ll be the first to tell you that I was that person once. I didn’t want to do it because it was the easy way out. As most of you now know, it is far from the easy way out. The mental issues that tend to arise or worsen post-op are enough in and of themselves to prove the difficulty. That’s not even taking the physical parts into it! So how do you treat food like you did before surgery? For one, you don’t. While it’s not true of every weight loss surgery patient, for the most of us, how we treated food before is what got us to where we are now. After that, I’d say the most important thing to address is is it really that bad for people to know what you’re going through? Is it really something you believe you should hide? I’ve always been open about my decisions so I can’t speak from personal experience, but I’ve seen it over and over in others: things are so much harder when you’re trying to hide them. But the decision is yours to make. A lot of my suggestions for how to feel “normal” again when it comes to gatherings and food is the same whether you’re being open about your choices or not.
So after all of that preamble (with an emphasis on the amble part), here are my suggestions on what to do when invited to a gathering that involves food:
- “No thank you” is your best friend. If people push you for why, you can say anything from “I’m not interested” to “I’m not feeling well”. It doesn’t matter what you choose to say. People need to learn to start respecting your new boundaries, and to do that, they have to know where those new boundaries are.
- If you’re going out to a restaurant, do some research ahead of time. Find what is closest to what you’re allowed to eat, and then check out the things you could modify. Say they have grilled chicken with mashed potatoes and green beans. See if you can substitute the potatoes for something else (I can almost guarantee their first suggestion will be either fries or some sort of rice. Just steer them in the direction you’re looking to go), such as a second vegetable. I’ve been to a few places that had to “ask the manager” to make sure it was alright, but honestly, it always ends up being fine. Also, ask for the chicken with the sauce on the side, that way you can control what and how much goes on your meat. This goes for any main protein that is going to be sauced in some way. Ask them to season as usual, but put the sauce on the side. This isn’t a weird request for someone who hasn’t had surgery to make, so people shouldn’t even bat an eyelash.
- Always keep in mind that you should NEVER be eating and drinking at the same time. If you’re going to a party where you’ll be grazing on food throughout, this particular rule is a good one to keep yourself from overeating. Keep reminding yourself that you have to wait 30 minutes from your last bite of food before you can drink. Just how long the time should be varies slightly depending on who you ask, but the general consensus is that you should stop drinking approximately 15 minutes before eating and abstain from drinking for 30 minutes after eating. If you’re super thirsty and go grab another piece of cheese, you have to reset that timer. Trust me that you’ll remember your rules after doing this once or twice and still being thirsty as hell.
- Speaking of drinking, those little sugar free drink packets that are meant to be added to 16.9 fl oz bottles of water are a huge lifeline. Always keep one nearby, be it in the car, your purse, your pocket, etc. Water gets tiresome after awhile so these mixes make getting your daily fluid allotment in much easier.
- If you think you’ll be tempted by whatever food is being offered, try eating before and bringing a drink with you. Again, when keeping the “no drinking and eating” rule in mind, sipping on a flavored beverage can help keep you away from the no-no foods. It’s also a good and valid excuse for when people ask you why you aren’t eating. Most people will accept the reasoning and anyone who doesn’t really needs to find a better hobby because their life must be super boring if they are that interested in your eating habits.
- If you have willpower of steel, you can always try having a little bit of what’s offered. It’s not that we can never have “bad foods” again, it’s that the chances of us falling back into a pattern of unhealthy eating after having “just a little bit” are extremely high. I wouldn’t describe myself as someone with particularly disordered eating habits and most people tell me I have a ton of self-restraint when it comes to my diet; but with all that being said, I will readily admit that the holidays are hard for me. There are traditional family recipes that get made this time of year that are super bad for me, but also hold a lot of sway since they are connected to fond memories. Last year I tried having “just a little” of my Grandma’s Fruit Salad (I know it sounds okay, but trust me, it’s really not healthy at all) and ended up having “just a little” for several days in a row. It’s really easy to let it get out of hand, which is why I suggest really giving this path some deep thought before trying it.
- Instead of thinking about how much you’re “missing out on” when not eating much, think of just how many meals you’ll be able to enjoy it for. For me, when going out to eat with my husband, a regular sized entree will last me for approximately three meals instead of one. So basically, if it’s really yummy, I get to have it a few times instead of just once! And while it may seem taboo to do so, asking to take leftovers home from a buffet at a party, or a dinner party in general is honestly really okay. I don’t suggest doing this if it’s a party hosted by a restaurant, but a dish to pass get together at your co-worker’s house? Why not?! Most people would rather take home empty dishes than try to transport the food back home with them.
- If you’re going to a get together where you’re asked to bring something to share, why not bring something that fits into your diet? You don’t necessarily have to tell people that it’s low carb or low fat or what have you. Just like with regular food, not everyone will like it, but some definitely will. I always bring something I’m allowed to eat when I am asked to bring a dish to pass, and more often than not I actually have people asking for the recipe for said dish!
- Remember not to drink your calories! Alcohol after WLS is it’s own bag of worms and whether you should drink it or not depends on a lot of variables so I won’t get into that today. What is important is that we have a very limited number of calories we are allowed every day. When drinking your calories, you will always be hungry faster. This even counts for protein shakes, though that is obviously a healthier option that a big old glass of fruit punch. Hearkening back to my tip #4, if you are going to a party where you believe there won’t be any drink options for you other than water, bring your own options!
- Always remember your rules! The rules you were given to follow by your nutritionist are the best ones to continue to follow, no matter the situation. I already mentioned the no eating and drinking rule, but try to always stick to the other biggies as well. These include but are not limited to: eat your protein first, then your veggies, then your carbs (if you have any room left). Do not over eat. Keep your macros in mind! Every practice has different guidelines as to how you should be pre/post-op so I can’t tell you the exact rules you should follow. What I can say is that the ones above are ones I’ve seen oft repeated from most bariatric patients. And just because I haven’t mentioned a steadfast rule that your nutritionist gave you doesn’t mean it’s not one you should follow. Getting advice from others is always a great idea, but in the end you should always follow your personal physicians’ guidelines first and foremost!
These are just a handful of the things I’ve learned since having surgery. Even though it sometimes feels like there aren’t many choices for us out there, there are many more options as to how to make it through such situations. I will have a list of links to places with more suggestions at the bottom of this post. And if you have any that you haven’t seen shared here, please feel free to leave it in the comment! I will more than gladly edit the post to add in good suggestions, and I will definitely give credit!
Eating on any kind of “special” diet is a rough road to wander. I don’t recommend wandering it alone, but if you feel that you must, you should at least keep yourself well prepared. Keeping the things listed above in mind can go a long way towards relieving some of the stress that builds up during these times. And remember, you can always find a WLS related community to vent your frustrations on. Complaining to people that actually understand where you’re coming from is always so much more satisfying! I also invite you to get a hold of me if you need a shoulder to cry/vent on. I may not always have great words of wisdom to share (okay let’s be real here, I will rarely have and great words of wisdom), but I’m pretty good at listening (reading) and being empathetic! So until next time, my friends, keep this in mind: while it may seem that food surrounds you and dictates your every move, it doesn’t have to. Food only has the power you allow it to have in your life. Just because the bridge over troubled waters is washed out, doesn’t mean you can’t build a new one!