Emotional eating and menopause

self compassion

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How can I control my emotions in menopause?

Reproductive hormones play a number of roles in our brain, which houses our emotional regulation centre.

As we hit the perimenopausal years characterised by fluctuations in our reproductive hormones, it is common that some of the symptoms we experience will be related to our emotional health.

Increased anxiety, mood fluctuations and depression are all associated with the menopausal transition.

These symptoms can have several knock-on effects, for example in how we eat, sleep and react to others.

I think I’ll save coping strategies for teenagers for another time (when I’ve found the answers myself)! and focus today on our emotional connection to food as a way of dealing with the rollercoaster of mood management in midlife.

Why do our eating habits change in menopause?

We all know food is more than simple nourishment; it is taste, culture, tradition, celebration, togetherness, and so much more. Each one of us has a unique relationship with food, which dictates the way we eat, and the food choices that we make every day.

Food often feels like it’s more of a crux through the menopause as the body tries to cope with the unpredictability. Exploring with curiosity what’s going on for the individual is at the heart of the support I provide.

Common themes include:

  1. Blood glucose levels can be more erratic, so we crave different foods at different times to combat that.
  2. Sleep is often affected, which lowers our resilience and increases our hunger hormones.
  3. We may notice changes in mood – food is known to offer a pick-me-up because of the impact it has on our dopamine receptors (one of our feel-good hormones).

How can I control my emotional eating in menopause?

female emotionsI believe control is a bit of an illusion and doesn’t allow for much humanity.

We’re often very practised by midlife at squashing down emotions and not allowing them to get in the way of our productivity and big to do list.

Often though, in menopause, as the brain loses the hormones which help to regulate our emotions, it can feel like things start to ‘spill over’. Things we would have previously handled better or differently suddenly flaw us, and we’re left grappling for a sense of control.

In the clients I work with, our food relationship often bares the brunt. We start eating in a way that doesn’t feel controlled or very in tune with what we truly desire. It’s like our brain is conspiring against us, fighting a battle between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ and our energy to feel like we’ve come out on top is dwindling.

What complicates our food relationship in menopause?

Sadly, many midlife women may also have been exposed to pervasive “diet culture” over the last few decades which compounds their challenges. As menopause causes changes to body shape and size, body image concerns also come into the equation, forcing us to judge ourselves and try to control our food intake further.

It’s common for my clients to have tried numerous diets for most of their lives and they reach the point where they just don’t want to or can’t face subjecting themselves to this approach any longer.

The truth is our clothing size is not a measure of our self-worth but untangling that and reevaluating things takes time.

What can we do to support a healthier, happier food relationship in menopause?

Cultivating a sense of self-compassion is a valuable first step. We might hear the phrase self-compassion, but we never get taught how to do it! If anything, we get taught to do the exact opposite really well!

What exactly is self-compassion?

Self-compassion is described as an emotionally positive self-attitude, which allows us to be understanding towards our own suffering, and to handle our negative emotions with kindness1. On a more practical level this means:

  • being able to accept our mistakes and failures, and not being hyper-critical about them (self-kindness);
  • recognising that we are human and it is normal for us to be imperfect (common humanity);
  • being able to maintain a balance between positive and negative emotions, and not over-identifying with the negative ones (mindfulness).

What has self-compassion got to do with the way we eat?

The research has shown that self-compassion can help people struggling with disordered eating, and negative body image2,3,4. In fact, it is thought that practicing self-compassion can alleviate some of the symptoms that people with a difficult relationship with food experience (e.g., negative self-talk, self-criticism, body comparison)2,4.

This is the reason its one of the key components of the self-paced Pause to Nourish Programme and a prominent anchor within the Anchor Programme.

How can I be more self-compassionate in the way I eat?

Now that you have dipped your toes into the science, these are some practical ways in which you begin to bring more self-compassion into your eating habits.

  1. Reassess aspiring towards perfection.
    There is no such thing as the “perfect diet” – flexibility in our eating approaches is key to a happier relationship with food and body.
  2. Be aware of your self-talk around food.
    We are often trapped in the dichotomy of “what we want to eat” versus “what we should be eating”. Listen to your body and embrace its needs. Often, it’s the ‘shoulding’ that turns us into rebellious teenagers and creates that sense of a lack of control around food.
  3. Consider mindful eating.
    Be present when eating and minimise distractions. Notice how your body feels before and after a meal. How did this food make you feel? Signals often get misinterpreted or ignored over the years, and it takes patience and compassion to rediscover them.

Finally, lets bring it back to food. Embracing a more positive relationship with it allows us to reap the benefits from it. There’s plenty of room for the sweeter foods that absolutely do hit the spot sometimes, but these food suggestions below contain nutrients that have been found to have a positive impact on mental wellbeing.

My low mood top picks

Snack on Brazil nuts – just two to three a day will meet your selenium requirements. Selenium is a mineral, low intakes of which are associated with irritability, lethargy and low mood.

Tuck into high fibre fortified breakfast cereal – packed full of B vitamins which are responsible for releasing energy from our food and supporting the production of dopamine. Sprinkle some into a Greek style yoghurt (these are higher protein which is also good for dopamine release) and serve with fruit.

leafy green vegetables Scatter dark green leafy veg liberally with as many meals as possible – a source of folate, veg such as spinach, kale and broccoli can help to ward off depression. Low levels have been associated with an increased chance of feeling depressed.

Serve up a chilli with lean mince beef and plenty of chickpeas and kidney beans or just keep it veggie if you prefer. These are all iron containing foods which helps to transport oxygen around the body. Low levels of iron will cause fatigue.

Break for lunch with a mackerel salad or sardines on toast – you have official permission to stink out the office or kitchen! Oily fish, whilst not directly related to mood is important for brain function with each of our brain cell walls being made up of 40% omega 3 fatty acids. If oily fish isn’t your bag, you can get small amounts from seeds and a supplement would be a good idea (using algae-based ones if you’re veggie).

Keen to read more about this topic? Take a look at our post Stress – Ten Top Tips using Diet and Lifestyle to Help.

If you’d like more support with your diet and food relationship, I’m here to help. Drop me a message and we can have a chat.

With special thanks to nutrition student, Irene Beltramini for her help in compiling the self-compassion research.

References

  1. Neff, K. D. (2003) ‘Self-Compassion: An Alternative Conceptualization of a Healthy Attitude Toward Oneself’, Self and Identity, 2, pp. 85–101. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/15298860309032.
  2. Braun, T. D., Park, C. L., Gorin, A. (2016) ‘Self-compassion, body image, and disordered eating: a review of the literature’, Body Image, 17, pp. 117–131. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2016.03.003.
  3. Turk, F., Waller, G. (2020) ‘Is self-compassion relevant to the pathology and treatment of eating and body image concerns? A systematic review and meta-analysis’, Clinical Psychology Review, 79, 101856. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2020.101856.
  4. Linardon, J. (2021) ‘Positive body image, intuitive eating, and self-compassion protect against the onset of the core symptoms of eating disorders: A prospective study’, Int J Eat Disord, 54 (11), pp. 1967-1977. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1002/eat.23623.

More To Explore

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