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Published on April 04, 2019

woman shopping for clothes

The Challenge of Transfer Addictions in Weight Loss

By Andrea Hanson, MS, RDN, LN, Avera Bariatric Dietitian

Bariatric surgery is hard – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise! One of the toughest aspects remains the adjustments necessary in post-surgery lifestyle.

Not only has your internal anatomy changed, but you have, too. That includes a new set of behaviors. Who is responsible for changing these behaviors? You.

But you can do it. You can eat healthier and increase physical activity, because you want to lose the weight. The added responsibility might cause some stress, and when it gets too stressful, the risk of developing what’s called a transfer addiction rises.

What They Are and What They’re Not

Transfer addictions occur when you transfer one compulsive behavior for another. You might have eliminated the initial behavior, but something else comes up to replace it.

In bariatric surgery patients, the initial addiction is often food, because it signifies comfort, no matter if it’s a bag of chips, a king-sized candy bar or a large soda. Since your after-surgery diet doesn’t allow for these indulgences, we have to get to the root of the "want."

Taking Steps Before Surgery

With your team’s help, completing an extensive psychological evaluation as part of your initial assessment is a great way to "head off" issues that may come to rise after surgery.

If seeking comfort came from an addiction to sugar, fat or other substances, we have to find activities that give comfort like food once did. That’s why the evaluation is important; you can overcome the underlying issues that may cause a food addiction. When you face these realities, it greatly decreases the risk of developing a new addiction, be it alcohol, drugs, shopping or some other compulsive behavior.

With some planning, counseling and conversation, you can be in the "right frame of mind" when it comes time to face these challenges.

Overcoming Transfer Addictions

Addiction happens because naturally occurring chemicals (endorphins) in our brain make us feel good after certain activities. We manipulate our "feel good" chemicals, and when we experience something fun, have a good workout or eat something that made us really happy, we get more of them.

I’ll be the first to admit it: a slice of raspberry swirl cheesecake definitely makes me elated! But I know that’s not the healthiest way for me to release endorphins.

It’s important to find ways to release these chemicals in healthy ways. Then we won’t keep associating food to feeling good. I’ve found that a hard spinning workout, a home-spa night or some gentle mind-body movement exercises all seem to bring the “feel good” chemicals without food.

The main point is that you’re not alone: many, many people face this "habit swap" challenge.You can join a support group and you’ll realize others feel the same way and struggle in similar situations. A counselor or therapist also can help prevent transfer addictions before they start. The discovery of new, healthy coping mechanisms should also include the discovery of methods to deal with stress.

You can do it, your team can help and remember: it’s not easy and you’re not alone.

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