Today’s blog post will answer a question that comes up frequently for women and was recently posted by one of the members of the Youtrition community:
“The beginning of the week was fabulous, until I had a visit from aunt flow. I want to eat everything and kill everyone. I had M&M’s with my breakfast. What do you do to overcome food cravings on your menstrual cycle? I do fine the rest of the month. My cravings are so strong I give in every time. I get so bloated (like 10-15lbs) my clothes don’t fit me and I just don’t care about being healthy any more. This usually lasts for about a week after my cycle.”
This is an excellent question, and here’s my answer:
The female body is miraculous. Each month, we have the opportunity to grow a new human inside of us…it’s kinda crazy to think about. And if we don’t grow the human, our uterus punishes us to the tune of cramps, mood swings, and cravings. In my work with clients, this is a frustration that comes up. My clients will start eating well, listening to their bodies, and BAM! Those cravings hit like a ton of Hershey’s kisses, leading many to seek refuge in a pint of Ben and Jerry’s.
I know you want to take good care of your body and do what’s best for you, and sometimes our brains can tell us to “eat all the chocolate” when we know our bodies really wouldn’t benefit from it. Yet it’s hard to want to say no when those cravings are staring us in the face. So let’s talk about why this happens and what we can do about it, without actually eating all the chocolate or feeling deprived.
What’s the deal with period cravings?
Research shows that across the board, women have higher rates of binge eating and emotional eating during the premenstrual period than the rest of the month. This includes both those with an eating disorder, and those who do not have an eating disorder. (note, if you have an eating disorder, here’s how you can get help.)
These symptoms are related to our levels of estrogen and progesterone. Just before aunt flow visits, our estrogen levels dip and our progesterone levels rise.
It is during this time, when progesterone levels are higher than estrogen that we find ourselves wanting to sit down with a spoon and a tub of chunky monkey, and eat the entire tub while watching OITNB. A few things happen that make us more likely to overeat uncontrollably.
1) The reward circuitry in our brain is enhanced. Brain imaging studies show that the female brain gets more of a dopamine rush from both drugs and money during this time of the month, so it’s likely that high fat and high sugar foods create more reward as well, leading to the “want more” effect.
2) We are more emotionally charged. That’s right, sisters, our brain is wired to be more responsive to both positive and negative emotions during the premenstrual period… (so next time he tells you you’re crazy, just tell him it’s actually very normal.) More emotion means more triggers for emotional eating as well.
3) We gain a few pounds. Many women notice that the scale will hit a little blip this time of the month, related to water retention, which for some can be a “screw it, I’m eating ALL THE FOOD” trigger.
So how do we navigate this hormone-induced trifecta of compulsion? The answer lies in what happens all month long, not just during those few days.
6 strategies for overcoming period cravings:
Here are my top tips for creating balance in your why-can’t-the-moon-be-made-of-nutella cycle.
1. Create healthy habits all month long
The best way to manage cravings during the premenstrual time of the month is to build healthy habits all month long. There are a couple reasons why this can be so powerful.
For one, if we are already in the habit of not mindlessly reaching for food when we’re not having cravings, it will still translate to some degree to the times we do have stronger cravings. So even if the premenstrual period is more difficult, and you’re more prone to cravings, you will have built the skills that will be most helpful for this time.
But beyond having crucial habits to draw upon during these cravings, research shows that lifestyle and nutrition factors are related to whether or not a woman will have premenstrual syndrome. A 2014 research study showed that women with healthier lifestyles and food intake have less severe symptoms of PMS.
(Side note: Want to know what healthy habits to create? Download my book, Never Diet Again)
2. Practice stress management techniques
Stress management is another thing that can be beneficial for improving premenstrual cravings. Stress is one of the lifestyle factors linked to more severe symptoms, and stress can also be a trigger for emotional eating as well.
There’s an entire chapter in Never Diet Again that discusses stress management, along with sleep, and their impact on food health.
3. Notice the difference between hunger and cravings
Recognizing the difference between hunger and cravings can be a huge help during this time of the month. Because while our appetites increase, so do our cravings, that are not related to hunger, or our body’s need for food.
Separating the difference between hunger and cravings can help us determine whether or not we need a good meal, a good movie, or just a good cry, and can keep us from making food choices that leave us feeling overstuffed and uncomfortable later.
(I’m starting to sound like a broken record here… there’s a chart in Never Diet Again that helps you recognize the difference between hunger and cravings…)
4. Focus more on satisfying foods
Because appetite increases during this time of the month, it is even more important than ever to create meals that are satisfying and nourishing. Focusing on adding in plenty of lean protein and veggies will make for a meal that doesn’t leave you hungry or unsatisfied.
