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How to Decode Your Cravings in Menopause

emotional eating emotional hunger menopause midlife self-care

If you feel like food cravings are straight-up hijacking your brain in menopause, you’re not wrong. Menopause often amplifies cravings due to hormonal changes. But the truth is that cravings are a universal experience, especially during emotionally charged times. It's important to know that cravings are normal and often linked to past food experiences. Emotional eating isn’t a problem but can feel uncomfortable when it feels out of control and brings feelings of blame and shame.


Understanding the three different types of hunger is a helpful place to start. Physical hunger is a straightforward need for fuel, taste hunger is triggered by thoughts of delicious food, and emotional hunger arises from stress and the need for comfort. When you can learn to differentiate between these types of hunger, you can manage your cravings with more confidence too. 

Menopause symptoms like sleep deprivation, mood swings, and hot flashes can create emotional hunger, leading to cravings for quick energy sources like sugar and carbs. I always encourage the practice of "pressing pause without saying no". This simply means you are taking a moment to understand the craving’s root before acting on it. For example, if you crave something sweet in the evening, pause to ask yourself if it’s because you’re tired, stressed, or seeking comfort. 

I also dispel the myth that certain foods, like sugar, create cravings. The real cause is the restriction of these foods that intensify cravings, creating a cycle of craving and indulgence. Normalizing access to foods you love and discovering ways to add them to your plate reduces cravings' intensity and helps you build a healthier relationship with food.

The last element of managing your cravings in menopause is the practice of self-compassion and removing judgment. Recognizing that everyone has cravings and emotional hunger can reduce the blame and shame often associated with emotional eating. Cravings also find a way of striking when we are alone. Try to look at these moments as opportunities for self-care. These cravings often stem from a need for pleasure and relaxation during busy or stressful times.

So the next time a craving hits, take a minute to press pause and even write down what you come up with. I’d love to hear what you learn about yourself! And if you’re looking for more support to heal your relationship with food and your body, come join the Midlife Feast Community where we all relate to the cheers and challenges of Midlife!


Jenn Salib Huber: 0:00
Hi and welcome to the Midlife Feast, the podcast for women who are hungry for more in this season of life. I'm your host, dr Jen Salib-Huber. I'm an intuitive eating dietitian and naturopathic doctor and I help women manage menopause without dieting and food rules. Come to my table, listen and learn from me trusted guest experts in women's health and interviews with women just like you. Each episode brings to the table juicy conversations designed to help you feast on midlife.

And if you're looking for more information about menopause, nutrition and intuitive eating, check out the midlife feast community, my monthly membership that combines my no nonsense approach that you all love to nutrition with community, so that you can learn from me and others who can relate to the cheers and challenges of midlife.

All right, hey friends, it has been a while since I have been recording a solo podcast. I'm going to try not to be too spacey. I'm kind of still mentally recovering from this big project that I've been working on More to come on that later in the year but I'm still kind of just feeling like my brain is recovering, so hopefully you can follow me. But this is an episode that I've been really kind of planning but also excited to do because the topic of emotional eating and emotional hunger and cravings specifically, is one that is important because we're going to normalize why everyone gets cravings and why everyone is a bit of an emotional eater. But I think it's also important because wellness culture and diet culture really love to hone in on solutions about what you can do to cut your cravings.

And there's a lot of blaming of menopause and blaming of hormone changes, and we're going to dig into, you know, kind of what do we actually know about cravings and hormone changes and, more importantly, trying to give you some ideas, I guess a framework for how you can start to decode your cravings, especially the really, really common ones like snacking at night, craving things while you're working on something, wanting something crunchy, all of those things that you know all of you have pretty much sent me questions about over the years.

So, and when you send me a question just so you know, because I do love it when people send me questions and ideas I have a little file and I just put them into the file so that know that your suggestions, your questions, your comments, your feedback, I use them. I use them all. So please do send them to me. And there's a new little feature on the podcast, especially if you're listening through Buzz Pro, which is where I host my podcast that you can actually send me a little text message. You can send me a text message with a question or a comment and I will get back to you. So how fun is that.

