Have you ever analyzed your relationship with food? Have you noticed patterns in the way you eat that extend beyond your body’s natural cravings?

The same way we have beliefs around money and our ability to produce wealth, our eating habits say a lot about our self-image and how we process or manage emotions.

Head hunger is something you’ve experienced in your life; we all have. It’s often called “emotional hunger” or “emotional eating.” It occurs when you rely on food for satiating an unrelated need instead of confronting something that makes you uncomfortable, like emotions or a difficult task at work.

Often, when we struggle to lose weight, we may need an assist. For some folks, this can take the form of bariatric (or weight-loss) surgery, which helps limit the stomach’s size in any number of ways. The goal is to achieve weight-loss and establish a healthier lifestyle. 

This is why it is vital to distinguish between head hunger and belly hunger; to understand when your body (and not your emotion) is requesting food naturally. The sooner you learn to deal with head hunger after bariatric surgery, the better chance you’ll have at achieving your health-related goals.

Will I experience head hunger after bariatric surgery?

After bariatric surgery, you may find that you’re struggling with the same cravings and desires you had before surgery, despite the modifications made to your digestive system. Though it doesn’t happen to everyone, experiencing “head hunger” after bariatric surgery is quite common.

One of the reasons you might experience this after your surgery is because of existing unhealthy coping mechanisms—strategies that we develop to deal with the discomfort of a stressful situation, but that ultimately have negative and lasting consequences. 

Unfortunately, surgery alone won’t fix these or any other stress-related responses you may have developed over the years. These patterns connect to underlying, unresolved emotions or addictive tendencies, and dealing with these takes more than just simply changing your diet. 

By addressing unresolved issues, either before or soon after your surgery, you’re more likely to ward off your hunger pangs and succeed with your post-op diet.

Head Hunger vs. Belly Hunger

Are you feeling hungry? Look through the following table to determine whether you’re experiencing head or belly hunger. Making this distinction is the first step to overcoming head hunger.

Head Hunger (or Emotional Hunger)Belly Hunger (or Physical Hunger)
Occurs without any physical indicators (regardless of whether you have just eaten)Physical indicators: empty or growling stomach, fatigue or irritability (especially if it’s been 4–5 hours since you last ate)
Manifests suddenlyA gradual increase in hunger (accompanied by physical signs)
Associated with feelings of stress, frustration, the pressure at work, or “empty” emotions, like loneliness, heartache, depression (often called “heart hunger” when linked to these emotions)Not associated with your mental or emotional state (Your body is simply hungry.)
Includes a specific craving, often for a type of comfort food that is sweet or salty, crunchy, and often unhealthyDoes not involve a specific craving
Followed by feelings of shame or guiltFollowed by a feeling of natural satisfaction

Ways to Overcome Head Hunger

Below are some short-term solutions for dealing with head hunger. These resources may even provide long-term help. In case they don’t, you can consult with a psychological professional and tap into individualized and specific resources for managing food addiction.

The sooner you prioritize your emotional well-being, the sooner you’ll see improvements in your physical health. For now, we suggest you try some of these strategies:

Challenge yourself. Before acting on your urge to eat, ask yourself, “Am I really hungry?” If you realize you’re experiencing head hunger, take your line of questioning a step further by exploring your current emotional state and making a note of the emotion or feeling you experience, as well as the craving it provokes. 

As an example, try keeping a journal in which you document your experience so that, later, you can more easily identify head hunger. For instance, if you write about a situation that led you to eat or desire a particular food, then you’ll know when x happens, not to let y happen.

If you feel like you need help to accomplish this, there’s no shame in asking for professional guidance from a therapist.

Avoid temptation. Any temptation within reach makes it all the more difficult to control your hunger. Simply don’t buy your go-to comfort foods. If they’re not around when you experience head hunger, you’re more likely to be satiated with a healthier choice, like a piece of fruit.

Another way to avoid temptation is to remove yourself. If possible, literally leave the kitchen or your apartment until the temptation subsides.

Distract yourself with another activity before eating. If you know you’re experiencing head hunger and your body doesn’t really need another meal, distract yourself with another activity. You can call a friend or take the dog for a walk. If you hesitate to act on these activities, remember the 5 Second Rule: “If you have an instinct to act on a goal, you must physically move within 5 seconds or your brain will kill it.” 

Drink water or tea. This is an easy and effective strategy. By drinking water, you’re making your stomach start working and tricking it into feeling somewhat satiated. 

Eat a healthy snack. If you must eat, do it in a controlled way by eating a predetermined amount of a healthy food. For instance, only eat one orange when you’re feeling hungry out of stress.

Strategy Examples

Here’s what these head hunger strategies look like when faced with everyday triggers:

  • You’re finishing a report and get stuck on the conclusion. You suddenly feel hungry and realize that it’s hunger due to work-related stress. Rather than succumb to the craving and the guilt that comes with it, you go for a quick walk.
  • You wake up in the middle of the night because of anxiety and start craving a midnight snack. Make yourself some tea instead and, instead of checking your phone, keep your hands busy by journaling or simply read a book to relax and fall back asleep.
  • After working at home alone all day, you’re tempted to splurge and go out for dinner, which often leads to eating that delicious pasta dish you should be avoiding. Instead, set up a call with a friend where you virtually hang out over a home-cooked meal. 

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