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Women’s Health
Managing emotional eating and cravings

Managing emotional eating and cravings

During perimenopause, you may find yourself on a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. Many people eat in response to emotional changes. It is estimated that 75% of overeating is associated with emotional eating. Whether overweight or not if this becomes a habit, it may be a problem.

Emotional eating is like a knee-jerk reaction that develops with repetition, when food is used to calm and comfort ourselves quickly. The connection between food and comfort once made is hard to break, especially when the media promotes these kinds of coping mechanisms.

High sugar/high fat foods are particularly palatable, and the ‘sugar rush’ can make you feel better quickly. This is because these foods can release chemicals in the brain that cause pleasure, or reduce anxiety. But this ‘sugar rush’ may be followed by a dip in blood sugar, and continued increased hunger (see the Alva library article hunger and hormones). This can trigger an unhealthy cycle and habit of emotional eating.

What can you do about it?

Recognise the problem - It might be worth keeping track of your mood and eating patterns in a diary for a week or two - something along the lines of a ‘food and mood diary’. Is there a clear pattern of eating when you are upset? Do your cravings relate to your periods, or menopausal symptoms?

The need to eat in response to emotions is a type of 'head hunger', as opposed to 'stomach hunger', which occurs when you are biologically hungry. How do you recognise head hunger?

Head hunger

  • Comes on quickly, builds up and hard to ignore
  • Often triggered by stressful situation, can be associated with anxiety symptoms of palpitations, sweating & rapid breathing
  • Often a craving for specific foods-high sugar/high fat
  • Eating may not satisfy the hunger, leading to eating more
  • May be followed by guilt

Stomach hunger

  • Comes on slowly
  • Associated with physical symptoms such as ‘tummy rumbling’, but not anxiety symptoms
  • Just hungry for food, not for specific food
  • Satisfied by eating any type of food
  • Once stomach is full hunger disappears with no emotions linked to it

If you recognise ‘head hunger’ - try not to act on it by eating. One technique you can use to manage cravings is using visualisation such as urge surfing.

Urge surfing is the process by which you ‘ride the wave’ of your thoughts, feelings or cravings. Instead of seeing them as bad and fighting to get rid of them, allow yourself to experience the urge as it rises, crests, and falls to eventually go away. Imagine standing waist deep in the sea. You see very large waves coming towards you, and you are worried that you will be knocked over. Perhaps you raise your arm and put your hand out to stop them hitting you? Or try and stand your ground and stop them from moving you.

How well will this work?

It is likely that if you try and fight the waves you will get tired and eventually give in. Now imagine that instead you welcome the wave, 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.

How might this work better? You will use much less energy, and might even enjoy it.

By becoming mindful of your urges, rather than seeing them as bad you may learn to tolerate them, eventually riding the urge out. The urge will get stronger to a peak, but if you do not act on it (eat) it will then gradually die away.

Another way to tackle emotional eating and cravings is to choose an alternative healthy response to emotion or stress and practice using it.

Alternatives to eating

Use distraction to stop the automatic reaction to eat; engaging 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 can soothe and calm you. Worry beads help some people.

Have a warm drink. Taking a break with a cup of black tea (0 calories) can reduce your cortisol levels by 47% according to a study in the journal of psycho-pharmacology. This can help settle your stomach and reduce your stress.

Chewing gum. Keeping a pack of sugarless gum handy not only is it good for your teeth, but it can also reduce emotional eating. A study in the journal Appetite indicated that chewing gum for 15 minutes before you eat can significantly reduce your appetite and curb cravings. It has also shown to move your brain into a relaxed but alert state, thus it is great when you get the urge to boredom eat.

Self massage. Have you ever noticed that you automatically begin to rub your temples when tension starts to rise? Massaging tight spots can release the same feel good chemicals into your body that emotional eating does. Try massaging soothing scented creams on your temples. You can also try putting a tennis ball under your foot and rubbing it around, or placing the ball behind your shoulder blades and moving against it to release local tension.

Physical activity. Exercising will help manage stress and triggers the release of ‘feel good’ hormones. Instead of reaching for a bar of chocolate, lace up your shoes and go for a walk! Taking a brisk walk for approximately 20 minutes can help you curb chocolate cravings. Swapping out emotional eating with any physical activity also means you boost your fitness level.

Apply soothing hand cream. Leaving it to sink in prevents you reaching straight for the biscuit tin. This is especially useful after all the COVID-19 related hand washing!

Develop a healthy sleep pattern. Sleep is critical to putting an end to emotional eating. When you miss even a few hours of sleep your appetite hormones are completely thrown off. You tend to eat more the next day and indulge in uncharacteristic cravings.

We wrote a whole article on getting enough sleep which you can read here.

Managing your thoughts

Try and create a temporary storage space for anything that’s bothering you right now. Sometimes all of your thoughts may just be too overwhelming. Finding a way to put them aside for a little while may be a good way of reducing stress. One of the best ways to do this is to simply write your problem down. You can either put the paper aside, or you can plan how to solve the problem by breaking it down into manageable tasks and writing out the necessary steps. This allows you to feel a sense of control and focus. You can also try keeping a journal beside your bed. Every night try and write down your thoughts and worries and then close it and put them away.