Understanding Emotional Cravings

Anyway, getting back to cravings, see, I told you I'm a little bit scattered, still do I'm a little bit scattered still, okay? So one of the first questions that people ask is why have my cravings become so intense? Is it menopause? Is it my hormones? And what can I do about it? So let's back up a little bit and talk about what is a craving.

So cravings are just this really intense desire, usually for something specific, comes on quickly, sometimes out of the blue, and hijacks our brain. At least, that's what it feels like for me. So when I get something in my head ooh, I want that, especially when it's accompanied by a strong feeling, which we're going to talk about in a sec it is really hard to ignore. And this is where it sometimes feels like the craving, or the thoughts about the craving, just take over your brain.

It all of a sudden jumps into the driver's seat and you're taken for a ride. So cravings are normal. So I do think it's important to normal so cravings are normal. So I do think it's important to normalize that cravings are normal. I don't think you can find a person on the planet who has not experienced a craving for something, especially if it's something that you have eaten in the past that you find enjoyable, pleasurable, that your brain has a nice, warm, fuzzy, positive memory about. Or and this is important too it doesn't have to be like a happy memory, so it's not necessarily like oh, I want ice cream because I remember eating ice cream in the summer with my family.

It can also be that your brain remembers eating something in a moment of intense negative emotion or feelings and remembers feeling some comfort from that. So that laying down of association between I feel bad and I eat something and I feel good is a normal thing. Your brain does that all the time, and with emotional eating, though, it can sometimes feel like it's no longer a healthy or even useful response, and this is often where people will say I've always been an emotional eater, but now I feel like my cravings and my emotional eating is completely out of control.

So I do want to normalize that. Everybody has cravings and everyone is an emotional eater to a certain extent. So emotional hunger, emotional eating, is just this strong, intense desire to eat for reasons other than physical hunger, which is basically a craving. So if you are a human, you are an emotional eater, but that doesn't necessarily mean that emotional eating is a problem for you. And the first step in any discussion of cravings and any discussion of emotional hunger and emotional eating is to remove the blame, the shame and the judgment, because that creates more negative emotion.

So when I'm working with people, I'll say to them I want to understand the feelings, thoughts and emotions that happened before or during the craving. But I'm equally interested in understanding how you think or speak to yourself after the emotional eating. Because if you immediately get into blame, shame, what have I done? Can't believe I'm here again, why can't I stop this? That creates more emotional hunger. So any relief that you might feel from okay, I'm going to do something about this is short-lived. That you might feel from okay, I'm going to do something about this is short-lived, okay. So let's take a little side detour here it's just a short one, I promise and talk about the different types of hunger.

The Different Types of Hunger

So the first is physical hunger. We've all experienced physical hunger. This is when your stomach starts to growl. You might start to feel a little bit tired. If you get too hungry, you might get hangry. I get a headache. If I get too hungry, I also get super cranky and short and impatient. So everybody's experienced physical hunger. The only solution to physical hunger is to eat. We can also experience taste hunger, which is your mouth watering just at the thought of eating something. So think about eating a delicious pastry from a fresh bakery.

Or maybe it's your grandma's cookies, maybe it's your mom's lasagna. Whatever it is, this is the. I just have to think about it and I want it. And sometimes I like to think of taste hunger as actually being a barometer to satisfaction, because it helps us to connect with what we like, what we want, and that actually does help us to choose foods that are satisfying. But the last type of hunger is emotional hunger.

So emotional hunger is the underlying driver of emotional eating responses. But I actually don't like using the term emotional eating all that often, because it focuses us on the outcome, which is the eating, and makes that the problem that we try and fix eating, and makes that the problem that we try and fix, but what we actually want to do is dig into what is at the root of this emotional hunger. What are the strong feelings and thoughts that are maybe on repeat, that maybe pop up, maybe show up when you are in a low capacity time of life that really drive what we call a craving?

