How to Stop Using Food as a Crutch (and What to do Instead)


Even though you want to be successful with your bariatric surgery, do you sometimes eat when you wish you wouldn’t?

When it comes to eating, is guilt a frequent companion of yours?

Welcome to the club.

In our culture, with the amount of unhealthy food we’re exposed to, and with the stresses of daily life, it’s safe to say many Americans – including women who have had bariatric surgery – use food as a crutch.

In fact, eating food with no nutritional value to deal with feelings has become part of the fabric of our culture. Often, we don’t realize we are doing it.

And because eating over feelings is practiced by nearly everyone, we want to do it, too.

“I am not going to feel deprived at Thanksgiving,” we insist. “I am too busy to cook.” “I’ve been so good this week, I deserve a treat!” “You’d eat, too, if you had the debt I have.”

I’m not trying to be the food police. I just want you to consider *why* you’re eating something in a given situation. Why do you turn to food with gusto and even self-righteousness without pausing to consider why you’re eating and what you’re really needing?

If you’re soothing feelings with food, consider a different approach. Save the indulgences for times when you really want them for pleasure, instead of when you want to numb out, shut down, or reward yourself.

Many of us don’t want to feel our feelings. We don’t like the discomfort of deprivation, longing, loneliness, anger, fear, sadness, shame, loss, confusion, or abandonment.

The truth is, however, that finding healthier ways to deal with our uncomfortable feelings is essential to long-term fulfillment with bariatric surgery.

Even when you feel resistance to putting down the food crutch, it boils down to this: Do you want long-term obesity remission or don’t you?

I had to look in the mirror and ask myself that question a few days ago, as I obsessed about whether I should make gluten-free brownies for myself. Finally, I asked myself, “Why do I want the brownies so badly?”

The truth was I was feeling sad and frustrated. Ok, angry. And I didn’t want to deal with it.

So, I continued talking to myself :o), I asked myself whether I wanted to keep my obesity in remission. I knew the answer immediately – yes!

Some of us aren’t so lucky. We really don’t know what we want. We don’t know if putting down our food crutch is possible, or even desirable. Is it worth feeling all those negative feelings just so we can stay a size 14 (or whatever)? Apparently, the answer for some of us is “NO!”

The only way to know if it’s worth it is to give it a try, to put down the crutch long enough to see what might happen once we get used to living without it – and to see that we can survive, or even better, thrive.

Notice I am saying put down the crutch, not the food.

There is a big difference. Putting down the food and avoiding the “bad stuff” at all costs tends to trigger feelings of deprivation.

Putting down the crutch means deciding to have the food only when you can feel pleasure and satisfaction before, during, and after eating it – rather than guilt. Eating for pleasure, as opposed to eating to avoid feelings, nurtures a sense of control, relief, even joy.

There are a ton of resources available to help us learn to stop using food as a crutch, but the bottom line is that we need to pause before choosing food to numb our feelings, identify and feel said feelings, respond to our deeper needs, and get as much support as necessary to accomplish this challengingtask.

Here’s what to do:

  • Take a few minutes first thing each morning to visualize yourself moving through your day. What potential emotional stressors are your facing? How do you need to prepare?
  • Devise a strategy you will experiment with when you have uncomfortable feelings, instead of immediately turning to food as a crutch.
  • Resolve to be self-aware and compassionate before, during, and after your eating – no matter what.
  • Welcome your feelings warmly and “make small talk” with them, so you can understand what they are trying to tell you about your needs.
  • Honor your needs. Everyone has them. People who experiment with how to get their needs met, without using food as a crutch, tend to feel happier and more fulfilled.
  • Make notes about what you did in response to an uncomfortable feeling, and honestly assess how well it did or didn’t work for you.
  • If what you are doing is not working, try another strategy.
  • Get enough of the right kind of support.

You are not alone.