Public Health

Distinguishing Hunger After Bariatric Surgery

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If you’ve found yourself searching the pantry or refrigerator for a snack shortly after a full meal, you’ve likely experienced head hunger. This type of hunger is a mental, emotion-based desire for food, even if you’re not physically hungry.

After bariatric surgery, learning to distinguish your hunger may sometimes feel like a challenge. Emotional eating can affect anyone, but after bariatric surgery, you’ll need to be able to navigate your feelings and determine if you’re experiencing physical or emotional hunger.

If you’re not mindful of your feelings, you’ll be more likely to practice impulsive emotional eating behaviors. But there are simple steps you can take to learn about your body’s needs and put healthy eating habits in place.

Head Hunger vs. Physical Hunger

It’s important to eat when you’re physically hungry. Your body relies on the nutrients you gain from food, and it’s an essential part of our daily lives. Making healthy food choices will keep you moving forward as you adjust to lifestyle changes post-surgery. One way to ensure you’re getting enough energy to fuel your day is making sure you’re eating meals high in protein to help you heal, maintain muscle and keep you feeling full.

On the other hand, eating when you aren’t physically hungry only leads to unnecessary calories, weight gain and added strain on your stomach and intestines. You might experience head hunger due to boredom, dehydration or even from seeing something appetizing while channel surfing or scrolling through social media.

Ways to Manage Head Hunger

The next time you’re mindlessly browsing your kitchen for your next snack, instead of immediately reaching for food, first ask yourself these three simple questions:

  1. Am I hungry or just thirsty?
  2. How are my emotions right now? Am I angry, bored, sad, stressed or tired?
  3. When did I last eat?

While evaluating your answers, pour yourself a glass of water and focus on your hydration for a moment. Dehydration can often cause you to mistake thirst for hunger, and many people don’t even begin to feel thirsty until they’re already dehydrated.

Your emotions play a large role in your day-to-day life. For example, if you’re experiencing a period of high stress or insomnia, your body may not be able to determine hunger cues as easily. And while it’s safe to say that everyone experiences boredom at some point in their life, it’s another source of unnecessary emotional eating.

If you’ve recently finished a meal, wait at least ten more minutes, recognize your current emotions and see how you’re feeling. If you’re still hungry at that point, then acknowledge your feelings and allow yourself to eat something small. Avoiding actual hunger doesn’t serve your body.

If emotional eating is something you frequently experience, then it’ll be helpful to learn tactics to tell the difference between actual hunger and mental hunger cues. Find non-food-related ways to distract yourself and work through your emotions in other ways. Ideas that some people find helpful include:


Write down your emotions and validate them. Journaling your feelings can help your mind focus and take the hunger out of your head. Another benefit of journaling is looking back on your journey and seeing how far you’ve come.

Physical activity

Physical activity is good for both your physical and mental health. Even something as simple as a walk, bike ride or gardening can help distract from head hunger.


Seek out support groups or others who are going through similar experiences. Lasting weight loss requires lasting lifestyle changes, and making new, like-minded friends can help you on your journey to better health.

A Wholehearted Support System

At AdventHealth, you’re never alone on your journey toward better health. Adjusting to life after weight-loss surgery can be challenging. Our support groups are designed to help you navigate those challenges and encourage you to continue making positive lifestyle changes after bariatric surgery.

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