Are you eating for the wrong reasons? Many women find that while going through menopause their eating habits get out of control. You may be emotional eating.
What is emotional eating?
Emotional eating is eating for reasons other than hunger. It is when your desire or even need to eat is driven by feelings and not by a physiological need. Emotional eating may help you cope with your emotions, or it may seem like it helps.
With emotional eating you likely crave certain foods – foods that are associated with positive emotions, like sugary foods or junk food. Unfortunately emotional eating is rarely associated with vegetables.
What causes emotional eating?
Emotional eating is most likely caused by negative emotions like feelings of stress, depression, guilt, or even boredom.
Food can be used to fill an emotional emptiness. Food can often be associated with pleasant emotions and make you feel good. You may not even understand what emotion you are feeling, but that food seems to fill a void.
You may also associate certain foods with certain situations. Like eating popcorn with a movie, or having a muffin with your morning coffee.
Eating too much sugar can actually cause stress and poor sleep which can lead to emotional eating, actually causing a loop of emotional eating.
On the other hand dieting can lead to emotional eating. After a time of feeling deprived of the foods you enjoy, you may rebel against the diet and eat the foods you have been craving. Dieting also places your body and mind under a lot of stress so this can lead to stress eating.
How is emotional eating related to menopause?
Women may find that emotional eating gets worse during menopause. Stress is often higher for women during menopause, sometimes due to changing hormones, sometimes due to things going on in life. You are also more likely to experience mood swings, poor sleep and feelings of low energy. These all can contribute to emotional eating.
What can you do about it?
There are several things that might help you get control of your emotional eating.
Keep a food journal
Keeping a journal of what you are eating and noting your emotions and feelings before and after eating can help you to understand your patterns of stress eating better.
Become aware of your feelings
Keeping a journal is one way of becoming more in tune with your emotional eating patterns, but there are other ways of becoming aware. When you feel like eating something, take a moment to review what you are feeling. Are you feeling hungry? If not then what?
Stress is one of the biggest reasons for emotional eating, so finding a method to reduce stress is a helpful way of coping with emotional eating. You can try going for a walk or run, reading a book, doing a yoga class, or meditating.
Eat slowly and mindfully
When you eat slowly and mindfully, you notice more about what you are eating and what you are feeling. You are less likely to overeat and it may also help to reduce stress.
Eat foods that reduce stress
The foods you eat may be causing you stress. Try to include foods like fatty fish, eggs, yogurt, pumpkin seeds and foods containing turmeric to help to reduce your stress levels. Eating protein in the morning is good because it helps to break the sugar – stress – sugar cycle.
Try another coping mechanism
Sometimes when food is used to cope with negative emotions, there is likely another option. If you feel a craving for something, then try to distract yourself even for a few minutes:
- Go for a walk
- Drink a glass of water
- Try some gentle stretching for a few minutes
- A short meditation from a meditation app might help
Change your habits
If your emotional eating is tied to certain habits like an afternoon bowl of chips, a muffin with your coffee, or a stop at a fast food place while shopping, then you might need to change your habits.
Here are some things you can try:
- keep healthy snacks like fruit on the counter
- Change your shopping time so it doesn’t coincide with lunch time
- Use a very small bowl for your snack or make mini muffins to satisfy your cravings
- Replace your habit with one of the coping mechanisms listed above, ie. go for a walk when you would normally have a bowl of chips
- A small amount of dark chocolate, or a drink made with just cocoa powder and hot water can help to satisfy sugar cravings and chocolate also contains magnesium and antioxidants which can boost your mood
Should you seek expert advice?
Emotional eating is a type of disordered eating that can develop into an eating disorder like binge eating. An eating disorder is something that can be diagnosed like binge eating disorder or bulimia nervosa. An eating disorder does require professional help from someone and should be discussed with a professional.
The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) has a quiz you can take to determine if you should seek professional help. They also have a helpline you can call for assistance.
In Canada the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) has an information line you can call for help. If you live outside of Canada or the US, search eating disorders and your country to find local information.
Health coaches and nutrition coaches can help with emotional eating and can refer you to someone who is qualified to help you if they can’t.
Emotional eating is common. It is often not a simple case of lack of willpower, but a case of using food to fill an emotional void in your life. Try to follow some of the suggestions listed to help you to cope with emotions without using junk food.
The Healthy Changes Program can help you to gradually change your eating habits by introducing positive changes.