In short: starch, fat and sugar, so not great for maintaining a slim waist, or for controlling cramps and mood swings.
Most women have to deal with cravings every time their cycle rolls around, and in some cases, even a few days before their period starts. Typically, appetite jumps during the first two or three days. You’re hungry, way too hungry. And your cravings tend to lean toward hard-to-digest starches and desserts, which only amplify your other symptoms. Desserts, chocolate and white-flour pasta and bread make your blood sugar spike to dizzying heights from which it can only plummet abruptly—hello mood swings! If you tend toward salty junk foods, you’ll experience extra tummy bloating and have to wear sweat pants to stay comfortable.
How does menstruation affect your appetite?
You wouldn’t think there’s any direct link between your uterus and your stomach, but the connection is there and it’s common, though poorly understood. Theories explaining it abound:
1 – Hormones. Of course. Always with the hormones!
Estrogen fluctuations cause peaks and valleys in your levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. Cortisol’s job is to prepare your body to deal with urgent “fight or flight” situations; it also activates your metabolism and increases your appetite. Women eat more carbohydrates and fat when their cortisol levels go up in order to feed the “fight or flight” response on which survival can depend. Of course, given our current lifestyle and the shrinking number of predators, stress rarely helps you save your skin. Since the hunter-gatherer era is pretty much over for most of us, stress basically causes a wide range of health problems.
A drop in the levels of reproductive hormones has a similar effect on the level of serotonin, the happiness hormone, therefore explaining the rotten mood you’re in before and during your period. Combine this with higher cortisol levels, and it’s no wonder you haven’t made any new friends lately. And from a dietary standpoint, a drop in serotonin explains your cravings for starches and sugars. Basically, the body uses sugar to produce serotonin. Sweets, chocolate bars and pastries give your body a short but powerful serotonin boost, but the honeymoon doesn’t last.
Estrogen also has an impact on insulin sensitivity. Studies have shown that during the second half of your menstrual cycle, blood sugar drops significantly after meals, leading to irritability and agitation. And then you find yourself hungry only an hour or two later.
Free-falling estrogen also affects the body’s absorption and use of minerals including chromium and magnesium. Chromium plays a role in regulating blood sugar, while magnesium participates in muscle relaxation (to help with cramps) and fighting stress. You might believe that your cravings are caused by nutritional deficiencies, explaining why you crave chocolate, because it’s especially rich in magnesium. This idea of a link between nutritional requirements and cravings for certain foods may soothe your conscience, but the jury is still out on this one.
A more likely answer is that cravings are rooted in your environment and habits. For instance, you can’t really say that you crave chips because your body lacks salt: the average Canadian already consumes much more sodium than the recommended daily dose, and unless you’re a high-level endurance athlete (like someone who competes in the Ironman competition under the Hawaiian sun), your sodium requirement is more than effectively met by a healthy diet. Much to my dismay, the much maligned potato chip has yet to reveal any redeeming values.
2 – Hormones aside, it might just be that you need energy.
Sometimes, cravings are just the body’s way of saying “Feed me!” Menstruation can be hard on your body, which has to deal with a roller coaster of hormones, not to mention blood loss, which can lead to iron deficiency.
So what should you eat during your period?
Choose foods that meet your nutritional needs while satisfying or eliminating your cravings.
- Eat protein! Everyone needs it, not just body builders! Protein helps stabilize blood sugar levels and leaves you feeling full for longer. Unsalted nuts and seeds make for excellent, protein-rich snacks. You can also supplement your diet with powdered plant protein, which is easy to include in a smoothie.
- Fill up on fibre and complex carbohydrates for more energy, while keeping yourself regular to boot! This is important because proper bowel function prevents your intestine from reabsorbing estrogen, thereby reducing your blood estrogen levels. Fibre and complex carbs are found in fruits, preferably unpeeled, as well as vegetables and whole grains including quinoa, barley, bulgur wheat, oats and brown rice. By eating these kinds of foods, you’ll automatically eat fewer foods containing white flour, which are known for their devastating effects on blood sugar.
- Zinc it up! This mineral is involved in the functioning of reproductive hormones and insulin. Oysters, lean meats and seeds are all good sources of zinc.
- Get enough magnesium. Studies have shown that this mineral is an invaluable help when it comes to minimizing menstrual pain. You’ll find it in seafood, Brazil nuts, almonds, green vegetables and pulses (a.k.a. legumes).
- Make up for lost iron. Iron is an important component of red blood cells, which carry oxygen to your cells. A lack of iron makes you feel lethargic and tired. Do like Popeye and eat your spinach, as well as other green leafy vegetables, pulses and—what the heck!—a medium-done steak (for once, someone’s recommending red meat!).
- And don’t forget fish. The omega-3 found in fatty fishes, walnuts and flax seeds have an anti-inflammatory effect that relieves unpleasant menstrual symptoms.
- Drink water… lots of water! Seven to eight glasses a day. If you prefer hot beverages, have herbal tea instead of coffee or tea.
And it’s best to eat small portions regularly, rather than gorging yourself a couple of times a day, to avoid hunger pangs (or the bottomless pit) that drive you to devour chocolate bars and entire bags of chips.
The good news is that dark chocolate is packed with benefits that make it a really good choice should you crave something sweet. But go easy! Just one or two squares of dark chocolate with a cocoa content of 70% or higher has a trifecta of benefits: a good dose of magnesium, a boost to serotonin production (for the happiness factor) and a satisfied craving.
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