So I'm going to share an example that somebody sent me a couple of weeks ago. So somebody said I'm not dieting anymore, I'm doing what you say. I'm eating intuitively, I'm eating when I'm hungry, I'm eating regularly, I'm doing all the quote, unquote right things, but I still have a lot of emotional hunger in the evenings, especially around seven o'clock, and the challenge that they're experiencing is that they still have a few hours to go until bedtime. So it's not so much that they don't want to respond to it, but they feel like it is just constant from seven o'clock until 10 o'clock, which is when they go to bed. So they're trying to figure out well, what can I do differently that will either stop that emotional hunger change or how do I respond to it.

Why Diet Culture Confuses Us

So I diet? Culture and wellness culture would tell you just to ignore it, right? Oh, it's just a craving. If you're not hungry, you should just ignore it, don't give into it. Or if you're craving something sweet, have some fruit. You know, like all of these tricks that we've been taught over the years, and what I, what intuitive eating it's not just me, but what intuitive eating really encourages us to do is to press pause without saying no. So key, to press pause and say why. And that might seem obvious, it might seem simple, but it is not easy in the moment, especially if this pattern of responding to this emotional hunger at a certain time is a well-worn path. So, in this case, her brain, at seven o'clock, that signaled, like the end of her work day, as it were, and the lead up until bedtime, which was kind of like a cue, that okay, we can relax now, all the things that need to be done have been done and now we can relax.

And when our brains are experiencing this desire for relaxation, pleasure, joy, satisfaction, they want to speed, run it. They're really impatient, they're just like how do I get to this place of feeling relaxed and calm and, you know, satisfied and all those things? And because our brain is really good at making connections, it will, you know, just dive in and say, yep, we want this and this and this, and the minute you think about saying no, your brain doubles down on it. So learning to press pause without it feeling like you're saying no and without judgment and without trying to stop it, is a skill.

So I'm not going to pretend like it's super easy. It's also very doable and not difficult, but is a bit easier, I think, with some guidance and support. But so that's just kind of an example of how the cravings often show up in midlife and show up at predictable times, and so you might think that it's the eating, the, what you choose, at seven o'clock, for example, that you need to focus on, but you really need to come back and say no, wait a minute, what else is going on? We're going to come back to this at the end, so I'm going to give you a few more examples of how to decode things. But so we've talked about cravings, we've talked about the different types of hunger, so let's talk about menopause.

How Menopause Hormones Play A Part in Cravings

Does menopause and perimenopause and all of the changes that we're experiencing have an effect? So it's an interesting question. It's a great question. We don't have enough research to say for sure what's happening, but I'm going to kind of give you a little bit of what we know, and then I'm going to give you some of my ideas. So we have menstrual cycle research, so people who are still having menstrual cycles, and we do know that estrogen levels, when they're higher in the first half of the cycle, may have an impact on reducing appetite, or at least not stimulating appetite, and progesterone levels may increase appetite. So there does seem to be that hormonal correlation. I have not seen any research looking at menopausal hormone therapy or people who are no longer cycling, but it may be out there and if you know of it, please do share it with me.

But there's another thing that's happening in menopause that I can almost almost guarantee is having an impact, and that is the symptoms that you're experiencing. So let's think about not getting enough sleep, for example. So not getting enough sleep, we know, increases our interest and cravings in quick energy so sugar and carbohydrates, increases our interest in eating, because eating is stimulating, helps us to stay awake and also being sleep deprived is uncomfortable. It sucks to try and make it through your day, especially if you're having to think and do things when you're tired and not sleeping well. I spent years in perimenopause not sleeping well and I spent years with lots of cravings because of it. So we do know that there's that association.

