How Menopause Can Impact Your Relationship With Food

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This article was written by Associate Registered Nutritionist (ANutr) Sophie Gastman, and reviewed by Registered Dietitian Maeve Hanan.


Menopause is the natural biological process that marks the end of a woman’s reproductive years. Typically occurring between the ages of 45 and 55, although it can begin earlier, menopause is defined as the absence of menstruation for 12 consecutive months. While the conversation around menopause is not as pervasive as it should be, it is often associated with its impact on physical and emotional wellbeing, highlighted by common symptoms like hot flashes and mood swings. Yet, amidst these discussions, understanding how menopause can influence a woman’s relationship with food is often a neglected topic.

This article will delve deeper into the various ways menopause can affect a woman’s relationship with food, from exploring the hormonal changes that underpin these shifts to discussing the impact of weight gain and body image. 

Hormonal Changes & Appetite 

As discussed in previous articles, our hormones have the ability to alter our appetite, swinging it from intense hunger to complete disinterest. During perimenopause (the transitional period before menopause), estrogen levels will fluctuate before they gradually start to decline (1). 

Because estrogen is known to suppress appetite, once levels begin to fall, it may lose this effect (2). 

Ghrelin and leptin, another duo of hormones that regulate hunger, are also impacted by menopause. Ghrelin is the hormone that signals to your body that it’s time to eat, whereas leptin signals to your body that it’s full and satisfied, so changes to these hormones during menopause can have an impact on appetite, which subsequently may affect your relationship with food.

A study of 40 women during different stages of the menopause transition found that for some women, levels of ghrelin increased whilst their leptin levels decreased (3), potentially contributing to a diminished sense of fullness. 

Menopause also brings about a rise in cortisol, the stress hormone (4). Higher levels of cortisol have been associated with heightened appetite and more specifically, increased cravings for highly palatable foods, such as those high in fat, sugar and salt (5). 

These findings highlight the potential impact menopause has on the delicate equilibrium between our hunger hormones and therefore appetite regulation. As a consequence, these hormonal shifts can influence an individuals feelings of hunger and fullness, which in some cases could impact food preoccupation or increase the likelihood of binge eating (6).

Weight Gain & Body Image

Many women are concerned about weight gain is during menopause due to changes to their body and weight distribution. This happens for a number of reasons, such as simply aging, a change in lifestyle, for example, lower activity levels and different dietary choices, as well as the hormonal fluctuations mentioned above.

The decrease in estrogen levels, in particular play a role in changing body fat composition, causing more fat to be stored around the abdomen (7). This change in shape can give rise to a whirlwind of emotions – frustration, self-consciousness and a negative perception of self.

Society’s unrelenting expectations of women’s bodies only adds fuel to the fire, and can further complicate their relationship with food, weight and body image.

For example, a systematic review of body dissatisfaction in middle-aged women found approximately 80% report being dissatisfied with their body, 76% were preoccupied with a desire to be thinner and 30% were fearful of becoming ‘too fat’ (8).  

Whilst it can be challenging, embracing a positive body image during this phase in life is key to fostering an ongoing healthy relationship with food. Practicing self-acceptance in a way that works for you and reminding yourself that bodies naturally change over time can help shift the focus from external appearance to overall well being. Allowing time for self-care activities, such as joyful movement, yoga or cultivating supportive relationships will also help to develop a stronger and more positive mindset around body image.

And because body image issues are often complex and deeply rooted in past experiences, support from a mental health professional or body image expert can be needed.

Emotional Eating & Mood Swings

Another way in which menopause can impact your relationship with food and eating habits is through its impact on mood. Mood swings and anxiety are common symptoms of menopause and can lead to behaviours like emotional eating, where food is used as a way to manage stress or negative emotions (9).

It can feel like a vicious cycle as research has also suggested that decreases in estrogen are linked to increases in eating in response to emotion and stress (10). 

For more tips on how to manage emotional eating check out this article on Binge and Emotional Eating at Night

Menopause and Disordered Eating 

Considering menopause is a key life stage or transitional period for women, it might not be surprising that that many women turn to dieting, and some may even develop an eating disorder, or find past eating disorder symptoms resurface to cope with the change.

