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Dr Anne Henderson, Consultant Gynaecologist
Each month, you know it’s coming – before you can even consult your calendar, you feel hungry for chocolate, carbs and salt, letting you know your period is on its way.
Is it normal to get cravings on your period? Why do you crave certain foods on your period? Your body is crying out for certain comfort foods for both biological and psychological reasons, and sometimes even because of marketing. The most important thing you want to know is how to stop period cravings, to avoid taking in the estimated 500 additional calories per day.
In short, yes, it is. As usual, you have your hormones to thank for this. Premenstrual syndrome has more than 150 different symptoms, period food cravings being one of the most frequently reported. While 85 percent of women report experiencing symptoms of PMS, 97 percent of us have food cravings – which get stronger just before our periods begin.
Why do you get cravings on your period, certain foods in particular? Fluctuations in hormones affect your neurotransmitters, typically at the time that your egg is released during ovulation. Your body craves carbs, fat and sweets, so you reach for these high-calorie treats.
This is an attempt to boost the lower levels of serotonin currently being produced by your body. These feel-good hormones are also needed to combat any mood swings that make you feel blue at this time of the month.
The change in oestrogen and progesterone levels just before your period can make you crave carbohydrates and sugar. In addition to the previously listed reasons, some researchers believe appetite-controlling endogenous opioid peptides are more active during PMS. The link between oestrogen, insulin and blood sugar levels also affects your food cravings and subsequent weight gain. Declining oestrogen levels, during the run up to a menstrual bleed, can mimic the impact of menopause, leading to an increase in insulin resistance and blood sugar levels. Your body is trying to force blood sugar into the cells where energy is required. This can, in turn, have a secondary impact on appetite, food intake and weight gain, particularly around the midriff. Now you know why some women experience fluctuating weight during their menstrual cycle.
Eating regularly – or snacking – also helps to regulate our blood sugar levels, so we can remain balanced during this phase.
Food cravings are just one symptom of PMS. You can also expect to feel irritable, anxious, tense or sad – or a range of all of these on any given day.
Food is more than just fuel for our bodies. Our emotional attachment to food – thanks to memories or sugar highs – makes our relationship with certain foods deeper and harder to break.
While you may use some foods as an emotional crutch, cravings for other foods can actually be created in your cells and glands. For example, your driving need for chocolate can come from more than just an emotional attachment. The strong desire for sweet foods is driven by the energy required to replenish the lining of your uterus and remove the toxins built up there over the previous month; hence why sugar and carb cravings tend to be strongest during your period.
However, your cells also crave magnesium in the days following ovulation. Since cocoa beans contain high quantities of it, the desire to eat chocolate becomes much stronger. You can minimise your calorie intake by choosing dark chocolate over other varieties, since it contains less sugar, or by opting for oats, green vegetables or a supplement to get a greater dose of magnesium. Magnesium may also help with cramps, constipation, erratic sleep, anxiety or headaches.
Your safest bet is to remove high-calorie foods from your home in the run-up to your period; then you will be more likely to find a healthier substitute without obsessing over the sweetest, richest thing you can find in the cupboard. If you need a hit of sugar, try a sweet piece of fruit to tide you over.
After sweets, the most common craving listed is salt. As your hormones fluctuate, your adrenal glands work harder to regulate them. They need more minerals – including salt – to keep pace. To feed this need without bingeing on crisps, use sea salt in your cooking and eat seafood or water-rich vegetables. Stay away from refined salt, canned goods or other packaged foods.
It is also important to eat a breakfast rich in protein, such as eggs, to make you feel fuller during the first half of the day. Follow your natural cues and eat when you are hungry, without overdoing it. By eating healthy proteins and fats in the run-up to your period, you will be less likely to binge when your hormones change.
Firstly, recognise that the cravings will come and build your resolve – and your stash of healthy alternatives. Commit to getting regular exercise by scheduling time with friends – meet them at the gym or for a walk to get away from your kitchen cupboards.
Here are some tips to help you ride this out:
Now is not the time to watch that Netflix series about the lonely woman who cannot find love and seeks solace in a bucket of ice cream. TV shows can also plant the seed that we need to soothe our emotions with unhealthy foods, but we need to stay away from such influences at this time of the month.
Drinking six to 10 glasses of water per day also helps to keep minerals flowing to where they are needed, so drink up!
Disclaimer: This information aims to answer some of your questions or concerns. If you are worried about your health, talk to your family doctor or your gynecologist for professional medical advice.