What about the discomfort caused by hot flashes? You know that can create that. Just the discomfort can create emotional hunger. What about the mood swings, right? And if you're dieting or if you're restricting, and especially if you're restricting access to foods that you enjoy, that you find filling and satisfying and tasty, and all those things that may also be creating craving? Because that is the most important thing that I'm going to say in this whole podcast. So if you don't listen after this, just know that you'll have gotten what I think, anyway, is the most important message, which is that foods do not create craving. It is the behavior of restriction that creates craving.

So I'm going to say that again Foods do not create craving, including sugar, and I'll come back to that. The behavior of restricting creates the craving. So practically what that means is that if you have been blaming sugar, chocolate chips as the cause of your cravings and not allowing yourself access to them, that is likely increasing the intensity of cravings that you're experiencing for those foods. The sugar question comes up a lot.

Why Sugar is Not the Problem

I've answered this many, many times in many different ways on Instagram, on I don't know if I don't think I've tackled it specifically on the podcast, it's definitely been in my newsletters. Anybody who works with me, anybody in the midlife feast community. We have all kinds of resources for this. But sugar is not an addictive substance in the way that drugs are. So if you are someone who has a substance problem with alcohol or other drugs or even prescription medication, sometimes you can experience craving from withdrawal.

That is very, very, very, very different than the cravings we experience with food, and the research the vast majority of research does not point to food specific factors. So meaning like the ingestion of sugar creating craving when you don't have sugar, so the withdrawal the vast majority of research does not indicate that, and that makes sense because sugar is ultimately broken down to glucose and glucose is our brain and body's preferred fuel. So it doesn't really make sense that we could become addicted to something in the sense of what we would consider addiction for drugs or alcohol, to something that we need to survive.

We know this because people don't experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop having it or their access to it is restricted. You may experience psychological, intense cravings, but you're not experiencing the physical withdrawal that we see with other substances, and that's a key factor in understanding the possibility of a physiological addiction to something is does it create withdrawal symptoms when access is removed? So I'm not going to go any more into that but, as always, send me questions if you have questions and I can point you to some resources that talk about that. But it really is the behavior of restriction.

So this loop that I often see women in midlife kind of stuck in is, oh my goodness, perimenopause or menopause is really driving my cravings. It's making me feel completely crazy and out of control. I just have to cut these foods out of my life, monday to Friday usually, and then come Friday, saturday, sunday, it just feels impossible or it feels like it's creating so much food, noise and requiring so much mental energy that it becomes exhausting and the exhaustion creates emotional hunger. So we know that hormones estrogen and progesterone do in cycling.

People impact estrogen and progesterone mildly. I wouldn't say that they're primary drivers at all because that is driven primarily by the need for fuel. So hormones like insulin, that whole cascade of things that happens when we need a refueling. So estrogen and progesterone are likely influences but they're not primary drivers and we don't really have enough data to understand, kind of what happens to those influences when we hit post-menopause and everything is just stable.

The Question to Ask Yourself During a Craving

But it is very likely, in my opinion, that the roller coaster of perimenopause and menopause and all of the symptoms that come with it are absolutely potential drivers of cravings and emotional hunger. So hopefully that's clear. But when it comes to understanding, okay, what are you experiencing and how can you press pause, as I've been talking about first, is to have this kind of top level observation of when am I experiencing these cravings? Is it time of day, like the person I was talking about earlier who, at seven o'clock every night. Is it a certain day of the week?

Is it the weekend? Is it Friday night? Is it date night? Is it whatever? It is Date night's another one. People will often say oh yeah, my husband and I, my partner and I, we've been doing date night for a while now and it always just feels like I'm craving all the things I want, all the pleasure on that date night. And that's a really common thing, that when we restrict access to foods that we enjoy, so having them on days other than date night, when we don't do that, so when we restrict the access, but then we have certain days or events where we will allow ourselves to access, that also amplifies the craving. So that's kind of where the work of permission comes in.

