When you think of a person at risk for developing an eating disorder or disordered eating, what comes to mind?
For many people, it is often the image of a teenager struggling to adjust to puberty and everything that comes with that. It’s true that adolescence is a time of vulnerability to developing fraught relationships with food and with one’s body, but so is midlife. If you’re currently in menopause, renewing your relationship to food now is worth it.
How Our Relationships to Food Change During Menopause
“Menopause is essentially the opposite of puberty, so just as teenage girls might attempt to regain a sense of control through food or through attempting to control their changing bodies, perimenopausal women are similarly at risk,” says dietitian and behavior change nutrition coach Debra Waldoks. “And the risks of eating disorders, whether restricting food or bingeing food, come with a possibly greater risk to an older body.”
During menopause, significant hormonal changes and societal pressures can cause disordered eating behaviors to resurface from younger years or even develop for the first time. Sometimes, menopause can trigger full-blown relapse.
“Menopause is a prime time for women to relapse or develop an eating disorder for the first time due to changes they are seeing in their bodies and feeling like it's out of their control,” Waldoks says. “It also comes at a time of life changes, transitions, and possibly uncertainty whether they are single, or dealing with children getting older or moving out, or helping aging parents.”
The main hormonal shift in menopause is a decrease in estrogen, which leads to metabolic changes. These changes can include weight gain and changes in cravings, appetite, and hunger and fullness cues, “making it difficult for some women to identify when they are full or need to eat,” says registered dietitian Jennifer Gilliland. “Menopause may exacerbate mental health issues like anxiety and depression, which can complicate how a woman approaches her food choices.”
Additionally, our greater society’s demonization of the aging process can make diet culture solutions more appealing. (Read more about how to find body neutrality in the aging process.) “Women also might try things that are not meant to help in the long run and certainly are not healthy for perimenopausal women, such as low-carb diets, tracking calories, intermittent fasting, paleo, and keto,” Waldoks says.
Instead, you can step into your power, choose to create a peaceful relationship with food, and take care of your earth suit for the rest of your time here.
“Perimenopause is an amazing time for women to finally develop a peaceful relationship with food so they can fully enjoy their second half of life,” Waldoks shares.
Try intuitive and mindful eating practices.
Intuitive eating is about returning home to the body, and eventually trusting it—not the latest diet trend—to guide your food decisions. If you are dieting or restricting food, the first step to intuitive eating is always letting that go. “It is very helpful to stop trying various fad diets and extreme measures to lose weight and find healthy and realistic ways to live a healthier lifestyle,” Waldoks says.
Then, you can start slowing down enough around mealtimes to connect with your body’s hunger and fullness cues and identify patterns regarding how different foods and food combinations influence your energy, mood, and wellbeing. (If you have trouble slowing down and regulating yourself, read here.)
Additionally, compassionately notice when or if you eat without feeling physical hunger (provided you have already eaten adequately), which is often an indicator of an emotional hunger or need that is not being met. Use it as a doorway into fulfilling your non-food needs and keep in mind that emotional eating just happens sometimes, and that’s okay.
The most important factor in developing a healthy relationship to food is to “make decisions based on wisdom, not fear of food,” according to Waldoks. “That is what empowers women at this stage of life: finally understanding their bodies and their thought process with food.”
Take inventory of your food beliefs.
By the time you reach menopause, your brain has multiple decades worth of conditioning. If you have not yet done the work to take stock and let go of toxic beliefs and thought patterns, the time is now.
“It can be helpful for women to understand their thoughts around food and their bodies and where those thoughts came from and replace them with healthier thoughts,” Waldoks says. “A lot of what women think is healthy can actually be damaging to their body and their relationship with food, so it's helpful to understand that there is a lot of un-learning that might need to happen and to have an open mind.”
Redefine your unique definition of health.
Once you take inventory and build awareness of food beliefs and thoughts which no longer serve you, consider which ones do. “Understanding what is really important to [women] when it comes to their health and living in alignment with their values will also help them develop a better relationship with food,” Waldoks shares.
Consider your top core values and what health means to you at this point in your life. Remember to take your whole being into account—mind, body, and spirit. From there, you can decide which of your thoughts and beliefs around food can stay, and which ones you can let go.
Seek professional resources and support.
Try a supportive resource for healing relationships to food, learning how to eat intuitively, and releasing unhealthy food beliefs, such as the Intuitive Eating Workbook. Consider working with an intuitive eating dietitian or a therapist with menopausal client experience. “Support is critical to achieving and [maintaining] a more positive relationship to food,” Gilliland says. “A professional will be able to create an individualized plan tailored specifically for you that focuses on your unique needs and goals.”
Gilliland reiterates the fact that eating disorders can develop or worsen during menopause: “It is important to seek help if you feel that your relationship with food is becoming unmanageable.”
If you are struggling with an ED, you can call the toll-free, confidential NEDA Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.
Read more about lovingly managing weight fluctuations.