Over 50 & Struggling With Food Cravings? MD-Approved Ways To Manage Appetite
Do you ever find yourself watching the clock as it gets close to mealtimes? Are you often short-tempered, shaky, or hangry in the hour before a meal? Have you noticed your friends and family seem to dodge you three times a day and only come out of hiding after you've eaten?
This was me in the years leading up to menopause. I was 243 pounds, and I was hangry. If you can relate, you may be wondering, "Is this increase in appetite an effect of menopause, or is it my imagination?" And if it is a real thing, why does it happen in the first place?
In the beginning stages of menopause, your body undergoes a series of changes all at once. One common change that many women experience is a ravenous appetite. It doesn't matter how much you've eaten or exercised that day. You are hungry and you need food now. So, yes, menopause does influence our appetite. However, knowing that doesn't prevent late-night hunger pangs.
To stop the hanger, you need to understand why your body is reacting this way and what you can do about it.
What causes hunger during menopause?
Our appetite is controlled by a complex system of hormones, all of which need to be in balance to function. When your body is working well, you eat until you feel satisfied and the hunger "signal" turns off. But it's not always that simple. When your hormones are off-kilter, they wreak havoc on your appetite and hunger cues.
The sex hormones estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone fluctuate before, during, and after menopause. Two lesser-known hormones called ghrelin and leptin1 control the signals that tell our body whether we are hungry or full. These two hormones also undergo changes during menopause. Ghrelin2 originates in your stomach. It passes through the bloodstream and into the brain to signal that your stomach is empty and it's time to eat. We call this feeling hunger. Leptin3 does the opposite. It's made in your fat cells, and its primary job is to let your brain know when you've got plenty of fat available for fuel.
A 2009 study4 of 40 pre-, post-, and perimenopausal women found that the levels of ghrelin increased in some women during midlife, while at the same time, their levels of leptin declined. In other words, their hunger hormones shot up just as their "I've-eaten-enough" hormone levels went down.
This is part of the reason that many women gain weight during perimenopause and menopause5 and have a corresponding increased risk of stroke and heart disease6.
While it is not necessarily menopause that causes that weight gain, research suggests a correlation between hunger hormones and menopause. But that's not the whole story.
Cortisol and insulin: The untold hunger hormones.
Cortisol (a stress hormone) and insulin (a hormone that regulates blood sugar) can also contribute to midlife hunger pangs.
While they may not be directly associated with menopause, insulin and cortisol can become off-balance in midlife. Research shows that this, too, can contribute to an increase in appetite7. That wouldn't be so bad if you developed a craving for leafy green vegetables. Unfortunately, these cravings usually send us straight to the cookie jar as we look for easy-to-digest, simple carbohydrates.
Insulin and cortisol are like the bookend hormones that control blood sugar and stress. And unfortunately, in our modern Western society, most women have accumulated significant cortisol dysfunction8 by the time they reach midlife. What's more, because cortisol and insulin levels are not routinely checked in mainstream medicine, many doctors are unaware of the relationship between these hormones and appetite changes in midlife women. That makes it difficult for them to offer any meaningful help.
We often don't realize how unbalanced our hormones are until it becomes a problem. So we continue on the "stress train" of overwork and over-worry, both of which contribute to even higher cortisol levels and insulin resistance.
How I got off the blood sugar roller coaster.
Your body is desperate to protect itself from danger, so it attempts to balance out-of-control cortisol by having you consume more sugar. Of course, in the long run, this response is a short-term fix with disastrous long-term consequences.
I call this the blood sugar roller coaster, and I was on it when I weighed 243 lbs. I couldn't stop eating cakes, cookies, ice cream, chocolate—all the high-sugar, quick-carb junk. I should have known better. I did know better. Every day I told myself, "no sugar today," and every day I failed. The solution is to get off this amusement park ride once and for all. And don''t buy another ticket!
