Food cravings and the desire to stop stress eating are very common for women in midlife into the golden years of retirement.
According to the American Psychological Association, 43% of women reported overeating or eating unhealthy food due to stress in the last month (and those were pre-pandemic numbers!).
While a common problem, most advice given to stop stress eating is flat out unhelpful…
Typical advice to stop stress eating includes:
- Don’t do it (easy for you to say, skinny male doctor, am I right?)
- Eat a healthy snack instead … which ends up being “in addition to”.
- Having more self-control, paying attention to what you’re eating, meal planning
- Try this pill, try this surgery
- Have more willpower
And while none of this advice is bad at face value, and certainly has a place in the right situations, none of it actually gets to the root of why you are experiencing the craving in the first place.
Where do food cravings come from?
For women in the peri and post-menopausal years, food cravings are most often caused by emotional eating and/or a cortisol imbalance.
How emotional eating causes food cravings:
When you eat you experience the neurotransmitter, dopamine, lighting up the reward and pleasure centers in your brain. Eating literally makes you feel good.
That same hedonistic pleasure can also give you a brief reprieve from uncomfortable or difficult emotions.
Have you ever been bored? It’s actually wildly uncomfortable. That’s why many of us gravitate to the kitchen in times of boredom – so we can feel good from eating instead of the discomfort of feeling.
In this way food allows you to repress difficult emotions. That is why many women struggling with anxiety, depression, grief, stress and other hard realities of life turn to food for comfort.
You get even more dopamine, and therefore motivation to eat, if food feels “forbidden”. This is why the age-old advice of “just eat a healthy snack” doesn’t work… because an apple doesn’t give you the same feeling of reward and pleasure when you eat.
Emotional eating causes food cravings when you start to experience uncomfortable feelings or feeling stressed, and your brain knows that eating would feel so much better.
And there are also hormonal factors involved in food cravings…
What is cortisol?
There is plenty of evidence that when the stress hormone cortisol is elevated it leads to eating larger quantities of junk food than when stress is low.
This is especially important for menopausal women to understand because research suggests that the menopausal years are some of the most stressful in a woman’s life due to demands of work, aging parents, grown children, health issues, etc.
But it’s not only psychological stress that leads to cortisol imbalance, and therefore food cravings.
Cortisol can be imbalanced by any of the following:
- Psychological stress
- The menopausal transition
- Poor sleep
- Blood sugar imbalance
- Inflammation in the body
- Dieting or skipping meals
If you struggle with any of the top cortisol imbalancers – click here to grab my free guide “Balance Hormones to Curb After Dinner Overeating without Willpower”.
Does Cortisol Make You Gain Weight?
Excess cortisol can push you into fat-storage mode resulting in weight gain, rather than fat-burning mode, where you want to be for weight loss. For my biology nerds out there, cortisol does this by stimulating the liver to create more energy, rather than tapping fat stores for energy.
So the calories you eat from food end up getting stored as more fat tissue.
Additionally, one of the actions of cortisol is to move fat from other parts of the body to the belly. There, the hormone sets up little cortisol- making factories, increasing it’s belly fat storage action. That’s why many people notice more storage in their abdomen during times of stress.
For example, this member shared how her weight loss continued as she relaxed on vacation (a time when many find weight loss difficult):
The Two Types of Cortisol Fueled Food Cravings
Cortisol imbalance also results in really intense food cravings, the hormonal imbalance is why you might feel addicted to food or addicted to sugar.
The first type of craving is what I call the Cookie Monster. It’s that feeling where you HAVE to gobble the cookies, you feel impulsive or compulsive, powerless to stop.
The second type of craving is the “devil on your shoulder” where you spend your days reasoning and talking yourself out of eating, but food is always on your mind.
You may experience either one or both of these, and either type of craving can lead to binge eating. These hormone-fueled cravings are also why willpower doesn’t work. You can’t say no to your hormones, they win every time.
What is stress eating?
Stress eating is when you get stressed and then eat… duh 😜. But by now you should understand that stress eating has both emotional and hormonal causes.
There is a reason a stressful day at work leads to ice cream in the evening. You eat in order to get a break from stress, and all the extra stress imbalances your cortisol levels, so you’re fighting the cookie monster in your mind and the devil on your shoulder at the same time.
Willpower is powerless against the forces of stress. So, it’s important to understand what is really to blame so you can stop stress eating.
Once this member of the Stress Less Weight Mastery addressed her hormonal imbalance and learned to care for her emotions without food, she was able to proudly proclaim this victory:
Get Your Free Guide to Balance Stress Hormones
If you want to stop stress eating and eliminate food cravings, click here to snag your guide so you can learn the most important daily routine you need to follow for hormone balance.
- The top nutritional focus for anyone who wants to avoid cortisol-fueled cravings and weight gain
- How to stop after-dinner grazing
- And more!
Click here to grab your guide so you can get started with a sane approach to feeling good in your body today.