I am a Menopause health coach and Dean of Varsity Menopause. I have integrated an educational background in psychology with a fitness and coaching career for over 30 years, empowering midlife women to achieve clarity and confidence beyond their wildest dreams through a series of online courses that address body-confidence and emotional regulation through research-based journaling and other techniques.
Over 30 years ago I lost four clothing sizes without dieting and have imperfectly eaten the amount of food that sustains this body size ever since through pregnancy, menopause, divorce and all the things life throws us. I know a lot about emotional eating! I’m also a grateful, recovering perfectionist.
WHAT IS EMOTIONAL EATING
We’re talking emotional health and emotional regulation here. We’re not talking about diets. If you are in midlife and were hoping for a diet, I encourage you to stay with me for several simple solutions that might surprise you.
First, let’s define emotional or stress eating or for some, emotional or stress restricting. I’ll focus on emotional eating, because I have way more experience with that. I probably have not missed a meal in decades.
I’m talking about when you eat as a result of strong feelings or stress or anxiety or feelings about other things going on in your life.
Typical signs you’re an emotional eater.
You begin the day with healthy eating intentions, then out of nowhere, donuts call you and several donuts later, you don’t know what hit you!
You probably don’t wake up saying, “I think I will face plant in Cheez-it today”… but the next thing you know, there you are.
When it comes to eating, you often feel unexpectedly out of control.
You are continually preoccupied with eating and/or what you look like, to the point where in the case of some women, you sabotage yourself and feel the pattern keeps you from reaching your true potential in life.
You may have done some of these behaviors for years. Or in some cases, this has just started with the onset of your hormonal shift.
WHY DO PEOPLE EAT EMOTIONALLY?
As a menopause wellness educator, the top 3 challenges I hear are weight gain, anxiety, and depression and those 3 can be totally inter-related. Weight gain is the symptom, it’s not an actual source; meaning it’s not a thing. There is something that is actually leading to weight gain; let’s dive into that.
If you’ve got a lot of chaos and anxiety in your life, or you are depressed, eating may be your go-to for self-soothing. You may know all about the value of proper nutrition, but let’s face it non-nutritious food is legal, it’s relatively inexpensive, and Megastuff Oreos are way quicker than preparing a salad!
So food is everywhere, and if you’re in the midst of hormonal shift, it’s possible there is even more chaos than usual for you such as night sweats, mood swings, dry skin, crying jags… add the other normal daily stressors to that and well, you definitely need some self-soothing!
Then there’s also a biological or chemical reason you may fall into this habit: when your body is stressed, the stress hormone, cortisol is released. Your sympathetic nervous system kicks in with that “fight or flight” response. A somewhat pushy, bossy, and downright mean voice in your head keeps pushing you. “Not good enough! Don’t rest, keep going! Do more and do it faster!!!” This perpetuates the cycle of stress and subsequent cortisol release.
At this point, the best solution would be to listen to your body and choose a self-soothing technique to activate your “Rest and Digest” or (parasympathetic nervous system). I give examples of how to do that below.
But often instead, we grab a non-nutritional food for that quick hit of dopamine in our brain. It definitely quiets that pushy, bossy, mean voice. Temporarily. Therefore, if you are stressed a lot of the time, and eat spontaneously to address it, this can become a pattern.
And if you habitually eat to self-soothe, over time, the result might be weight gain. If you merely go on an uber strict diet at this point, but don’t address the root of the emotional eating it’s only a quick fix with temporary results.
Another scenario is this: Some women say, “But my EATING hasn’t changed, yet in peri-menopause and menopause, my BODY has changed and my clothes don’t fit the same way. WHY?”
On top of that, if we don’t give ourselves permission to listen to our body, our nervous system will be unnecessarily stressed and then our body will produce even MORE cortisol and that can contribute to an increased girth in our waistline.
And remember, you may only be thinking in terms of how you look and how your clothes fit. When we eat emotionally, we keep our nervous system in that “fight or flight” state too much of the time, which increases the risk of disease, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease to name a few. So as we age, it’s about more than just how we look.
It’s been said that menopause is the biological gateway to aging, so it’s really in our best interest to listen to our bodies and get our nervous system back to that “Rest and Digest” state. So again, HOW? Thankfully, there is a solution!
WHAT CAN YOU DO ABOUT EMOTIONAL EATING IN MIDLIFE:
(And how do you listen to your body?)
The answer is to work on your Emotional Intelligence or EQ. Emotional Intelligence is the Lynchpin of self-love and body confidence. What is EQ? How emotionally literate are you? In other words, how well are you able to identify, express, and feel your feelings? You need to be able to get quiet and listen to your body to do this. You may say, “But I just can’t get my mind to quit!”
First: Remember you are teachable. You can learn to give yourself permission to listen to your body and choose other methods of self-soothing besides emotional eating. And when you do, you are going to feel better, sleep better, and age better!
Next: Identify your “WHY”. My WHY is Disease prevention. Family history. My mother experienced chronic pain and mobility issues from the time I was about 12, which severely limited her ability to participate in her own life and in my life.
I have other family history that includes fibromyalgia, heart disease, diabetes, not to mention alcoholism and drug addiction. So this is WHY I am committed to work on my bouts of emotional eating even though it’s often uncomfortable. And it’s way easier and more fun just to eat spontaneously. But I want to live my Big Amazing Life to the fullest! And I want to participate in my son’s life!
Here we go with Solutions — some are obvious, some not so obvious:
GENERAL — Getting in touch with your body 101:
SPECIFIC ways to get back in touch with your body and reduce emotional eating:
Because of menopause, I have a condition called CRS (can’t remember sh**), so I came up with an acronym so it’s easier for me to remember to listen to my body in small increments every day. It’s called Daily Self-Care P.I.E.S. Every day I make a contract with myself to do 4 things; one in each category: Physically, Intellectually, Emotionally, Spiritually. (today’s example: rode my bike for 10 minutes, wrote this article, looked my son in eyes, meditated for 1 minute).
Identify your “WHY”.
You are teachable.
You can learn to give yourself permission to listen to your body and choose other methods of self-soothing besides emotional eating. And when you do, you are going to feel better, sleep better, and age better!
You are so worth this level of extreme self-care. You are here in this world for a reason. Become willing to sit through discomfort long enough to stay present to find out what that reason is and DO it! You’ve got this!