You may be thinking, it's all well and good to say that I want to get off of the roller coaster, but what can I do to make it a reality? Here are a few tips to naturally balance your ghrelin, leptin, insulin, and cortisol hormones to keep your appetite in check:
Make smart swaps at home.
Remove the sugary snacks from your kitchen cupboards, office drawer, handbag, and anywhere else you stash them. Replace them with nuts, seeds, avocado, dark chocolate, nut butter, berries, and other satisfying low-sugar foods.
Eat regular meals.
Eat regular meals every four to six hours and regular snacks as well. If you know you get "hangry" at 3 p.m. every day, plan to eat a satisfying lunch and have a healthy snack ready.
Fill your plate with protein, complex carbs, and healthy fats.
Protein provides the essential amino acids your body needs every day and keeps you feeling fuller for longer. Studies show that eating between 20 and 30 grams of protein at each meal suppresses ghrelin and increases your body's ability to burn fat9.
Practice mindful meal hygiene, and take your time while eating.
Instead of eating on the run, make mealtime an event. Sit down and stop working while you eat. Take several deep breaths in and out to amp up your vagus nerve, calm the mind, and aid with digestion.
Take your time when eating. Stop putting stress on your stomach by forcing it to deal with huge chunks of food. Chew each bite 30 times until it's virtually a liquid when you swallow. True, you'll have to concentrate on doing this, and it's bound to make mealtimes longer. But it will also make meals much easier for your digestive system and give you time to enjoy your food.
Avoid strenuous activity for at least 60 minutes after eating.
It takes time for your stomach to digest a meal, and exercising straight away can lead to poor digestion, bloating, and discomfort. Give your body time to start digesting in peace.
Avoid intermittent fasting as it may exacerbate your appetite initially.
While there are benefits to intermittent fasting, menopause may not be the best time to try it, especially if you're experiencing midlife hunger pangs. You may feel tempted by sugar if you leave too much time between meals during this stage of life.
Use nutraceuticals to stabilize blood sugars and balance hormones.
Get into HIIT and strength training.
Including one or two high-intensity interval training (HIIT) sessions into your weekly exercise routine will help balance insulin levels out and get off the blood sugar roller coaster. Add strength training to the mix, too. Strength training helps build muscle mass, stabilizes blood sugars and insulin10, and raises the resting metabolic rate11. The older you get, the more muscle mass you'll lose each year, so it's important to keep up with resistance training as you age.
Take time to relax.
Relaxation response exercises like meditation, deep breathing, and the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) calm your overstimulated mind and your nervous system. Taking time to relax, journal, and practice gratitude also reduces stress and lowers your cortisol levels over time.
If you find yourself ravenous either before, during, or after menopause, your hormones may be to blame. By making some simple lifestyle and food habit changes, you can balance the major metabolic hormones and regain control of your appetite and life.
Imagine going through your day so focused on your work that you forget to eat. You look up and it's an hour past lunchtime. Of course, you might be hungry, but it's not the first thing on your mind. Your friends and family will no longer have to hide from you at mealtimes, and you won't have to watch the clock to make sure the hanger doesn't take over. Envision the peace that will descend on your life when you hop off the blood sugar roller coaster at last.
Kyrin Dunston, M.D., FACOG, is a Board Certified OB/GYN with Fellowship training in Anti-Aging, Metabolic and Functional Medicine. She specializes in bioidentical hormones, gut restoration and anti-aging medicine.
Leading by example OBGYN Dr. Kyrin Dunston lost a life changing 100 pounds and healed herself from chronic disease using natural treatments. Now, she specializes in helping women heal, lose weight and regain energy at midlife naturally by treating the root cause in her digital clinic.
She hosts the weekly Her Brilliant Health Revolution podcast, the Her Brilliant Health Secrets YouTube channel, and the Stop the Menopause Madness Summit where 53 experts share their top strategies to lose weight, regain energy, balance hormones and moods, feel sexy and confident, look great and master midlife.