5. Do something that makes you feel good about your body
Beyond cravings, moodiness, and the desire to stay in bed all day, women also have the highest level of body dissatisfaction during this time of the month. This can become a trigger for both overeating and dieting…neither of which are helpful for long term fitness.
Taking some time to care for your body and truly appreciate your body as it is now will help you feel better about yourself and your body. Go get a massage, spend extra time soaking in the tub, get a mani-pedi… whatever helps you feel more relaxed in your body.
6. For the love of all things holy and made of chocolate don’t weigh yourself
You know you’re going to be a couple pounds heavier during this time. You know it’s water retention and not fat gain, yet it is still messes with your head. Just don’t even go there.
Supplements for PMS cravings
I almost didn’t include this section. I rarely discuss supplements for a couple reasons. First of all, supplements are just that, a “supplement” to a healthy lifestyle. They are not a magic cure-all that a lot of people make them out to be.
Another reason I rarely discuss supplements: because the place to get supplement recommendations isn’t a blog, it’s with a qualified healthcare professional. Despite the commonly held belief that herbs and supplements can’t possibly be harmful because they are “natural,” that’s not true at all, and anything you take would be best discussed with your doctor. This is a blog not a personal nutrition consultation, so I really can’t recommend anything for you. However I will discuss the research that is available.
Many of the supplements that claim to cure PMS do no such thing. For example, research shows that St Johns wort and evening primrose oil both have no benefit in reduction of PMS symptoms despite widespread belief that they do.
Now, lets talk about the few things that may be helpful for reducing PMS symptoms: Two research studies show that taking magnesium and vitamin B6 for the whole month reduce the cluster of symptoms of PMS. But… and that’s a big “but” (and I cannot lie) the results on cravings are inconclusive. The supplements did reduce cravings, however, those results were not statistically significant, meaning they were within a margin that could have been chance.
Another supplement (herb) that shows promise when it comes to improving PMS symptoms (albeit not the cravings specifically) is vitex agnus castus, also known as Chasteberry. Four studies of around 500 or so women have shown that there is some improvement by taking this herb, as compared to a placebo.
REMEMBER: Please talk to a qualified healthcare professional before you start taking anything, including supplements… because you don’t know what it might interact with, or how it may affect your body, and a blog post can’t replace face to face interaction with a healthcare provider.
So overall, what do we do when every 28 days we feel like a ravenous ice cream inhaling machine?
Create a healthy lifestyle that lasts all month long – the changes you make to your habits all month will determine the severity of your symptoms. As your habits continually improve, so does your reaction to food during this more difficult time, and you’ll find that each month feels easier and easier. Additionally, consider some “time of the month” support, whether it be stress relief, supplements (talk to a professional) or getting more satisfying foods, having a plan for what to do when the cravings hit can be monumentally helpful.
What was most helpful to you from the tips above? What is your favorite way to take care of your body during this time of the month? Let us know in the comments below.
Bianco V, Cestari AM, Casati D, Cipriani S, Radici G, & Valente I. (2014). Premenstrual syndrome and beyond: lifestyle, nutrition, and personal facts. Minerva Ginecol. 66(4):365-75.
Ebrahimi, E., Motlagh, S. K., Nemati, S., & Tavakoli, Z. (2012). Effects of Magnesium and Vitamin B6 on the Severity of Premenstrual Syndrome Symptoms, 1(4), 183–189. http://doi.org/10.5681/jcs.2012.026
Hildebrandt BA, Racine SE, Keel PK, Burt SA, Neale M, Boker S, Sisk CL, & Klump KL. (2015). The effects of ovarian hormones and emotional eating on changes in weight preoccupation across the menstrual cycle. Int J Eat Disord. 48(5):477-86. doi: 10.1002/eat.22326.
Klump, K. L., Keel, P. K., Culbert, K. M., & Edler, C. (2008). Ovarian hormones and binge eating: exploring associations in community samples. Psychological Medicine, 38(12), 1749–1757. http://doi.org/10.1017/S0033291708002997
Racine, S. E., Culbert, K. M., Keel, P. K., Sisk, C. L., Alexandra Burt, S., & Klump, K. L. (2012). Differential associations between ovarian hormones and disordered eating symptoms across the menstrual cycle in women. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 45(3), 333–344. http://doi.org/10.1002/eat.20941
Sakaki, M and Mather, M. (2012). How reward and emotional stimuli induce different reactions across the menstrual cycle. Sco Personal Psychol Compass, 29(6), 997–1003. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.biotechadv.2011.08.021.Secreted