55: Mastering Your Mindset After Weight Loss Surgery with Kathryn Shallow

Mar 04, 2024

Bariatric surgery can be a powerful tool for hitting the reset button on your metabolic health, but people often underestimate the mental and emotional components of weight loss surgery. Surgeons, dietitians, and therapists all agree that long-term success has less to do with what happens in the operating room and more to do with the mindset and behaviors that follow.

I recently had the chance to speak with Kathryn Shallow, an LPC (Licensed Professional Counselor) specializing in bariatric mental health. Kathryn underwent bariatric surgery herself 15 years ago, which sparked her passion for helping others navigate the mental and emotional challenges of the post-op journey. 

Today, I want to share Kathryn’s insights into the importance of reprogramming our brains away from diet culture and redefining the role of food in our lives. We also explore how to separate our worthiness from our weight, so we can start to trust, embrace, and appreciate our own bodies.

Bariatric Surgery Can’t Heal Your Relationship with Food

One of the biggest challenges people face, both before and after surgery, is their relationship with food. There's a common misconception that bariatric surgery will automatically repair this relationship, but Kathryn highlights that this is far from the truth. 

While bariatric surgery can limit the amount you can eat at one time, it doesn't prevent you from eating a lot. That’s why it’s still key to address the underlying psychological factors driving overeating. Bariatric surgery is not a quick fix, but a lifelong commitment to managing your health. 

The Best Time to Seek Emotional Support

Most people Kathryn works with reach out for help after having bariatric surgery. She finds this timing important because it's when the real challenges usually tend to surface. Despite all the preparation, like attending classes and meeting with doctors, often you don't realize how deeply ingrained your habits around food are until you no longer have the ability to use food as a coping strategy.

It’s a bit like becoming a new parent. No matter how many books you read, you don't fully grasp it until you're in it 24/7. Similarly, with other weight management tools like GLP-1s, you have to try things yourself to see what works. But it's important not to judge yourself if things don't go as expected. Instead, stay curious and be open to learning along the way.

Ditching the “All-or-Nothing” Mentality

Kathryn shared practical tips for maintaining an open mind and staying adaptable during the bariatric journey. Reflecting on her own journey, she realizes there were a lot of times she “messed up”, like overindulging in alcohol or feeling more apathetic towards health goals. But if you looked at her stats and all the things that she does surrounding bariatric mental health, and her physical appearance, you'd say, “Wow, she's been really successful!”

Success and setbacks can happen at the same time. By focusing on improvements in health and overall well-being rather than just setbacks, you can keep a more balanced view of your progress.

it's never “all or nothing”, particularly as you move through life and all of its changes. You might have children, get married, get divorced - there's nothing stagnant in life, so there's no reason to think that weight loss or weight maintenance is going to remain stagnant either.

Accept life’s changes and don’t be too hard on yourself along the way. Self-criticism doesn't help us make healthy choices. It’s important to be kind to ourselves and realize that we're all works in progress.

Equally, comparing ourselves to others can often lead us down a negative thought spiral. Instead, we need to focus on our own journey and show ourselves some more compassion for where we’re at in the process.

Overcoming the Fear of Regain

Regaining weight after surgery or weight loss is very common and stems from societal pressures ingrained by diet culture. After years and years of dieting, many people expect to put weight back on once they stop dieting, as they’re used to following a pattern of quick weight loss followed by regain.

This fear is deeply rooted in diet culture norms, and so the first step is to start unlearning these damaging rules and reprogram our relationship with food and weight.

The goals of bariatric surgery are twofold: to lose weight and to sustain that weight loss in a healthy and manageable way. And redefining your relationship with food plays a huge part in achieving long-term success.

Instead of viewing food as the enemy, it’s about learning to see it as nourishment for both body and soul. What role are you comfortable with food having in your life? Can you find joy in occasional indulgences without feeling guilty?

These questions aren't easy to answer, and everyone’s approach to food will look different, which is perfectly okay. What matters most is that you find a sustainable way of eating that aligns with your values and brings you joy.

Embracing Your Worth Beyond Weight

During any weight loss journey, and especially with bariatric surgery, many people find themselves hyper-focused on numbers like protein intake, hydration, and calories. But your worth is more than just a number!

For far too long, society has linked our worth to our body size, embedding this belief deep within us. And so separating your self-worth from your weight is not going to happen overnight. There might be days when you struggle with body image, and that's okay. It’s natural to have rough days - self-love doesn't mean loving every inch of your body every single day.

Relearning to trust your body's cues, whether it's hunger or fullness, is also an important part of the process of acceptance. When you’ve been dieting for so long, you doubt your body's ability to lose weight and maintain it.  And so part of beginning to like yourself, enjoy yourself, and not hate yourself, is building up trust again with your own physical body - something that often is undervalued and dismissed when it comes to weight loss and living with weight loss.

Disciplined Eating

When it comes to maintaining a healthy eating routine, Kathryn has found that discipline plays a crucial role. But let’s be clear: discipline does not mean deprivation or punishment—it's about nourishing your body in a way that fuels you physically, emotionally, and mentally.

It's about honoring your body's needs and keeping yourself energized without depriving yourself of essential nutrients. That means incorporating high-protein foods, healthy fats, and carbohydrates into meals and making sure your calorie needs are met.

If you feel like you’re veering off track or not making the best food choices, disciplined eating can be a great way to reset. This might involve planning meals in advance or keeping track of what you eat, but it's not about strict rules or limitations. Instead, it's about returning to a way of eating that you know supports your well-being.

For Kathryn, bariatric surgery wasn't about signing up for a lifetime of dieting—it was about freeing herself from the constraints of diet culture and establishing a healthier relationship with food. 

And as she continues on her journey, she is prioritizing curiosity and kindness, and creating boundaries that put her health and well-being first without sacrificing enjoyment or satisfaction. Ultimately, it's about finding what works best for you and embracing a way of eating that feels both nourishing and empowering.

Follow Kathryn on TikTok 

If you are interested in Kathryn’s upcoming 40+ bariatric support group (open to men and women), you can email her at [email protected] or send a direct message on TikTok with your email address to receive the group information sheet, required screening form, and instructions for payment. 

The dates and times of the 6 sessions (all run via Google Meet) are as follows:

Sunday March 10th 3:00 - 4:15 pm EST // Sunday March 17th 3:00 - 4:15 pm EST // Sunday March 24th 3:00 - 4:15 pm EST // **no group Sunday March 31st - Easter Sunday // Sunday April 7th 3:00 - 4:15 pm EST // Sunday April 14th 3:00 - 4:15 pm EST