Cookies, mac and cheese, French fries, potato chips, chocolate, ice cream…these foods and others high in carbohydrates and sugar are often the go-to items when we experience cravings. Such desires can occur anytime during one’s life, yet menopause and food cravings seem to go together like, well, peanut butter and jelly.
What are food cravings?
Here’s the interesting thing about food cravings: they have a biological basis. That means the reason you so desperately feel like you have to eat that cinnamon bun is related to hormones.
For example, if your serotonin levels are low and cortisol is high, you may be craving chocolate or that cinnamon bun. If your serotonin levels were normal and cortisol was high, you might be reaching for mac and cheese or pizza.
Here are a few other things you should know:
- If you become anxious or stressed about your cravings and blame yourself, you increase your need for serotonin, which may cause you to engage in emotional eating.
- Food cravings also can be caused by other factors, such as sadness or depression, mistaking thirst for hunger, use of steroids, or other meds that can increase appetite, boredom, and stress over unresolved life situations.
How are menopause and food cravings connected?
It’s a fact that estrogen and progesterone levels decline during perimenopause and menopause, but are those declines the cause of food cravings? According to J. Scott Bembry, MD, of Premier Ob-Gyn, there’s no scientific evidence that dropping sex hormone levels during menopause directly cause food cravings. Instead, the adrenal gland and the hormone cortisol, which increases appetite, are involved. So while food cravings during midlife are real, hormonal changes associated with menopause are not a direct cause.
Fluctuating hormones during menopause do play an indirect role, however, because of mood changes and emotional stress. Therefore, menopause sugar cravings can be pretty intense, depending on how well you can manage your stress levels.
How to manage food cravings naturally
Good news: you can break the cycle of cravings by adopting some easy lifestyle modifications and without resorting to medication. Here are a few tips:
- Manage stress. Anxiety and stress underlie emotional eating and cravings. When we rein in stress, we also ease the food cravings. Practice stress management techniques, such as deep breathing, yoga, meditation, tai chi, and guided visualization to help keep stress under wraps.
- Get adequate sleep. Did you know that insufficient sleep promotes weight gain and food cravings? Adopt bedtime practices that promote sound sleep.
- Regular exercise. Daily physical activity, especially enjoyable exercises such as dancing, tennis, swimming, or aerobics, boosts endorphin levels and lowers your cravings.
- Stay busy. Boredom is one reason women give for eating when they’re not hungry. Keep a list of to-do items that can break you out of boredom eating. Call a friend, work on a hobby, take a walk, do puzzles—just don’t open that refrigerator or cupboard!
- Avoid processed foods. Refined, processed foods typically contain extra sugar, salt, and additives that promote cravings. Reach for all-natural foods such as fresh fruit and vegetables, raw nuts and seeds, whole grains, and beans and legumes. Foods that contain complex carbs are more satisfying and nutritious than sugary, simple carbs.
- Stay well hydrated. Pure water, infused water, coconut water, green and herbal teas not only curb cravings but also help you avoid sugary drinks and empty calories.
- Treat yourself. Just not too much. If you crave chocolate or potato chips, eat a moderate amount. Then immediately walk away and go do something enjoyable.
- Question your motives. Ask yourself, “Do I want these cookies because I’m bored or sad, or am I really hungry?” If the former, go take a walk, meditate, read a book, call a friend, or find something else to do. If you’re hungry, select a more nutrient-dense food.
- Don’t skip meals. When you skip meals, you may tend to crave unhealthy foods.
- Choose fruit. When you are in the mood for something sweet, pick up a piece of fruit. Bananas, apples, mangos, grapes, dates, and berries are all great sweet treats. The natural sugar will boost your blood sugar just a little and enough to satisfy your craving.
- Take probiotics. An imbalance of bacteria in your gut can boost the growth of bad bacteria, which can result in sugar cravings and digestive problems. The use of a daily probiotic supplement can help ward off these issues.
When to call your healthcare provider
Food cravings typically don’t require a doctor’s intervention. However, if you think you might benefit from some nutritional advice, consult with your healthcare provider or a nutritionist.
Food cravings can affect people at any stage of life. However, during perimenopause and the menopausal years, they may be especially intense. These cravings can usually be managed by making some lifestyle changes.