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Top 5 Tips To Navigate the Holidays after Bariatric Surgery

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Posted by Victoria Brown, RD, LDN

Undergoing weight-loss surgery requires preparation, dedication, and several lifestyle adjustments. Adopting a whole different way of eating can take some getting used to. Most patients who've had bariatric surgery are able to stick with their new healthy habits. But then the holiday season rolls around, bringing an environment that can sometimes spoil all their good intentions.

As a dietitian who works with bariatric patients, I'm upfront with my patients about the fact that the holidays can be challenging for those who have undergone weight-loss surgery and have lost a lot of weight.

After all, it can sometimes feel like the holidays revolve around rich food – and lots of it. Add in family members or friends (even well-meaning ones) who don't understand your dietary needs and a hectic schedule that strays from your usual routine, and it's easy to see how anyone's self-control can be tested.

However, by planning ahead and prioritizing self-care, my patients find that they're able to savor the holiday season without too much stress. They can even enjoy some of their favorite foods, though in modest portions.

Here are five strategies I like to recommend to my patients:

1. Allow yourself to indulge, but in moderation.

Having weight-loss surgery doesn't mean that your favorite holiday foods are now off-limits. It just means that you need to rethink your approach to how you'll enjoy them.

Unless you're newly post-operative, it's OK to enjoy small portions of the foods you love most. If there's a dish or dessert you look forward to every year, you can savor 2 or 3 delicious bites, especially as part of a balanced, portion-controlled meal. Your doctor or dietitian can help you navigate holiday menus if you're unsure whether something is acceptable or is better kept off-limits.

I encourage patients to experiment with making traditional recipes lighter, too. For instance, try blending ripe bananas, skim milk, nonfat yogurt, rum extract, and freshly grated nutmeg to enjoy a creamy, flavorful eggnog-like drink that has only a fraction of the fat.

2. Stick with the healthy eating basics.

Most people define the holidays as the stretch between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day. There are special days, parties, and gatherings scattered throughout. But most of the days in that time frame are still normal, and I encourage my patients to treat them that way.

Keeping up with your usual healthy habits helps you maintain a solid foundation and feel your best. It's important to eat regular meals and avoid skipping meals in an attempt to “save” calories for treats. That can make it easy to overeat at special events.

Like always, keep putting protein first and be aware of your portion sizes. Eat slowly so you can pay attention to your body's fullness cues, and continue tracking your food intake so you understand how much you're eating.

Make sure exercising remains a high priority, too. Not only can physical activity help you maintain your weight, it can help you cope with holiday stress. Put workouts on the calendar so they don't fall by the wayside. Even at holiday gatherings, you can invite friends and family to take a relaxing post-meal walk.

3. Head to holiday events with a plan.

Walking into a party or gathering that has foods that don't fit your everyday diet can be overwhelming – especially when everyone around you is enjoying all the tasty fare. Strategizing ahead of time can give you a sense of control and reduce the chances for making spur-of-the-moment food decisions that might leave you feeling uncomfortable later.

I encourage my patients to prepare for holiday events with these steps:

  • Eat some protein beforehand to keep your hunger in check.
  • Keep healthy snacks in the car in case you need them.
  • Think through your food options before filling your plate.
  • Fill your plate just once to keep your portions in check.
  • Grab a plate or glass of water early on to avoid socializing empty-handed. People will be less likely to try to serve you something if you already have food or a drink.
  • Identify a “safe” person you can talk to if you need a distraction from tempting foods.
  • Don't bring leftovers home.

4. Remember: You have the power to say no, but it might take some practice.

We've all run into a family member or friend at a holiday gathering whose main mission seems to be encouraging others to eat, eat, eat. Though this is a well-intentioned gesture, I remind my patients that their job is to choose foods that will help them feel their best - not to eat to make others happy.

You don't owe others anything more than a simple, “No, thanks!” But if you're worried about offending someone or causing a conflict, you can always stall and tell them you'll try some later.

5. Be kind to yourself.

It is a common misconception that bariatric surgery prevents you from overeating. It’s possible to overeat after any bariatric surgery – especially if it has been awhile since the surgery – and overindulging may lead to vomiting, diarrhea and overall discomfort. An isolated case of overeating will not lead to a failure of your surgery, but it’s important to note that consistent overeating will reduce the surgery’s effectiveness in the long term.

If you overindulge, don’t panic. While it's important to stick with your healthy eating habits as much as possible, it's also worth keeping in mind that everyone eats too much from time to time (especially during the holidays).

Remember...your weight gain – and subsequent weight loss – didn't happen overnight. What happens at one holiday event won't instantly change your body, and one slip-up shouldn’t send you into a guilty spiral.

Instead of dwelling on what you should or shouldn’t have done, start the day fresh by resolving to get back to your healthy habits. Returning to your usual routine will help you feel better both emotionally and physically, putting you in a better position for managing the next holiday eating event.

And if you're in need of guidance or encouragement, Temple Health can help. To learn more, explore our bariatric patient support resources today.

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Victoria Brown, RD, LDN

Victoria Brown, RD, LDN, is a Registered Dietitian in the Department of Bariatric and Minimally Invasive Surgery at Temple Health. Her clinical interests include urban obesity, weight management and pre- and post-op nutrition counseling for bariatric surgical candidates.

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