Deal with overstimulation. We can often stress eat when we feel overwhelmed – some people are very sensitive to sound and other stimuli and anxieties can peak when we are overwhelmed or overstimulated. A rush of menopausal symptoms can be very overwhelming! Eating may also be a way of temporarily drowning out the barrage of sensations you have experienced during the day. If you recognise this feeling, try the following:

  1. Move into a quieter place; turn off your phone and emails;
  2. Turn off the lights and close the curtains and/or cover your head;
  3. Put on loose, soft clothing; use your hands to calm down – for a minute place your thumbs over your ears and with your thumbs still covering your ears use your index fingers to cover your closed eyes, and breathe slowly.

It is important to recognise that emotions are internal experiences that we can’t control. However, we do not have to react instantly to each emotion. Learning to accept and sit with the emotion or thought, even if uncomfortable, rather than reaching for food to self-soothe is helpful, and empowering.

Emotional eating is a habit you have learned over time, so you can unlearn it and replace it with new ways of responding to emotion. It is important to replace eating with a healthy response that is consistent with your weight maintenance/health values.

‘Control what you can, accept what you can’t’

Choosing a deliberate alternative action to eating in response to emotion is a ‘control what you can’ strategy. You can choose either an energising activity, or a soothing activity depending on the emotion, situation and your preference.

Energising activities include:

  • Walking or other exercise
  • Calling a friend
  • Reading a magazine or listening to a podcast
  • Playing a game
  • Doing craftwork

Soothing activities include:

  • Lighting a candle
  • Taking a bubble bath
  • Listening to relaxation tape
  • Breathing exercises

Anxiety and eating

Anxiety is a common symptom of menopause. Unfortunately, it is often related to ‘head hunger’ and mindless eating. Relaxation and breathing exercises can be very helpful. There are many useful apps available to help with this - try the NHS App Library.

Breathing exercise

Sometimes it is easier to learn this technique lying down, but it can be done sitting as well. Put your left hand on your chest and your right hand on your stomach. Focus on the breath coming in and out of your lungs. When you are anxious your breathing is fast, shallow and tight. This ‘chest breathing’ will move your left hand up and down as you breathe.

Slow your breathing, take deeper breaths through your nose, and count to 5. Then release the breath gently and slowly through your mouth. You should find that your breathing is now reaching deeper, and your right hand is moving more than the left hand. Keep breathing like this until you feel better and the anxiety symptoms begin to disappear. Slowing down your breathing tricks your body into believing it is going into sleep mode, thus signalling the rest of your body to just relax.

Muscle relaxation technique

This can be used when you feel tense, or anxious, or in bed at night to help you relax before you fall asleep.

Start with your head and neck. Pull your shoulders upwards and tip your head back to tense the muscles. Do this as you breathe in, and then release this tension as you breathe out, saying the word “relax” silently to yourself as you do so. Repeat 2 or 3 times.

Then make fists with both hands and tighten the muscles in your hands and arms as you breathe in. Then release this tension as you breathe out, saying the word “relax” to yourself silently as you do so. Repeat.

Next, move on to your tummy. Tighten the muscles in your stomach area as you breathe in. Then release this tension as you breathe out, saying the word “relax” to yourself as you do so. Repeat.

Finally tighten the muscles in your bottom, legs and feet as you breathe in. Then release this tension as you breathe out, saying the word “relax” to yourself as you do so. Repeat.

You can also do this in reverse order. This often works well in bed before going to sleep, or even just for the parts of you that are tense, such as head and neck after long screen sessions.

Calm place visualisation technique

Think of a calm place, where you feel relaxed and happy. Focus on the place, its surroundings and how your body felt in that place. Try and use this image when you feel anxious, it may help to associate the place with specific music or sounds, and replay that music when you are anxious, thinking about your calm place. I go to a beach in the Caribbean every time I need a filling at the dentist, and this has really helped my fear of dental drilling.

There are also some really useful specific techniques that can be taught by trained psychologists and counsellors to tackle anxiety, stress, and emotional eating - such as EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming), CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), Spiral Visualisation and others. It may be worth considering getting some individual help and there is definitely evidence that CBT can help menopausal symptoms in general as well. The BACP website gives details of how to find accredited therapists.

This is part three in our series about managing weight in menopause. You can read part one, about hunger and hormones, here and part two, about how to maintain a healthy weight, here.

  1. Effective weight Loss. An acceptance-based behavioural approach. Evan M Forman, Megan L Butryn Oxford University Press ISBN 978-0-19-023202-3

  2. How to retrain your appetite. The Appetite Doctor, Dr Helen McCarthy

  3. Diabetes UK has an useful article by Dr Jen Nash, which can be read here.

  4. Dr Carly Anna Hughes FRCGP World Obesity National Fellow October 2020