How to Control Menopausal Emotional Overeating

Emotional overeating can be a problem throughout our lives, but with peri- and menopause, the cravings, and emotions may seem out of control, and lead to more emotional overeating. Emotional eating is common when feeling stress, anger, and loneliness, and many try to use emotional eating to suppress these negative emotions. 

Stress during perimenopause may be the biggest culprit for emotional overeating. The decreasing estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone hormone levels during menopause can result in many menopause symptoms, including stress. The symptoms can be intrusive and adversely impact a woman’s quality of life. Symptoms include cognitive and emotional changes and night sweats, leading to disrupted sleep,  increased stress, and emotional overeating. (1,2)

This article will help you understand emotional overeating and how to control menopausal emotional overeating.

Hormonal Weight Gain in Peri- and Menopause

Perimenopause typically starts at about 40 and lasts 5-10 years until you are in menopause. The complete menopause transition can last over 20 years – and those are years that usually include major life events that can trigger negative emotions and lead to emotional eating.

During those transition years, a typical family sees some significant changes like the demands of teenage children, children leaving home, aging parents, body changes due to menopause (weight gain and vaginal irritation), and career changes. When all of these life events converge, it only makes sense that emotional overeating could increase in an effort to provide yourself a feeling of pleasure and calm.  

Changes in estrogen and progesterone hormone levels during the menopausal transition can lead to increased appetite/ food cravings and stress, leading to chronic emotional overeating. Women in menopause sometimes feel driven to eat more calories and tend to gain fat, especially in their bellies. (3,4)

Fluctuations in estrogen, progesterone and other hormones (leptin and ghrelin) can increase appetite and fat gain during perimenopause. (5-9) Weight gain at perimenopause is common, but there are ways to control menopausal emotional overeating and weight gain. It’s also vital for good health to keep this weight gain off to reduce the risk of chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers. 

Other reasons for the menopausal weight gain include the fact that postmenopausal women are generally less active than when they were younger, which reduces energy expenditure and leads to a loss of muscle mass. Menopausal women also frequently have higher fasting insulin levels and insulin resistance, driving weight gain and increased heart disease risk. 

What is Emotional Overeating?

You don’t typically gorge on apples and a green salad when emotionally eating. Women will often crave “comfort foods” with high-caloric or high-carbohydrate foods with little nutritional value. Think of ice cream, cookies, sugary cereals, chocolate, salty potato chips, french fries, and pizza. (3,4)

Many of us turn to food for comfort, stress relief, or reward ourselves. Emotional eating is the use of food to make yourself feel better—to fill emotional needs rather than the stomach. Afterward, not only does the original emotional issue remain, but you may also feel guilty for overeating.

Emotional overeating can turn into a vicious cycle of eating, guilt after eating, and an ongoing cycle of excess eating and likely weight gain. Menopause symptoms can make us feel ‘off.’ After all, you are likely to be sleep-deprived, dealing with changing emotions and a different body, leading to overwhelming stress, hunger, and emptiness. That’s when menopausal overeating happens most frequently.  

Knowing the most common causes of emotional overeating can help to reduce the frequency. 

Common causes of emotional eating

  1. Stress. When stress is chronic, high levels of the stress hormone cortisol are released. Cortisol triggers cravings for salty, sweet, and fatty foods, which give you energy and many calories.
  2. Celebration. There are many ways to reward ourselves that don’t include a big frosted cake, pizza, or sweet beverages.
  3. Emotional Denial. Eating can be an effort to deal with uncomfortable feelings, like anger, fear, sadness, anxiety, and loneliness. 
  4. Boredom. Many people eat to relieve boredom. 
  5. Family Habits. Think back to how your family looked at food. These habits can often carry over into adulthood. Maybe it’s time to start your own method of dealing with food. 
  6. Social Influences. You may also overeat in social situations because you feel obligated to try everything or eat when everyone else continues, even though you might be full. Eating out of nervousness is common in social situations too. 

Why Emotional Overeating for Stress?

Chronic stress is not good for anyone’s health. Over the long term, chronic stress can increase heart disease risk, affect the immune system, and make us more susceptible to illness, infections, and some cancers. Stress also affects our relationships, work performance, sense of well-being, and quality of life.

When overeating, you are likely trying to reduce stress. And on some level, it works. When you eat comfort foods, the brain is triggered to release an amino acid called “tryptophan,” which can create serotonin. Serotonin is a hormone that stabilizes mood, feelings of well-being, and happiness. 

Serotonin is a hormone that impacts your entire body. Serotonin also helps with sleeping, eating, digestion and can help you feel calm. So it makes some sense that we are driven to overeat when stressed. 

Occasionally, using comfort foods to combat stress or as a reward, celebration, or pick-me-up, isn’t always bad. But when eating is the primary emotional coping mechanism, you can get stuck in an unhealthy cycle where you are gaining weight and not dealing with the actual problems. Eating may feel good at the moment, but the feelings that triggered the eating are still there. 

You can learn healthier ways to deal with your dropping hormones, avoid triggers, conquer cravings, and finally put a stop to emotional overeating.