In addition to this, menopause frequently coincides with other significant life changes such as children leaving home or taking care of elderly parents. These experiences alone can be challenging and disruptive enough, but alongside dealing with symptoms of menopause, can cause quite the upheaval to an individual’s lifestyle or routine.

In the midst of these transitions, some women may find themselves developing eating disorders or engaging in disordered eating as a misguided attempt to create a sense of stability and control in the uncertainties surrounding them.

For example, one review of research around body image in adult women found that 56% of women felt it was acceptable to restrict food intake to prevent weight gain (11). Whilst on the surface restricting food intake can be an attempt to prevent weight gain, it is also often driven by the need for control as restriction becomes a way to regain a sense of power.

The act of dieting is also harmful for most people’s relationship with food as it adds rules, restrictions and shame to eating, and takes you away from responding to your body’s hunger, fullness and satisfaction signals. 

It’s important to understand that the motivations behind restrictive eating during menopause can be intertwined with the desire for control over one’s body and emotions, and not solely based on a desire for weight loss. 

Conclusion 

Going through menopause is a physically and emotionally challenging period in a woman’s life, which can significantly impact on their relationship with food.

Hormonal fluctuations, particularly changes in estrogen levels, can affect appetite and cravings, while weight gain in our thin-obsessed society can lead to low self-esteem and negative body image.

It’s also important to be mindful that emotional eating and disordered eating behaviours can emerge as coping mechanisms to deal with the change that this period of life brings. 

If you are experiencing difficulties surrounding your relationship with food and menopause, then it is important to seek support from a GP, therapist and/or registered dietitian. You can find information about our support services here. 

References 

  1. Buckler, H. (2005) ‘The menopause transition: Endocrine changes and clinical symptoms’, British Menopause Society Journal, 11(2), pp. 61–65. doi:10.1258/136218005775544525. 
  2. Hirschberg, A.L. (2012) ‘Sex hormones, appetite and eating behaviour in women’, Maturitas, 71(3), pp. 248–256. doi:10.1016/j.maturitas.2011.12.016. 
  3. Sowers, M.R. et al. (2008) ‘Change in adipocytokines and ghrelin with Menopause’, Maturitas, 59(2), pp. 149–157. doi:10.1016/j.maturitas.2007.12.006. 
  4. Woods, N.F., Mitchell, E.S. and Smith-DiJulio, K. (2009) ‘Cortisol levels during the menopausal transition and early postmenopause’, Menopause, 16(4), pp. 708–718. doi:10.1097/gme.0b013e318198d6b2. 
  5. Sinha, R. et al. (2019) ‘Food craving, cortisol and ghrelin responses in modeling highly palatable snack intake in the laboratory’, Physiology & Behavior, 208, p. 112563. doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2019.112563. 
  6. Buckler, H. (2005) ‘The menopause transition: Endocrine changes and clinical symptoms’, British Menopause Society Journal, 11(2), pp. 61–65. doi:10.1258/136218005775544525. 
  7. Kodoth, V., Scaccia, S. and Aggarwal, B. (2022) ‘Adverse changes in body composition during the menopausal transition and relation to cardiovascular risk: A contemporary review’, Women’s Health Reports, 3(1), pp. 573–581. doi:10.1089/whr.2021.0119. 
  8. Marshall, C., Lengyel, C. and Utioh, A. (2012) ‘Body dissatisfaction: Among middle-aged and older women’, Canadian Journal of Dietetic Practice and Research, 73(2). doi:10.3148/73.2.2012.e241. 
  9. Schreiber, D.R. and Dautovich, N.D. (2017) ‘Depressive symptoms and weight in midlife women: The role of stress eating and menopause status’, Menopause, 24(10), pp. 1190–1199. doi:10.1097/gme.0000000000000897. 
  10. Klump, K.L. et al. (2008) ‘Ovarian hormones and binge eating: Exploring Associations in community samples’, Psychological Medicine, 38(12), pp. 1749–1757. doi:10.1017/s0033291708002997. 
  11. Kilpela, L.S. et al. (2015) ‘Body image in adult women: Moving beyond the younger years’, Advances in Eating Disorders, 3(2), pp. 144–164. doi:10.1080/21662630.2015.1012728. 

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