Understand Menopause Cravings and Emotional Eating | Stella
Your body
11 mins

Menopausal cravings and emotional eating

byLe'Nise Brothers

When you are under pressure you may find yourself mysteriously drawn to that tub of ice cream in the freezer or wrestling an insatiable desire for a giant bag of crisps. Cravings are a familiar feeling, especially those associated with your menstrual cycle. Menopause doesn’t mean they will stop even if your bleeding does! Read on to find out what causes these changes and how to handle them.

Can menopause cause cravings?

It’s important to know that cravings are normal and are signals from our body that it needs something. It could be more sleep, less stress or a specific nutrient. Try to avoid treating cravings as something wrong or something to deny yourself. Instead, examine the craving and give your body what it needs in a way that nourishes you.

You are no longer subject to fluctuations of oestrogen and progesterone during postmenopause. These hormone imbalances can lead to cravings for comfort foods like bread and pasta. Yet there are some other reasons why you might still experience cravings and understanding them more will help you manage them. 

Why do you get cravings?

You may experience cravings for any of the following reasons:

  • You have a nutritional deficiency, such as low sodium, magnesium or potassium
  • Low energy levels, often caused by poor quality sleep
  • Feeling low and needing to improve your mood 
  • Feeling stressed – you might recognise this as stress eating
  • You associate a situation or context with a specific food or drink, such as hot cross buns at Easter or mince pies at Christmas
  • Simple desire for the taste or texture of a particular type of food
  • Feeling bored and needing a distraction

What happens to your body when you crave something?

Your body goes through a number of processes when you crave something and this gets you ready for eating that particular food:

  1. You start producing more saliva and stomach acid in anticipation of digesting that food. Areas of your brain that focus on reward, like the striatum, are also activated.
  1. Your brain and emotions are tied to the craving. Your thoughts centre on how the food might taste or how you might feel after eating it. You will start to plan how and when you can get your hands on the specific food you desire. This also might come with feelings of shame, guilt and frustration about having the craving.
  1. Your brain gets a hit of dopamine when you satisfy your craving, which is the neurotransmitter associated with reward. You’ll also experience increased serotonin levels if your craving relates to bread, rice and pasta, the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and happiness.

What foods are you likely to crave during menopause?

You may have a variety of cravings if you are low on specific nutrients. Stress can have an effect too. You need higher levels of minerals such as sodium, magnesium and potassium when you are stressed.

This may explain cravings for salty and savoury foods, such as crisps, chips and roasted nuts. ”

You may crave sweets and chocolate if you’re stressed and your blood sugar levels aren’t balanced. This is because your body is looking for ways to prop up your energy levels to keep you going through the rest of your day. Be mindful about what you have for breakfast as you may find yourself reaching for a cake or sweets mid-morning if you start the day with just a cup of coffee.

Your serotonin levels can shift postmenopause due to declining oestrogen levels. Serotonin is your happy hormone that can also contribute to increased resilience. One of the ways your body tries to temporarily increase serotonin is through cravings for simple carbohydrates like white bread, rice and pasta. This is why you might feel a little more content after a lovely bowl of cacio e pepe!

What is emotional eating and what triggers it?

Emotional eating is when you eat food when you’re not hungry, but to help manage your emotions. Your emotions can be challenging during menopause as this is often a time when you may be dealing with big milestones, such as high levels of responsibility at work, the loss of a parent, ageing parents or your children leaving home. These test your resilience and ability to cope.

Many people manage by turning to foods high in sugar and fat because they give a ‘sugar rush’ that can make you feel better quickly. This is because these foods can release chemicals in the brain that cause pleasure or reduce anxiety. 

The downside is a ‘sugar rush’ is likely to cause a dip in blood sugar so you still feel hungry, which can trigger a cycle of emotional eating. This can lead to sugar spikes and crashes that can harm your health long-term.

Can emotional eating make menopause symptoms worse?

Yes, it can if your menopause cravings are frequent, or results in overeating. Hot flushes, night sweats, mood swings and brain fog are some of the most common symptoms of menopause. If your emotional eating involves a lot of sweets or ice cream, they can cause high blood sugar levels and make your symptoms worse.

Eight ways to reduce cravings during menopause

If you’re experiencing cravings, there are a number of things you can do:

Don’t feel guilty for having cravings

Remember, they’re a sign from your body that you have a particular physical or emotional need

Keep track of your triggers

It can be helpful to use a diary to track when and how often cravings occur. You’ll start to see patterns after four weeks of tracking to help you get to grips with cravings. For example, you might notice you eat chocolate when you’re stressed, have a sweet dessert after every meal or crave toast if you’ve not slept well.

It’s important to approach tracking your cravings from a place of non-judgement – you’re simply on a fact-finding mission.”

Check on your nutrition

Make sure you’re eating enough high-quality fat, protein and fibre at each meal. This will help balance your blood sugar levels so that you’re less likely to crave sweets in between meals. If you notice you’re getting particularly strong salt cravings, try adding a pinch of Himalayan sea salt to a glass of water. Also eat more dark leafy green vegetables, nuts and seeds to increase your sodium, magnesium, and potassium levels

Improve your sleep

Sleep can be an issue during menopause. Focus on improving your quality of sleep to reduce sugar cravings. Try getting more exposure to natural light throughout the day. This helps manage cortisol levels – your primary stress hormone – and makes it easier for the brain to produce melatonin at night. Melatonin helps you fall asleep quickly and stay asleep for longer.

Move more

Daily exercise can be powerful in managing blood sugar levels and reducing cravings for sweets, chocolate and carbohydrates. Try walking, cycling or strength-training.

Manage your stress levels

Try some simple deep breathing exercises throughout the day if your cravings are caused by stress. 

Breathe in through your nose and breathe out through your nose for one second. Lengthen each breath in and breathe out by one second until you reach four seconds. Go back to your natural breathing rhythm and focus on how you feel.

Try urge surfing

Try and ‘ride the wave’ of your thoughts, feelings or cravings. Allow yourself to experience the urge as it rises, crests, and falls to eventually go away, instead of seeing them as bad and fighting to get rid of them.

Imagine standing waist-deep in the sea with large waves coming towards you. You worry you will be knocked over and feel you will tire quickly if you try to fight the waves. Eventually you will give in.

Imagine welcoming the wave and stop fighting it. Grab a surfboard, lie on it and allow yourself to be picked up by the wave and ‘surf’ the wave to the shore. You will use much less energy, and might even enjoy it.

Mindfulness helps you learn to tolerate your urges and ride them out rather than seeing them as bad. The craving urge will get stronger to a peak, but if you do not act on it then it will gradually fade away without you eating food that isn’t nutritious.

Distract yourself

Use distraction to stop the automatic reaction to eat. Engage your mind in an activity that stimulates your brain and keeps you distracted or busy, but isn’t too taxing. This could be anything from simple word puzzles to knitting or other rhythmic activities that can soothe and calm you. Worry beads help some people.

Final word

Cravings and emotional eating are normal throughout your life and menopause is no exception. Identifying your triggers and making small steps to improve your lifestyle can really make a difference so that you feel more in control.  

Find out more about menopause on our blog or in our symptoms library.

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