Steps to Control Menopausal Emotional Overeating:

  1. HRT. Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) can help balance estrogen and progesterone levels and effectively reduce cravings and belly fat during menopause.  When your hormones are in balance and you are relaxed and well-rested, you’re better able to handle the curveballs that life throws your way. (9,10)
  2. Understand the difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger. Distinguishing between emotional and physical hunger can be tricky. Emotional hunger can be powerful, so it’s easy to mistake it for physical hunger. 
    1. Emotional hunger comes on suddenly. It hits you quickly and feels urgent. Actual physical hunger comes on more gradually. 
    2. Emotional hunger wants specific comfort foods. When you’re physically hungry, you will eat almost anything, but emotional hunger craves sugary, salty, fatty snacks that provide an instant rush.
    3. Emotional hunger is typically mindless eating. Eating large quantities of comfort food without really thinking about it is common in emotional eating. 
    4. Emotional hunger isn’t satisfied once you’re full. You often eat until you’re uncomfortably stuffed, but you eat until you feel satisfied with physical hunger.
    5. Emotional hunger isn’t in the stomach. When it is emotional eating, you don’t have a pang in your stomach; you feel the need in your head. 
  3. Identify your triggers and how emotional hunger feels. Identify the triggers for emotional eating, and you can better control it. What situations, places, or feelings make you reach for the comfort of food?
  4. Find other ways to feed your feelings. Fulfill yourself emotionally to stop emotional overeating. What alternatives to food can you turn to for emotional fulfillment?
  5. Pause for a few minutes to reflect before eating. Take a moment to pause and reflect when a craving comes on and think about if the food is necessary.
  6. Support yourself with healthy lifestyle habits. Ways to reduce stress and maintain calm:
  • Exercise. Whatever you can do to enjoy physical activity can reduce stress.
  • Talk. Share your concerns with a friend, family, or healthcare professional.
  • Eat well. While eating something special can soothe stress in the short run, it can work against you in the long run. 
  • Avoid too much alcohol.  Although alcohol may make you feel relaxed and tired, it can interfere with sleep quality.
  • Sleep.  Most adults require between 6-9 hours of sleep per night. Identify your sleep needs and then make it a regular pattern.
  • Relax. Practice deep breathing, positive thinking, and meditation.
  • Pamper Yourself. Read, have a spa day, take a bubble bath or go to a park.
  • Enjoy. Laugh and smile every day if you can!

Alcohol and Emotional Overeating. Many people drink alcohol as a way to relax. But we all know people with alcohol disorders and drink to excess. For most women moderate alcohol use — no more than one drink per day for women and older people — is relatively harmless. (A “drink” means 1.5 ounces of spirits, 5 ounces of wine, or 12 ounces of beer, all of which contain 0.5 ounces of alcohol.) 

Researchers have found binge eating or emotional overeating after drinking alcohol is common. While alcohol typically has a lot of calories (especially those specialty drinks with an umbrella in them), ingesting alcohol increases hunger, further adding to the calorie intake. (11) Excessive drinking may activate the same part of the brain as hunger, causing binge eating.

Limiting the amount of alcohol is essential. When you eat calories as solid food, your body naturally compensates by reducing the rest of its food intake. But when you drink liquid calories, the body doesn’t compensate for those added calories by eating fewer calories. (12)

Fluid calories don’t suppress hunger. When drinking fluid calories, people often end up eating more calories overall. What is the best drink when you’re trying to lose weight? Your best bet is to have your alcohol straight or add sparkling water or club soda. When you add the sugary, high-calorie mixers, a whiskey drink can quickly go from 100 to 300+ calories.

Summary: 

If you think you are an emotional overeater, you can do something about it. Gain awareness, explore emotional and physical causes. While it’s common to comfort yourself with food when you’re feeling stressed, sad, tired, or even bored, take a moment to figure out the actual cause of your “hunger.” 

Finding real-life solutions for the cravings that lead to emotional eating starts with developing the awareness to recognize what your body is asking for so that eating isn’t how you deal with negative (and positive) emotions. 

Although weight gain is typical during menopause, you can prevent or reverse it by starting Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT). Menopause can be challenging, both physically and emotionally. However, taking the time to re-energize yourself by reducing menopause symptoms, eating a nutritious diet, and getting enough exercise and rest can help prevent weight gain and reduce disease risk associated with the menopause transition. 

As we know at our anti-aging and wellness center, it’s all about finding the right balance. We encourage you to find the right HRT balance, to relieve stress and emotional overeating in menopause. Reach out to a Winona provider today at bywinona.com

References

  1. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/menopause-weight-gain#the-bottom-line
  2. https://www.menopause.org/for-women/menopauseflashes/mental-health-at-menopause/stress-getting-serious-about-solutions
  3. https://www.womenshealthnetwork.com/weight-loss/emotional-eating/
  4. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/diets/emotional-eating.htm
  5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18280066/
  6. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25866757/
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3964739/
  8. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27013284/
  9. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16918589/
  10. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/6-proven-ways-to-lose-belly-fat
  11. https://www.therecoveryvillage.com/alcohol-abuse/related-topics/binge-eating-and-alcohol/#:~:text=Researchers%20have%20found%20binge%20eating,as%20hunger%20causing%20binge%20eating.
  12. https://www.livescience.com/38694-keeping-calories-from-juice-in-check.html