Why Permission is Key to Intuitive Eating

So having permission to enjoy foods that you enjoy, that you like the taste of, that are fun and tasty to eat, normalizing access to those on a regular basis helps to reduce the intensity of the craving when you do experience, when you do give yourself permission to eat them. So evening cravings, weekend cravings are another one, often because of schedule changes, busyness, life, all those kinds of things. But another one that I wanted to talk about and kind of end on was this craving for certain foods when we're alone, and people often share this one with me with a lot of shame. You know they'll say I'm such a good eater but I just can't trust myself.

The minute that I'm in the grocery store by myself or I'm in the car by myself, there's this intense craving for fun food chocolate bars at the cash register, drive-thrus, those kinds of things. So if we're pressing pause and we're staying out of the judgment and the shame space of decoding our cravings, the first question is what's going on? Are you tired? Are you stressed? Is it the only time that you have to yourself where you're not busy meeting other people's needs. If so, that is the root of your craving, and it's just circumstance that it happens to be. Whatever it is that you choose to eat, it's not the food itself and it's not even those specific foods it is.

You're craving a moment of pleasure. You're craving a moment of doing something for yourself, of feeling like it's a treat, and that is a totally normal thing. I can't say that enough. Craving a moment of pleasure when you are busy, stressed, tired, mad, sad, angry all of those things is normal. Learning to press pause allows you to think about and observe and be curious without judgment and to see if there's maybe something else that you can access through understanding your emotional hunger, understanding your responses and trying on different ways of responding in those moments where we do still want food as an option, because we don't want to get into the whole mess of restricting right, we don't want to restrict access to foods that we find enjoyable, but we don't want to say only yes in those moments. So I describe it as the difference between saying yes and and yes only so. I'm going to give you an example from from my life.

Practical Examples of Self-Care and Permission

So usually my day kind of ends about 3.30 my time. My kids get home at 4.30 and then kind of the evening of just supper and homework and all those things you know kind of rushes in to the day. Once the three of them come through the door, there's really no moment to press pause most of the time. So what I do is at 3.30, I make sure that I have that break built into my day. I will check in and I'll say, okay, how am I feeling, what do I want? And I will really make sure that between 3.30 and 4, 4.15, I'm doing something just for me. I'm making a cup of tea. I might have a snack with that, I may not. I like to do the New York Times crossword puzzles and all those games, wordles, all that stuff, and I will try and save those sometimes for the afternoon.

I like to read, so I'll have a book. If it's really nice out, I might get out for a walk. But I always try and insert a moment of self-care that is based on attunement and what do I need in this moment. And I can't tell you the difference that it makes just by acknowledging that I can't go 12 hours between work and meeting, you know, helping my family and all that kind of stuff without needing to insert a moment of self-care. And so understanding that and also recognizing that food is an opportunity for pleasure during the day right, and also recognizing that food is an opportunity for pleasure during the day right, so you can see your meals as an opportunity to insert pleasure and satisfaction, which is the best prevention for emotional hunger that you can access.

So I hope that I've given you a bit of insight into what is a craving, what is emotional eating, why looking at it as emotional hunger is going to be a more effective way of changing that reactive eating pattern, and also how. We have to have self-compassion. We have to recognize that we can't ignore emotional hunger. We have to respond to it. It is still a valid type of hunger and there will be times when food is the most accessible option to you, and I try and have gratitude for food in those moments. But food isn't usually the only one and it's not always the best or most appropriate for the need that I'm experiencing at the moment.

So let me know if you have any questions about that. I would love to hear your feedback and if you're looking for support, you can find that roadmap anytime by joining the Midlife Feast community. All right, have a great day everyone. Thanks for tuning in to this week's episode of the midlife feast. For more non diet, health, hormone and general midlife support, click the link in the show notes to learn how you can work and learn from me. And if you enjoyed this episode and found it helpful, please consider leaving a review or subscribing, because it helps other women just like you find us and feel supported in midlife.


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